Politics, Community and Protest

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


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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© Kathryn Gleadle 2001

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