Faith, hope and Chartism

The Early Feminists - Sin, Organised Charity and the Poor Law in Victorian England
December 1, 1995

These two monographs from Macmillan offer lively and innovative accounts of important aspects of the social and political history of 19th-century Britain. The price at which they are offered, however, will put them beyond the reach of students and indeed of the many scholars and intelligent general readers to whom they are addressed. Although both books should be available in good libraries, it is optimistic to hope they will be. Yet both deal with historical aspects of questions which are being discussed and debated in contemporary public life.

Robert Humphreys looks at the attempts during the second half of the century to control and improve the lives of the poor through the activities of state, local authorities and private charity. He concentrates on the optimistic picture still presented in some textbooks of the efficiency and objectivity of the Charity Organisation Society in tailoring the indiscriminate almsgiving of the well-disposed rich to a rational and casework-based form of social provision.

It is many years since Gareth Stedman Jones took his youthful axe to the Society's London activities, now Humphreys shows that they were no more effective in their provincial operations. In doing so he reveals again the problems faced by a modernising and urbanising culture in trying to replace the control exercised by charitable individuals and institutions in smaller and more stable communities.

One effect he perhaps does not consider sufficiently is the loss of authority experienced by ladies of the upper classes as traditional forms of charitable supervision and action declined. Hannah More had seen charity as the occupation of gentry women, and for many females in manor houses and vicarages the care and control of the local poor had provided status and authority. The COS, however, was a largely male-dominated organisation, finding few spaces for initiative or control by the women of the urban upper and middle classes. It was among these that the modern movement for women's social and political emancipation began, and the replacement of traditionally feminine activities by institutions of state and local authority was a contributing factor to its emergence.

Kathryn Gleadle's study reminds us, however, of an intellectual and political current that preceded the modern movement by several decades. Her Radical Unitarians might, indeed, be seen more as a late manifestation of the burst of concern with women's citizenship which occurred in the 1790s rather than as the precursors of Mrs Pankhurst, though they were, of course, both.

Britain in the early 19th century saw a ferment of political, religious and social projects and ideas. Publication was cheap, organisation for political and religious discussion, worship or action was less circumscribed than probably ever before and substantial social groups among artisan and business families seem to have had the funds and the mobility to take part as readers, chapel attenders and conference delegates in a wide variety of campaigns and activities.

A number of these tendencies still await their historians, so this study of a group of Unitarians in support of a programme of women's rights is very much to be welcomed. The group was made up largely of families in which both men and women supported the cause. Anyone who has worked on the social history of the period has come across some of these names - the Shaen and Flower families for example - and it is very good to have a fuller picture of their social and intellectual environment as well as of their ideas and of their practical activities.

Gleadle attaches the name "Radical Unitarians" to her subjects to distinguish them from the mainstream of the Unitarian establishment which was not at the time particularly enlightened in its attitude towards women. The use of the term does however raise the question of its general political meaning in the century. Many of the politicians who are customarily referred to as "radical" would have been very far from accepting the programme of this group on the "woman question". The Unitarian radicals had problems even with the Chartists whom they tried unsuccessfully to persuade to include the suffrage of women in their definition of universal.

The question of the relations between the Chartists and the women's rights movement at this date, however, is one of class as well as of gender. Most of the people - perhaps all of those named in the book - were, by 1832, in the voting classes. The men had achieved the suffrage, and believed that their wives and sisters should also gain it together with other rights of citizenship. Many of the most ardent in the group were men who may probably be fairly enough if anachronistically described as "feminists" . But when they demanded that the Chartists should include women's suffrage in their basic programme, they were arguing about a different set of political circumstances.

The discussion of Chartism is the weakest part of the book. Gleadle has clearly read very little Chartist material apart from the writings of one or two bridge figures who were sympathetic to both the charter and a women's rights programme, but who were hardly in the mainstream. There were many voices among the Chartists who did support political rights for women, and the part played by women of the manufacturing communities has been considerably underestimated in some quarters. Nevertheless, the achievement of the vote by women on the same terms as men in the years between 1831 and 1851 would surely have meant the even greater representation of property in the electorate at the expense of the unpropertied.

Some of the important figures in Gleadle's cast, Fox and Stansfeld for example, did offer support to the Chartists on the wider questions of reform and were very much respected by them. But the two movements were entirely different in their social composition as well as in their programmes. Nevertheless the argument about the rights of women cogently advanced by this small group were to be found in many of the popular journals which proliferated, and certainly reached far beyond the church or the social class of their originators.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women's Rights Movement, 1831-51

Author - Kathryn Gleadle
ISBN - 0 333 63379 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 225

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