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Women Chartists

Women Chartists By the beginning of 1848 the British Chartist movement had been in existence for a decade. The People's Charter was a draft for a bill to be introduced into parliament to extend the suffrage to all men over the age of 21, to make all voting protected by a secret ballot, to remove property qualifications for membership of the house of commons, to pay all members, to establish equal electoral districts and to institute annual parliaments. The campaign was essentially the continuation of the earlier one which had achieved, in 1832, the first reform bill. The achievements of 1832 had for the most part satisfied those of the reformers who had gained admission to the franchise. Since the 1832 franchise was clearly defined in terms of property, those who remained excluded had a very strong sense of the class nature of the bill's provisions. The Chartists themselves considered that they were taking part in a working class movement, and employed the language of the class consistently throughout their campaigns. The fact that women were also excluded from the provisions of the 1832 bill did not lead to a specifically female agitation. Middle and upper class women seem to have been content with the extension of their class voice, or to have preferred to continue their more oblique methods of exerting influence on elections, rather than associating themselves with those excluded on grounds of lack of property.

Insofar as a feminist claim for political rights was heard during the two decades after 1832, it was among the women and some men in the Chartist movement. For the most part, however, the many thousands of women who took part in the Chartism did so in support of a class programme, or in opposition to specific acts of the government. Women writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot, who wrote about Chartism and radicalism in this period did not indicate any support either for universal male suffrage of for women's suffrage. In the Chartist press and publications, however, both a general support for the vote for unmarried and widowed women was expressed, and particular women's grievances were sometimes made in association with a demand for political rights. For example, a letter from a Scottish weaver in 1838 was addressed to her Scottish weaver in 1838 was addressed to her "Fellow Countrywomen" and began:

"I address you as a plain working woman -- a weaver of Glasgow. You cannot expect me to be grammatical in my expressions, as I did not get an education, like many other of my fellow women that I ought to have got, and which is the right of every human being ... It is the right of every woman to have a vote in the legislation of her country, and doubly more so now that we have got a woman at the head of the government."

The association of the accession of a young woman to the throne with the demand for women's admission to the political nation was heard on a number of occasions among the Chartists and was picked up by Disraeli in his Chartist novel, Sybil or the two Nations, the only fictional treatment of Chartism which is sympathetic to the political demands of the movement or which recognizes the important part played in it by women.

Well over a hundred separate female Chartist associations are recorded in the decade before 1848. For the most part, however, their activity and their programmes were supportive of male political demands, or were insisting on their rights and their needs as family members. A slogan often repeated by men and women in the movement was "No women's work except in the hearth and the schoolroom." The women's manifesto of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a major port and an area with a great deal of women's work in glass-making and food-processing industries, expressed sentiments which often appeared:

We have seen that because the husband's earnings could not support his family, the wife has been compelled to leave her home neglected and, with her infant children, work at soul and body degrading toil. For years we have struggled to maintain our homes in comfort, such as our hearts told us should greet our husbands after their fatiguing labours. Year after year has passed away, and even now our wishes have no prospect of being realized, our husbands are overwrought, our houses half-furnished, our families ill-fed and our children uneducated.

The activities which the women initiated tended to be those which fitted the extension of their family roles. They embroidered banners, sashes and caps of liberty for speakers, organized tea parties and soirees to raise money or to entertain and honour leading figures, and took the leading role in setting up the many Chartist day and evening schools that were established for adults and children throughout the manufacturing districts. For example, when Ernest Jones, who was to go to Paris as Chartists delegate to the republican government in 1848, stood as a candidate in the general election in the autumn of 1847, he received an overwhelming vote at the hustings, where voting was open, but was of course defeated at the poll where property qualifications were checked. The local Chartists were determined to celebrate their moral victory, and entertained Jones to a tea-party organized by the women, who presented themselves at the first of several sittings, "Some with their caps beautifully decorated with green ribbons, others had green handkerchiefs, and some even had green dresses." The local historian of the movement recalled "I have been to many a tea-party in my time, but never saw one to equal this."

There were other kinds of activity which might also be seen as to some extent traditional in which the women of the manufacturing districts took part, however, which brought them into confrontation with the authorities in a more direct way. As family marketers they often took the lead in organizing the boycott of shopkeepers who had shown hostility to Chartism or conversely in encouraging and patronizing those who used their vote or their influence to support the Chartists. The 1832 reform had brought many fairly small traders into the voting strata, and since some of these depended on working class custom, this was a way in which the sheer number of small purchases made by working people could be used to influence at least a small part of the political action. In actual confrontations with the police or military such as occurred during the summer of 1842 there is also ample evidence of women's presence among the demonstrators and rioters, throwing stones and providing ammunition by the apronful for male stone-throwers or indulging in the traditional tactic of rough females in older societies of taunting the police or military, often with coarse or obscene language.

The women Chartists were taking part in a community strategy, using in many cases traditional means of asserting hostility to measures such as the poor law amendment act of 1834 which was being implemented in the manufacturing districts during these years and which was perceived as an attack on the working class family. As the decade continued, the authorities responded in some ways, for example the operation of the new poor law was modified in practice -- and some of the crowd politics of the mass demostration were abandoned in favor of a more "modern" type of organization, the National Charter Association, which held weekly meetings, elected officers and demanded a weekly subscription. Although there is evidence of the participation of many women in this organization, in general this kind of structure, which was to become the usual one as the modern labor movement developed has less room for the unskilled, the migrant and the non-wage-earners among the working class. Changes in the work patterns that also occurred during these years tended to take work out of the home and small workshop and away from family production. These factors seem to have lessened the active participation of women in popular politics which, like most aspects of public life in Britain became largely "masculinized" during the second half of the nineteenth century.

The masculinization of the movement that could be observed during the final years of Chartism in the 1850s also helps to explain the curious omission of Chartist women from most of the histories of the movement. It's early historians, both Fabian and Marxist, were concerned to present Chartism as a legitimate British ancestor of late nineteentth century Labor political movements. In the atmosphere of those years, however, the admission of the presence to women in the earlier movement would seem to have detracted from its seriousness and responsibility. The roughness of the behaviour and the language of the Chartists women did not fit the image of the respectable nineteenth-century female, while the lack of a specifically feminist political programme meant that they were of little interest to the feminist movement that arose in the later years of the century. In leaving out the women from the history of Chartism, however, labor historians missed the important part played in this early working-class movement by family and community loyalties. Neither the massive popular demonstrations of the early years, not the support given to imprisoned and victimized leaders and their families would have been possible had the movement not enjoyed the support of men and women in the factory and manufacturing districts in which it flourished.
Dorothy Thompson


J ames Epstein, "Aspects of Working-class Politics, Organization and Culture: Nottingham Chartism in the 1840s" in J. Epstein and D. Thompson, eds. The Chartist Experience (London, Macmillan 1982).

D.J.V. Jones, "Women and Chartism, History, vol. 68, no. 222 (February 1983).

Malcom Thomis and Jennifer Grimmet, Women in Protest (Manchester U.P. 1982).

Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists, Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolutio n (London, Temple Smith 1984, New York Pantheon 1984).

Dorothy Thompson "Women and Nineteenth-century Radical Politics" in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley,eds. The Rights and Wrongs of Women (London, Penguin Books, 1976).

Contemporary works Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil or the Two Nations (first pub. 1844, Penguin edn. 1980).

Reginald John Richardson, The Rights of Woman (first published 1840, reprinted Garland, New York, 1987).

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