Friday, 14 September 2007

Revisiting Chartist historiography: On Gender

Unlike class, the issues of gender and women’s role in Chartism have traditionally been of marginal importance to historians of the movement. Historical definitions of class and community have often been so dominantly male that they have failed to see the women. For many of the early historians of Chartism, the presence of women within a serious political movement was problematic. They were either a decoration or a trivialisation, when they were there a meeting became a fair or a tea party.

There were positive references to women’s participation in the early account by Gammage. Julius West did provide a very brief sketch of post-1818 women’s political radicalism and Mark Hovell drew attention to infant Chartist support for women’s suffrage. David Jones[1] and Edward Royle have noted the involvement of women in Chartism though primarily as supporters of the political ambitions of their husbands and brothers. Even more striking is the absence of any reference to women’s involvement in the movement in Marx and Engels On Britain and in the indexes of Asa Briggs’ Chartist Studies and J.T. Ward’s Chartism. Women and gender has been the subject of intensive feminist investigation but modern women historians have shown little interest in Chartism because it was a movement for manhood suffrage. The fact that many women took part was not seen as significant, since they took part in a movement whose political agenda was written by men for men.

Malcolm Thomis and Jennifer Grimmett[2] were less concerned with the history of Chartism as a whole and more with specifically female aspects of popular protest. However, they raised important questions on which historians could build the history of women in the movement. In the mid-1980s, Dorothy Thompson[3] more or less single-handedly reconstructed the narrative of women in Chartism[4]. She shows conclusively that there were significant traditions of female involvement in forms of protest relating to cost of living, political and industrial radicalism and the defence and advancement of the interests of their families and communities[5]. Chartist women formed female radical associations. Well over a hundred have been recorded in the first few years of the movement, were active in demonstrations and processions and took out membership card of the National Charter Association.

Thompson also observed that support for women’s suffrage was always widespread among the Chartists, especially between 1838 and 1843 but that it was taken as read that the vote should be extended only to unmarried and widowed women. Male Chartists recognised the worth of married women’s labours, whether in the home or outside and the rigid and extensive working class application of the notion of a ‘woman’s place’, the male as sole breadwinner and associated male superiority and female inferiority were not widespread before the mid-Victorian period.

The 1990s saw important developments in research on women and Chartism. In 1991, Jutta Schwarzkopf Women in the Chartist Movement, a detailed, if flawed, study of the issue was published. The following year, Anna Clark published her study of ‘militant domesticity’[6] and her detailed study of the role of gender in the making of the working class[7]. A collection edited by Eileen Yeo[8] was published in 1998 followed two years later by Helen Rogers’ study of women and the people[9] and her study of women Chartists in 1838[10]. The important features of this recent research are as follows.

First, the notion of ‘militant domesticity’ was used by Chartist women to justify their action in stepping outside the home by defining the responsibility of motherhood, not just as nurturing children in the home, but labouring to feed them and organising to better their lives. Women’s involvement in campaigns against the new Poor Law, in favour of factory legislation, in Chartism, against poverty, hunger, ‘unnatural’ male employment in the midst of paid work for women and for control over their children against the centralising and controlling designs of the state was conduct in defence of female domesticity. The Chartists appeared to address the ‘woman question’ not in feminist terms but as a problem arising out of the disruption of the ‘natural’ order of family life because of the oppressive social policies of the Whig government. However, Clark emphasises that this was a notion of domesticity very different from the ‘separate spheres’ approach of the middle classes. Secondly, notions of mutuality and partnership between working class men and women and spheres of women’s independence did not generally signify either equality between the sexes or Chartist women’s commitment to specifically feminist causes. The Chartists adhered to the general patriarchal principle that husbands and wives were ‘as one’, with the husband largely speaking and acting on behalf of his wife. It appears that the vast majority of Chartist women played a supporting role to their men folk and accepted the primacy of the family-, community- and class-based issues over those relating specifically to the needs of women. Their concerns for a ‘traditional’ home-centred life helped to relegate feminist concerns below those of class for many decades.

Finally, from the mid-1840s, the growth of more structured, formal, male-dominated and increasingly workplace-based kinds of popular protest occurred in which women as ‘guardians of the hearth and home’ were further to be marginalised. The accelerated movement of women into the home at mid-century was, however, unevenly spread throughout the country. In some instances, the opportunity to devote more time to domestic matters was see in a very positive by working class women and especially those who had operated the ‘double shift; of unpaid home work and paid work. In general terms, the ‘retreat’[11] into the working class home was accompanied by hardening notions of a ‘women’s place’, male superiority and female inferiority.

The problem with the chronology developed initially by Dorothy Thompson and developed by Jutta Schwarzkopf is that it ends up fitting female working class radicalism into the traditional chronology of the development of the male working class labour movement and the growing dominance of working class men over women. Historians have long recognised links between the political activities of middle class women in the 1820s and 1830s with the emergent middle class feminism of the 1850s. It has proved more difficult to establish the same continuity for working class women.


[1] David Jones is the notable exception; his ‘Women and Chartism’, History, volume 68, (1983), pages 1-21 provides a useful overview of female involvement in the movement.

[2] M. I. Thomis and Jennifer Grimmett Women in Protest 1800-1850, Croom Helm, 1982

[3] Dorothy Thompson The Chartists, Aldershot, 1984, pages 120-151 and ‘Women and Nineteenth-Century Radical Politics: A Lost Dimension’, in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (eds.) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976, pages 112-138, reprinted in Dorothy Thompson Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, pages 77-102.

[4] Jutta Schwarzkopf Women in the Chartist Movement, Macmillan, 1991 is a more detailed study developing points initially made by Thompson.

[5] Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson (eds.) Women in British Politics 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat, Macmillan, 2000 places protest by women in a broader context.

[6] Anna Clark ‘The rhetoric of Chartist domesticity: gender, language and class in the 1830s and 1840s’, Journal of British Studies, volume 31, (1992), pages 62-88.

[7] Anna Clark The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class, University of California Press, 1995 seeks to place the struggle of working class women within the broader struggles of the working class.

[8] Michelle de Larrabeiti ‘Conspicuous before the world: the political rhetoric of the Chartist women’, in Eileen Yeo Radical Femininity: Women’s self-representation in the public sphere, Manchester University Press, 1998, pages 106-126.

[9] Helen Rogers Women and the People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England, Ashgate, 2000 pages 80-123 is an excellent study of the role of women within the Chartist movement and is part of an extremely important study placing women within the radical tradition.

[10] Helen Rogers ‘“What right have women to interfere with politics?” The Address of the Female Political Union of Birmingham to the Women of England (1838)’, in T.G. Ashplant and Gerry Smyth (eds.) Explorations in Cultural History, Pluto, 2001, pages 65-100.

[11] The notion of ‘retreat’ by working class women was first put forward by Dorothy Thompson in ‘Women and Nineteenth-Century Radical Politics: A Lost Dimension’, in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (eds,) The Rights and Wrongs of Women, Penguin, 1976, pages 112-138, reprinted in her Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993, pages 77-102.. Recently, historians have begun to question it. David Jones, for example, argues that women were politically active after 1848 in many different ways including political clubs, unions and strikes. Jones suggests that not enough questions have been asked of the political actions of working class women and men during the mid-century, so that different forms of political activity remain largely unknown. Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson (eds.) Women in British Politics 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat, Macmillan, 2000 is helping to redress the balance.

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