Women in politics: before 1850

{See also Pre-1850 press cuttings}

{See also Watching MPs}

{See also Voting for MPs}

{See also Press cuttings}

{See also The local vote}

{See also Images of suffragists}

The Levellers

The Levellers were supposedly the pioneers of modern democracy, but they wanted the parliamentary vote only for men. Nevertheless, for the first time, a group of women became involved in direct political action. They mounted large scale public demonstrations and petitions, but were often dragged away by soldiers after trying to thrust petitions into the hands of MPs entering parliament. Hundreds even tried to storm the gates of parliament. As a result, common women were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work'.

In 1648 Leveller women demonstrated in London, calling for equal rights for women and presenting a petition. In 1649 ten thousand Leveller women signed a second women's petition to parliament. It is particularly notable because the writers claimed for all women an equal political voice with men:

Since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportionate share in the freedoms of the commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House. Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us, no more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood? read more...

The Reformers

From 1779, working class women Reformers took part in industrial unrest.

A week in October 1779 ... large crowds scoured much of Lancashire for spinning and preparatory machinery, wrecking a number of workshops ... The riots were undertaken ... largely in defence of the woman's role in the family economy.

In February 1800, T. B. Bayley ... committed five men and three women for 'riotously assembling' at Ashton-under-Lyne under an umbrella of stones 'and other things' hurled first at a troop of Volunteers, then at the vicar... While a 'concourse of people' had the run of Stockport, 'a number of women' with a 'disposition to violence' held down central and northern Manchester for part of June. In July the special constabulary were compelled to rescue Shude Hill potato dealers from a female mob...

The rejection of a minimum wage petition by parliament in late May 1808 sparked a sudden upheaval that ran the length of Lancashire, ... The 'great numbers' of women present were 'quite voluble'... Over the last two days of May, a 'large assemblage' paraded the streets of Blackburn, sacking houses and a hotel containing fresh dragoons, while at Rochdale 'a mob amounting in number to about 3,000' incinerated the new jail... One observer thought that the women were 'if possible, more mischievous than the men', and that their insolence to the troops was 'intolerable'...

Lancashire Luddism ... a two-day siege of the powerloom works of Daniel Burton of Middleton involving several thousands... According to Samuel Bamford, two 'Amazons' directed the second enterprise - Clem and Nan (daughters of a 'venerable old weaver'), who were never caught. Among those tried for their parts in the Middleton fight, however, were five other women, along with one man...

The grand rally ... on St Peter's Fields in Manchester... 1819... As the regular military surrounded 'a very large concourse of people', the special constabulary pressed forward to arrest the speakers, and a familiar commotion ensued... 'The women of the lower class seem to take a strong part against the preservation of good order and in the course of the morning of the 10th it was a very general and misguided cry amongst them that the gentry had had the upper hand long enough and that their turn was now come'...

(All the above snippets were taken from In Refiguring Jemima: Gender, Work and Politics in Lancashire 1770-1820 by Paul A. Custer.)

Samuel Bamford claims that women first became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage in the summer of 1818. He describes a meeting at Lydgate in Saddleworth where women were allowed to vote for and against resolutions. Bamford points out that: "This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it."

Women took part and were injured in the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. They attended 'carrying their own flags, distinctively dressed in white and with their own women leaders prominently displayed on the speakers' platform. In the circumstances, the military's brutal attack on the crowd appeared to be incited, among other things, by a sense of manhood under serious threat from this provocative female presence.'

During 1819, Female Reform Societies appeared in Blackburn, Stockport, Manchester, Leigh, Rochdale, Oldham, Royton and other places. The first was formed in June by Alice Mitchell Kitchen in Blackburn.

Susanna Saxton was secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers. She wrote several pamphlets on universal suffrage. The most popular was The Manchester Female Reformers Address to the Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Daughters of the Higher and Middling Classes of Society. Although she addressed women as Sisters of the Earth, she argued that women's main role was to support their husbands in their struggle for universal male suffrage. They were also urged "to install into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers." Of the pamphlets published during this period that have survived, none suggest that women should be given the vote.

Another leading light of the Manchester Female Reform Group was Mary Fildes, a passionate radical who named her sons after John Cartwright and Henry Hunt. When she attempted to sell books on the subject of birth control she was accused in the local press of distributing pornography. Fildes was one of the speakers at the St Peter's Field meeting on 16 August, 1819. Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry." Although badly wounded Mary survived and continued her campaigning. In 1833 she co-founded with Mrs Broadhurst the Female Political Union of the Working Classes (Poor Man's Guardian 27 July 1833). In the 1830s and 1840s Mary Fildes was active in the Chartist movement. She later moved to Chester, where she ran the Shrewsbury Arms in Frodsham Street. She died in 1875. (Thanks to Mary Fildes website.)

Female Chartists

Chartists signed a charter demanding that: (1) All men should qualify to vote (2) Constituencies should have an equal number of electors (3) Voting should be by secret ballot (4) A new parliament should be elected every year (5) There should be no need to own or rent a certain amount of property to qualify to stand as a candidate (6) MPs should receive 500 a year.

There were thousands of female Chartists. In 1839 there was a tendency in the press to ridicule the very idea of women taking part in a political movement, but by 1841 the papers were reporting them in a serious tone. By then women were holding their own meetings at which they took the platform and spoke publicly. They sent out press releases, donated money, attended classes and marched alongside men in processions and demonstrations under their own banners. They collected money to support publications and to cover activists' legal costs, collected names on petitions, attended rallies and Chartist church services, took part in strikes, joined the Chartist Land Company, wrote for publications and lectured. Elizabeth Hunter, Catherine Smith and Helen Yuill, all colliers, were imprisoned for 6 and 8 months for instigating and leading disturbances in Clackmannan.

In Aberdeen, Mrs Legge led a small group who overtly demanded votes for women. Others spoke and wrote of 'equality for all' and 'universal suffrage' but it is unclear whether by these terms they meant to include women. In July 1841 Hannah Leggeth and Sarah Cowle of Manchester published an address to their sisters which opened: 'Sisters in Bondage'.

There are known to have been female chartist societies in Bradford, Dublin, Cheltenham, Manchester, Stockport, Leicester, Nottingham, Ashton, Carlise, Wednesbury, Loughborough, Sheffield, Todmorden, Rochdale, Halifax, Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, Mertyr Tydfil. There were 23 Female Chartist Associations in Scotland.

At Paisley in June 1839, Dr John Taylor circulated a handbill printed 'Wanted: 1000 Females' to invite women to a woman-only meeting on Radicalism. He promised no males would be admitted and described as 'positive knavery' the exclusion of women from the franchise. He pledged that, as soon as he had the Charter, he would agitate for women's emancipation.

At a meeting of female Chartists in the National Charter Association Hall, Old Bailey, for the purpose of forming a female Chartist association, on the motion of Miss Susanna Inge, seconded by Mrs Wyatt, Mr Cohen argued that woman was a 'domestic ornament' who was "not, physically considered, intended to partake of political rights. His comments caused a 'sensation among the ladies' and were interrupted by 'the just indignation of an offical lady'. Miss Inge, secretary to the assocation, asked Mr Cohen why he considered women not qualified to vote or fill public offices. [Hear, hear!] She remarked that it 'did not take much "physical force" to vote'. He asked, if she were an MP [laughter] and a young gentleman, a lover, tried to influence her vote 'through his sway over her affection', how would she resist him? Miss Mary Ann Walker was 'astonished at' Mr Cohen's question and remarks. To cheers and cries of 'bravo' she said that if an MP, 'she would treat with womanly scorn, as a contemptible scoundrel, the man who would dare to influence her vote by any undue and unworthy means'. She declared herself a Chartist and appealed to her fellow countrywomen not to be dismayed at any shafts of ridicule that might be pointed against them. [John Bull, 24 October 1842)

There were no women among the Chartist leaders, but one of them, William Lovett, suggested including women in their demands for the suffrage he was persuaded that such a demand, going as it did beyong Radicalism into the realms of absurdity, would ensure there was no chance of getting votes for working men. When the notion of votes for women re-emerged it was in the context of female property-owners and was promoted by upper and middle class women. See the Langham Place group

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All pages © Helena Wojtczak 2009. Corrections and additions are warmly welcomed. Email me