Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender, and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867

Caroline Franklin finds a useful correction to misconceived stereotypes of Victorian women

December 17, 2009

The micro-level archival research with which Kathryn Gleadle has compiled this monograph might be termed anti-history, as it militates against most of the narratives we feminist teachers have been passing on to our students for the past 30 years. Say goodbye to tidy distinctions between public and private spheres, and the glib notion that the oppressed angel of the house was simply excluded from political culture and power before 1867.

Gleadle’s case histories show female “experts”, loaded with cultural capital, as well as wealthy or landed women wielding considerable political influence from their domestic and often parochial or rural settings. Yet their private correspondence also shows how they often prided themselves on their femininity and affirmed the superiority of men.

One example of ambiguous gender boundaries is Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786-1845), MP and anti-slavery campaigner. He was merely the public face and corporate brand name for a family network of women. His sister Sarah, daughter Priscilla Johnston and cousin Anna Gurney worked 12-hour days writing most of his speeches and reports and conducting his correspondence.

Although the patriarch acknowledged the women’s collective professionalism and granted them a great deal of autonomy, “The Chief”, as they called him, was also a domineering and exacting taskmaster. Priscilla hero-worshipped him, comparing him to “a living Colossus”, at least before transferring her allegiance to her husband on marriage.

Anna was no poor sap, however. A formidable intellectual in her own right despite severe disability, she published the first modern translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As a local benefactor she set up, financed and personally supervised lifeboat rescue services on the Norfolk coast where she lived with her publicly acknowledged female partner. Her home, Northrepps Cottage, sounds cosily domestic but it functioned as a campaign headquarters. It housed her library and extensive archaeological collection, and hosted her adult education classes, as well as sundry visiting African preachers and anti-slavery politicians. Yet this same feisty woman “honestly acquiesced & concurred” with her brother when he declined to make her his heir, after explaining: “I do not approve of women having large responsibilities.”

It wasn’t only radical women who went in for politicking. Evangelicals and religious conservatives believed in practical Christianity. They adopted semi-institutional roles such as “lady visitor” in asylums, hospitals, schools and workhouses, often becoming experts who advised local and national government on social policy. This helped to expand the state. It prepared the way for women to be granted full citizenship and for “domestic” subjects such as health to become politicised.

However, as a group, women lost existing political power in this period: the hereditary rights of freewomen were curtailed in 1832, their traditional participation in parochial authority declined and aristocratic dynastic networks became less influential. Yet, like other disenfranchised groups, women made vociferous use of whatever avenues remained open to them: petitioning, lecturing, forming pressure groups, publishing tracts and manipulating patronage.

Gleadle’s study has no tremendously dramatic thesis to proclaim but it is subtle, full of minute and often fascinating detail, and always alert to the contradictions of these women’s lives. Her interpretation of written records contrasts with the pessimistic conclusions of Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall in their 1987 work Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. She argues that Victorian memorials of women conventionally presented a feminised nonentity, whereas in day-to-day interactions their wealth or familial connections may have given them considerable social authority.

Heavy emphasis on the roles of wives and mothers in conduct books and political rhetoric is likewise misleading. Gleadle points out that married women were a demographic minority in this period, outnumbered by singletons and widows. Her book therefore argues for the “situational” nature of gender, which was not always the salient factor in identities also shaped by religious, familial, class and ethnic affiliations. Its conclusions – that women’s authority in their local communities depended upon land and money rather than perception of their domestic virtues – are unsurprising but a useful corrective to common misconceptions.

Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender, and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867

By Kathryn Gleadle
Oxford University Press
332pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780197264492
Published 24 September 2009

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