Politics Before the Suffrage
• Early nineteenth century witnessed opening up of
opportunities for women in radical politics
• Will focus on three groups: the Zetetic
Movement, Owenism and Chartism
• This challenged dominant discourse of
domesticity and separate spheres
• But did failure of movements such as Chartism
mean women (and the working class) withdrew
from politics by the end of the 1840s?
Zetetic Movement
• Zetetic means proceeding by inquiry, a search, investigation or
• Centred on London publisher, Richard Carlile’s radical free thought
movement 1815-32
• In 1819 Carlile’s publications attracted nine separate charges of
blasphemous or seditious libel he was sentenced to three years in
gaol, a £1,500 fine and massive good behaviour sureties
• His wife, though 8 months pregnant, continued serving in his shop
and produce free thought publications. Early in 1821 she was jailed
with her baby to serve a two year sentence for seditious libel.
• Women rallied to the cause. Mary Anne Carlile, Richard’ sister
carried on the work. She too was charged but acquitted which was
seen as a stunning moral victory
Issue 9 for Saturday
29 November 1834:
the first page of the
illustrated comic
newsheet by Richard
Carlile, with a
woodcut of the
shopfront with the
devil and a bishop
standing in a window
having broken in to
collect the church
rates, beneath the
title 'View of Mr
Carlile's House, 62,
Fleet Street, London'
• Susannah Wright volunteered to ‘attend the business at
all risk’
• She was tried for selling Carlile’s Address to the
Reformers of Great Britain and used her spirited
defence as a propagandising, publicity drive for the
• She was detained in Newgate with an 18 month prison
sentence and a £100 fine. The effect was to make her
into a popular heroine.
• Susannah’s letters to the Republican denounced a wide
range of sexual iniquities
• In response Carlile produced an explanation of why
education was the key to the complete emancipation of
A range of women supported Carlile’s movement.
Susannah Wright was a lace maker and implied she earned as much
as her bookseller husband. She was a member of a rationalist
reading society before Carlile began his campaign.
Others, for example Eliza Sharples were from the lower middle
She became chief lecturer at his freethinking institute and the first
female editor of a weekly periodical the Isis.
Theatricality was an important component of her lectures and she
adopted a number of personae which captured the different
aspects of her public duties and political theology
Isis the Egyptian goddess of fertility and wisdom; Eve; Liberty and
Hypatia, a Greek philosopher raped and murdered by the Romans
Sexual Freedom
• After his release Carlile became preoccupied with the
issue of birth control and its sexual ramifications
• Published first popular contraception manual:
Everywoman’s Book or what is love? Challenged the
sexual codes that dominated society
• Left his wife and entered a new relationship with Eliza
• Zetetic movement made early link between feminist and
sexual ideology but also illustrated limitations of women
and feminism
• Part of a utopian socialist movement which emerged in United
States and Europe
• Hoped for the reconciliation of all human needs through
reason, co-operation and the transformation of all oppressive
institutions including marriage
• Robert Owen was born in Newtown
• 1800-29 he ran his New Lanark Mills as a model factory village
• Philosophy: how the right kind of environment might be
constructed for a ‘new moral world of the future’
• In 1820s he helped to establish the co-operative retailing
• Founded 7 village communities: Orbiston , Lanarkshire;
Ralahine, Ireland; Manea Fen, Cambs; Pant Glas and Garnlwyd
in Wales; Queenwood in Hants
Owenism & Feminism
• Strong critic of marriage. Argued liberation of men and women
should depend upon a liberation of the passions.
• William Thompson, Appeal of One half of the human race:
‘Men by law, superstition and opinion, commands: woman, in
marriage, by law, superstition and opinion obeys. The happiness of
both is sacrificed.’
• Owen, Lectures on the Marriage of the Priesthood in the Old
Immoral World (1835) identified marriageas distorting and
degrading natural sexual instincts and relationships
• Transformation of isolated and anti-social households into wider
bonds of membership of a community. In such communities all
domestic labour and childcare would be communally undertaken.
Women in Owenism
• By the 1840s the Rational Society had 65 branches across the country with
schools, libraries and meeting houses.
• New Moral World had a readership estimated at between 100 -400,000.
• Women gave public talks, attended lectures, contributed articles and
participated in the new communities
• Only a few were prepared to support ideas of sexual equality
• Frances Morrison became a paid lecturer for the Owenite movement and
travelled throughout the north to speak on women’s rights and marriage
reform. Criticised Owen’s libertarian view of marriage
• Margaret Chappelsmith argued against priestly religion and the false
ceremony and system of marriage but recognised the necessity of
permanent unions based on mutual respect within a communitarian
• Women were expected to play an equal role in
governing the movement but in practice there were
few female officials and only one woman, Mary Wiley
who was secretary to the Finsbury branch, ever
attended the annual Congress of the movement.
• Women joined the 7 model communities but their
frustrations played a major part in their collapse
• Women were still expected to take primary
responsibility for housework.
• When at one of the smallest communities, Manea Fen,
the male leader declared his intention to put sexual
freedom into practice the community soon collapsed.
• Most extensive working class movement of the first half of
the 19th century.
• Named after the People’s Charter of 1838 which had 6
aims: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, equal
electoral constituencies, secret ballot, the payment of MPs,
and the absence of property qualifications for office.
• Leaders made a particular point of appealing to women as
well as to men:
Let every man, woman and child sign the petition… Go on,
good men! Go on virtuous women!… we’re engaged in the
cause of justice which is the cause of God. Sign the petition!
Elizabeth Neesom
To those who may be, or appear to be, surprised
that females should be daring enough to
interfere with politics; to them we simply say,
that as a female that assumes to rule this nation
in defiance of the universal rights of man and
woman, we assert in accordance the rights of
all, and acknowledging the sovereignty of the
people our rights as free women (or women
determined to be free) to rule ourselves.
• Women seldom spoke on public platforms but
presented banners and marched in the great
processions and demonstrations usually at the head.
• Earlier chartist historians played down the part women
played as they wanted to present it as a serious
political organisation
• Feminist historians have discounted Chartism because
they haven’t seen it as being specifically feminist.
• Dorothy Thompson noted a chronological pattern to
women’s participation: in the 1840s there are fewer
women’s protests and purely female radical societies
• Reasons were: reduction in the role of mass marches;
rise of politics by committee; rougher demonstrations;
meetings in alehouses
Women & the Vote
• Support for the idea of women’s vote always widespread
• In 1842 John La Mont argued that it was time to ‘suggest … the
enfranchisement of females – notwithstanding the amount of
blackguardism, folly and coercion which will be arrayed against this
extension by the aristocratic debauchés’.
• Wm Lovett recorded that the first draft of the People’s Charter
made provision for women’s suffrage but that this was omitted
from the final version because it was felt it would retard the
progress of suffrage for men.
• Two pamphlets supporting women’s rights : The Rights of Woman
by R J Richardson and John Watkins, Address to the Women of
• Most proposals came from men
• Women more concerned with issues such as the operation of the
Poor Law, the low level of wages or the threat of the press gang
Language of domesticity
• Anna Clark has noted that language of Chartism was highly
gendered and increasingly drew upon a claim for domesticity.
• Chartism had to mobilise the power of numbers as they lacked
political power and had to appeal to women as well as men.
• They organised female powerloom weavers, housewives and
teachers alongside male workers inviting them all to mass
• But no principle of gender equality.
• Chartists tried to create a new ideal of working class manhood
• Important strand of Chartism seen especially to attract women was
temperance. Not an emulation of middle class notions of
respectability but a practical response to the ravages alcoholism
made men and thus their families.
• Larrabeiti views the dominant rhetoric of the family in Chartist politics as a
public mapping out of women’s active participation in and formation of a
new moral world
• Family was an arena of struggle in which a private, economically
oppressed family was posed against the notion of a family of the people.
• Barbara Taylor argued that Chartists were concerned with the dislocation
of family relations. She argues that compared to the Owenites, Chartist
women’s desire for a traditional home centred life helped relegate
feminist concerns below that of class for many decades
• Thompson argues that working class women disappear from public politics
from the 1840s not to reappear until the 1880s
• Jutta Schwarzkopf supported this arguing that despite their avowed
radicalism they ‘stopped short of questioning the belief in women’s homecentredness’
• But Chartist women used a variety of languages to represent themselves
in the public domain
• Two opposing views
• One: that their failure led to the withdrawal of the issue of women’s
rights and the ‘victory’ for the dominant discourse of domesticity
and separate spheres. Evidence to support this view is the lack of
radical political activity after the 1840s, the passage of protective
legislation which regulated women in the workforce and the
formalisation of politics which was rooted in a male culture of clubs
and pubs.
• Two: women were able to use the dominant discourse and subvert
it for their own ends – the development of ‘militant domesticity’ as
Clark terms it. This drawing the political sphere into the realm of
the home where women were dominant has parallels in the
political aspects of middle class philanthropy and thus can be seen
as a way in which women participated in politics on their own terms

Enlightenment Thinkers and Gender