Thursday, 14 February 2008

Women in Politics: 1800-1850, a period of dislocation

Working class women

The first sixty years of the nineteenth century were ones of dislocation and transition as industrial growth and change bedded down. Working women’s part in the collective lives of their communities and their own authority within their families declined as the household economy was increasingly disrupted and the concept of the separate spheres gained in potency. Different approaches to the threats posed by change can be identified[1].

Working women were oriented towards the collective life of the family and the community, where the domestic sphere was intimately related to the public and where the notion of a separate private life had little meaning. Women were actively involved in crowds demonstrating against those who contravened local patterns of morality, by the nineteenth century as likely to be against regular wife beaters as scolding wives. Food and enclosure riots, and women’s participation in them, lasted well into the nineteenth century. These were areas where women might be thought to have a particular concern but they should not be separated from other areas of conflict and protest.

Religious language and experience was one way through which the responses of women to the threat to their familiar pattern of life could be translated. Female preachers from within the evangelical and Methodist tradition -- Primitive and Quaker Methodists, Bible Christians and others -- accepted by their communities as speaking in the language of the family and household economy, expressing in biblical terms their sense of grievance and threat. Female preachers did not accept the ‘separate’ values of family life, but their message could seem to overlap with in.

Women’s participation in movements of protest before the 1820s is difficult to quantify. Women did take part in significant numbers in resistance to the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 and in the Chartist movements of the late 1830s and early 1840s. Women Chartists raised funds, took part in political demonstrations, organised Chartist schools and Sunday Schools and used their control over family resources to deal only with sympathetic shopkeepers. Yet the force of the chartist campaign was directed to a political remedy and, though some male chartists did support the case for women’s suffrage, its objective was universal manhood suffrage. By the mid 1840s, what Dorothy Thompson had called the ‘withdrawal of working class women’ from the history of working class movements had begun to occur. Women were more likely to retain their commitment to chapel and temperance organisation than to the formal associations or the demonstrations of earlier years. Patterns of labour were changing, so that the household was no longer the focus of work, uniting the interests of all its members. Women might retain considerable authority within the family, but they had no public role. Even within the family, where parents had once held responsibility for the training or education of their children, the educational policies of Church and state were gradually taking over this role.

Increasingly in the lives of working class women, neither employment nor domestic values offered a route to the assertion of authority. Working class culture, however, was not necessarily rooted only in work. In the north the third quarter of the century saw the emergence of the first generation of working men’s political clubs, Liberal and Conservative, in which women had no part. The organised forms of leisure, including sport, had little to offer women and reinforced the division of space between private and public worlds.

The participation of women in the labour and socialist movements of the late nineteenth century raised new issues. In Britain labour politics owed most to the trade unionism of skilled men, an area of work in which women had no part. For them the route to an improved standard of living was the maintenance of a division of labour within the family that entrenched a separation of spheres, with husband and father as breadwinner, wife and mother as household manager. Practically the movement drew its strength from the workplace as the primary place of association among men.

Jill Liddington and Jill Norris have provided a description of the range of activities that fed working class women’s suffrage campaigns in Lancashire. From Methodism, to the trade union and co-operative activities of so many women, we gain a sense of areas where women’s employment and a long-established community life could to some extent unite the interests of men and women. Within the weaving towns of northern Lancashire women worker, married and unmarried, could win an unusual degree of status from their skill. By the 1890s the Northern Counties Amalgamated Association of Cotton Weavers, a mixed union, represented 65,000 workers, two third of whom were women. In this context the socialist and labour movements could appeal to both men and women. In the West Riding of Yorkshire, by contrast, there were marked differences in working women’s political interests. The nature of the economy, where women stayed at home, meant that the primary focus of agitation related to the reform of marriage and to women’s employment. The emergent Labour party in the West Riding was therefore deeply interested in these issues. Though the suffrage issue brought more women into the ILP, it was the weakness of women’s trade unionism in the West Riding, compared to its strength in Lancashire, that accounts for the failure of any strong initiative in Yorkshire.

Middle class women

The participation of middle class women in a variety of activities apparently crossing from private to public life must be seen in the following light. First, it may be seen as a defiance of gender prescriptions. Secondly, it reflected the broader challenge by the middle classes to the social and political power of the landed classes.

The language of evangelicalism emphasised individual salvation, the discipline of self and the moral powers of women. At the same time evangelical doctrine brought with it a zealous missionary force, a sense of mission that was translated in the role women played as organisers and fundraisers. The language of mission could, however, be extended in other directions. The Unitarians and Quakers, though influenced by the evangelical movement, retained something of the older, egalitarian outlook towards relations between men and women. This should not be over-stressed since the exclusion of women from much part in church government remained. Yet Unitarian and Quaker women did play an important role in the nineteenth century movement for women’s rights. They fought for many causes, from the battle against church rates to the Anti-Corn Law League and the case for secular education. Their battle was for ascendancy, and the struggle to improve, progressively, the rights of women, could make one part of the liberal ideology. By 1830 a sense of ‘Woman’s Mission’, which rested on the unique qualities of women, could be extended to allow women to claim a part in movements for ‘moral reform’: in the anti-slavery and Anti-Corn Law League movements and in peace and temperance campaigns. Radical and nonconformist pressure groups -- a major channel of middle class opinion between 1832 and 1867 -- drew very considerably on women’s support.

It is not easy to locate the significance of the reforms sought by middle class woman’s movements, in relation to both gender and class. The campaign from the mid 1850s for the reform of marriage laws was certainly rooted in the recognition by women of the injustices created by the antiquated and patriarchal structure of the common law of marriage[2].

By the late 1850s middle class women were beginning to address a different agenda, an agenda that challenged the principles on which male domination was based. It moved beyond the purely philanthropic towards demands primarily rooted in the experience of single women, for education and for employment. Such demands crossed the new barrier for middle class women, that which divided the home from the market place: they even suggested the possibility of married women’s work. They raised different issues, not necessarily to be accommodated within the liberal vision of the freeing of old restraints on the individual. Women felt divided loyalties. Some wrote on popular political economy and worked for political equality for women. Others continued to identify with their gender, as in work for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts and other areas of moral reform. Many did both.

Middle class reports and cartoons of working class women in early nineteenth century riots and protests often provided a hostile representation of their role. These representations played of their sexuality, combining both ugliness and lustfulness, as did some cartoons of Female Reform Societies. However, within such movements, the public presence of women, dressed in white with appropriate sashes, as at Peterloo, in processions and on the platform could take on a symbolic quality, a quality suggesting the supportive role of women. Literature might satirise most effectively the participation of women in public life. The powerful representation of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House [1853] may indeed have had a significant impact on the ways in which subsequent generations regarded female philanthropy. In The Daisy Chain [1856] Charlotte Yonge contrasted the failings of the Ladies’ Committee in attempting to run a local school, with masculine good sense. By contrast, one way of breaching the restraints on women lay in imaginative writing. Fiction could be deployed for different purposes. Frances Trollope’s Jessie Phillips [1842-3] attacked the ‘bastardy clause’ of the New Poor Law. Eliza Cook’s Journal [1849-54] advocated legal reform of the position of married women and urged sympathy for unmarried mothers. Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook [1837] highlighted the lack of employment for single women, as did so many novels on the theme of the governess.

There was a considerable class differential in the nature of public speaking. Working class women did speak in public to mixed audiences, as preachers, in the first half of the century. Working class women spoke to other women in the Female Reform Societies of the post-Napoleonic period, recognising the novelty of what they did. The Owenite movement saw a considerable expansion of women lecturers in the 1830s and 1840s and there were Chartist women lecturers too[3]. Middle class women were only beginning to breach this barrier by the 1850s as some used the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences from 1857 to 1884 as a platform on which to try their powers of public speaking. By the 1870s women were speaking, albeit rarely, to mixed meetings of all kinds, including meetings for women’s suffrage, where the preponderance of male speakers was still a matter for comment. And though the need for moral reform might justify the broaching of previously taboo subjects such as prostitution and the sexual abuse of children, women still could not easily, without cost to themselves, explore broader issues of sexuality or question the very framework of their private lives.


[1] On the role of women in popular protest see: E.P. Thompson Customs in Common, Merlin 1991 for the role of women in food riots and in communal action against those who offend community values and morality; Deborah Valneze Prophetic Sons and Daughters. Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England, Princeton University Press, 1985 and J.F.C. Harrison The Second Coming. Popular Millenarianism 1780-1850, Routledge, 1979 on women and religion; Barbara Taylor Eve and the New Jerusalem. Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century, Virago, 1983, M. Thomas and J. Grimmett Women in Protest 1800-1850, Croom Helm, 1982 and Dorothy Thompson ‘Women and nineteenth century radical politics: a lost dimension’ in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Woman, Penguin, 1976, reprinted in D. Thompson Outsiders.

[2] The common law had been irrelevant for many years to the landed and upper middle classes, who used legal trusts under the law of equity to protect married women’s property, and for the working classes, who had little property to protect.

[3] On the role of women in these radical movements see Barbara Taylor Eve and the New Jerusalem, Virago, 1983 and Dorothy Thompson The Chartists, Wildwood Press, 1984. Anna Clark The Struggle for the Breeches. Gender and the Making of the British Working Class, River Oram Press, 1995 covers the period from 1780 but has much to say on the post-1820 period.

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