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Politics, Community and Protest

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Part of the Social History in Perspective book series (SHP)

Abstract

Women and the female body were ubiquitous symbols within British political culture. As Britannia, they stood for patriotism and the union of the nation; dressed in white in electoral processions, women could symbolise the goddess of liberty.1 In the protest movements of plebeian culture, male activists frequently dressed as women — an allusion to a ‘world turned upside down’ which articulated a sense of social grievance.2 However, the extent to which women were significant political actors in their own right has been hotly debated. New studies have challenged the previous orthodoxy that women were unable to exert political agency during this period. It is now argued that plebeian women played a highly visible role in extra-parliamentary political culture from the eighteenth century. Their involvement in public celebrations, such as coronations or thanksgivings for peace, has also been noted.3 Yet, the frequent tendency for political women to stress their familial obligations as the source of their actions has called into question women’s ability to perceive themselves as independent political agents. Equally, the changing nature of popular protest with its moves towards formal organisation has been seen as jeopardising women’s political involvement. However, it will be suggested that these arguments fail to capture the diversity and subtlety of women’s political activity, or the richness of regional variations. Moreover, working-class women were acculturated to political activity from their childhood: whether it be through participation in food riots or the excitement of elections; enjoying the ‘family culture’ of Owenism and Chartism; being sent on errards to shops whose keepers shared the family’s politics. Politics was a central feature of working-class culture.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Nicholas Rogers, Crowds, Culture and Politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p. 243.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    This was a feature of the Rebecca Riots and the Highland Riots, for example. See Malcolm I. Thomis and Jennifer Grimmett, Women in Protest, 18001850 (London: Croom Helm, 1982), pp. 138–46.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Rogers, Crowds, Culture and Politics pp. 219–22; Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), pp. 237–8. For a pessimistic assessment of women’s political potential, seeGoogle Scholar
  4. Sally Alexander, ‘Women, Class and Sexual Difference in the 1830s and 1840s: Some Reflections on the Writing of Feminist History’, (1983) reprinted in Sally Alexander, Becoming a Woman and Other Essays in 19th and 20th Century Feminist History (London: Virago, 1994), pp. 97–125.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1995), pp. 34–9.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    John Bohstedt, ‘Gender, Household and Community Politics: Women in English Riots 1790–1810’, Past and Present no. 120 (1988), pp. 88–122; Rogers, Crowds, Culture and Politics p. 216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 6.
    Thomis and Grimmett, Women in Protest, pp. 51–2; David J. V. Jones, Rebecca’s Children: A Study of Rural Society, Crime and Protest (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  8. 7.
    E. F. Richards, ‘Patterns of Highland Discontent, 1790–1860’, in R. Quinault and J. Stevenson (eds), Popular Protest and Public Order, 1790–1920 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974), pp. 106, 97.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    E. P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past and Present, 50 (1971), p. 116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 9.
    See John Bohstedt, ‘The Myth of the Feminine Food Riot: Women as Proto-Citizens in English Community Politics, 1790–1810’, in Harriet B. Applewhite and Darline G. Levy (eds), Women and Politics in the Age ofthe Democratic Revolution (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993), pp. 21–60, and Bohstedt, ‘Gender, Household and Community Politics’.Google Scholar
  11. 16.
    See Deborah Valenze, ‘Cottage Religion and the Politics of Survival’, in Jane Rendall (ed.), Equal or Different: Women’s Politics, 1800–1914 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), pp. 31–56Google Scholar
  12. and Deborah Valenze, Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches pp. 94–9.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    Maria Luddy (ed.), Women in Ireland 1800–1918 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1995), p. 245; Thomis and Grimmett, Women in Protest pp. 29–31.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    David J. V. Jones, Before Rebecca: Popular Protests in Wales, 1793–1835 (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 128.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    James Epstein, ‘Understanding the Cap of Liberty: Symbolic Practice and Social Conflict in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 122 (1989), pp. 75–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 29.
    E. and R. Frow, ‘Women in the Early Radical and Labour Movement’, Marxism Today, 12, no. 4 (1968), p. 106.Google Scholar
  17. 30.
    Ruth and Edmund Frow, Political Women 1800–1850 (London: Pluto Press, 1989), p. 31.Google Scholar
  18. 31.
    See, for example, Catherine Hall, ‘The Tale of Samuel and Jemima: Gender and Working-Class Culture in Early Nineteenth-Century England’, (1986) reprinted in Catherine Hall, White, Male and Middle-Class: Explorations in Feminism and History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), especially pp. 124–9.Google Scholar
  19. 32.
    Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth Century England (Chicago: Lyceum, 1989), p. 39.Google Scholar
  20. 36.
    Thomis and Grimmett, Women in Protest, p. 104; see also Iain McCalman, ‘Females, Feminism and Free Love in an Early Nineteenth Century Radical Movement’, Labour History, 38 (1980), pp. 1–25.Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    Helen Rogers, Women and the People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), p. 84.Google Scholar
  22. 38.
    Churching was an Anglican ritual performed upon women to ‘cleanse’ them after childbirth. Frow and Frow, Political Women, ch. 4 (the quote is taken from p. 63); Thomis and Grimmett, Women in Protest, pp. 106–9. For Eliza Sharples, see Helen Rogers. Frow and Frow, Political Women, ch. 4 (the quote is taken from p. 63); Thomis and Grimmett, Women in Protest, pp. 106–9. For Eliza Sharples, see Helen Rogers, ‘“The Prayer, the Passion and the Reason” of Eliza Sharples: Freethought, Women’s Rights and Republicanism, 1832–52’, in Eileen Yeo (ed.), Radical Femininity: Women’s Self-Representation in the Public Sphere (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), pp. 52–78.Google Scholar
  23. 40.
    The fullest exposition of Owenism and women’s role within it may be found in Barbara Taylor, Eve and the New Jerusalem, Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (London: Virago, 1983). See also Frow and Frow, Political Women ch. 6. Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches pp. 108–11; J. F. C. Harrison, The Second Coming: Popular Millenarianism 1780–1850 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), p. 110.Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    David Jones, ‘Women and Chartism’, History, 68 (1983), pp. 10–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 48.
    Clark, Struggle for the Breeches, p. 227; Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists (London: Temple Smith, 1984), p. 141.Google Scholar
  26. 50.
    Jutta Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement (Basingstoke: Macmillan - now Palgrave, 1991), p. 89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 53.
    For women’s contribution to Chartist culture, see Michelle de Larrabeiti, ‘Conspicuous Before the World: The Political Rhetoric of the Chartist Women’, in Yeo, Radical Femininity pp. 112–13; Eileen Yeo, ‘Will the Real Mary Lovett Please Stand Up? Chartism, Gender and Autobiography’, in Malcolm Chase and Ian Dyck (eds), Living and Learning: Essays in Honour of J. F. C. Harrison (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), p. 178; Jones, ‘Women and Chartism’, p. 9.Google Scholar
  28. 55.
    Dorothy Thompson, ‘Women and Nineteenth-Century Radical Politics’, in Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley (eds), The Rights and Wrongs of Women (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), pp. 121–3; Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches pp. 191–2; Schwarzkopf, Women in the Chartist Movement p. 199.Google Scholar
  29. 59.
    Anna Clark, ‘The Rhetoric of Chartist Domesticity: Gender, Language and Class in the 1830s and 1840s’, Journal of British Studies, 31 (1992), pp. 74–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. 66.
    Matthew Cragoe, ’“And Jenny Rules the Roost”: Women and Electoral Politics, 1832–1868’, in Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson (eds), Women in British Politics, 1760–1860: The Power of the Petticoat (Basingstoke: Macmillan - now Palgrave, 2000), pp. 153–68; Jones, ‘Women and Chartism’, p. 16; Luddy, Women in Ireland pp. 247–8.Google Scholar

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© Kathryn Gleadle 2001

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