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Early nineteenth-century feminism

Strictly speaking, it is anachronistic to talk of feminism in the context of the early nineteenth century because

• the word was not formally listed in English dictionaries until the 1890s

• people in early nineteenth century spoke of ‘the woman question’

Feminism itself is a difficult and complex term

• working definition - includes any individuals or groups who have tried to change either

• the position of women or

• ideas about women


‘The woman question’

With the benefit of hindsight, scholars have seen the discussions of the early nineteenth century on the ‘woman question’ as part of a larger feminist history.

At one time, it was believed that feminist debate and discussion stopped in the period from the death of Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 until the early 1850s because of

• French Revolution, the wars against France, and extreme political conservatism in Britain, with ruthless suppression of radicalism

However, women were involved in all sorts of public events during and after these wars and

The nature of women, marriage and family life continued to be scrutinised, debated and argued over in both novels and religious literature

• Well before the 1850s, new ideas about how society might be changed for the better were in circulation

• ‘feminism’ or the ‘woman question’ was only one part of a much wider humanitarian agenda, engaging with political, social and economic reform

• many of the most prominent campaigners for this transformation of society were men


Intellectual roots of nineteenth-century feminism

Three main strands – religious, philosophical, socialist

• evangelicalism which supported

• religious individualism and

• ideas on marriage and the family

• evangelicalism had a complex and ambiguous effect on the position of women which was to be significant for nineteenth-century feminists

• domestic focus

• women’s moral worth highly rated

• women had positive and unique qualities

• domestic focus of evangelicalism was explored and exploited by women until ‘it became unrecognisable’ (Jane Rendall)

• ‘women’s mission’ to extend their moral and spiritual influence beyond the home and into society

• evangelicalism was a radical sect of the Church of England; other radical Protestant sects allowed women a degree of religious authority

• some extremist sects advocated doctrines of free love that were to be important in feminist history

• Sects which were primarily missionary in intent led to a concern with social issues, e.g. anti-slavery, anti-suttee.

• Women became increasingly involved in issues of moral and social reform

• Enlightenment – complex and ambiguous response to gender; however, if we look at the strain of enlightenment thinking that emphasised human reason, within this

• men and women were seen as shaped by environment rather than by nature

• as a result, potential similarities between the sexes rather than the differences were emphasised.

• Also enlightenment focus on abolition of unreasonable privileges meant that women, like slaves, were seen as excluded from their natural rights.

• Feminists also draw on enlightened ideas of self-realisation, freedom, and autonomy as a basis for equal rights campaigns

• Communitarian socialism – so-called ‘utopian socialists’ ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier

• attacked the traditional family and advocated communal living; child-rearing a community task, rather than an individual one; sexual relationships between men and women were to be based on ‘free love’

• free love: Fourier argued that men and women should be free to chose sexual partners and the work they did because domestic work should be carried out by the community.

• These ideas attracted only a minority of feminists but they have formed an important undercurrent in feminist and socialist thought; they re-appear in a different form in Marxism, which called for state-provided child care, and are evident in twentieth-century radical feminism

NB these were not three separate feminist movements because many groups drew on one or more of these traditions of thought.

As a result, it is difficult to see nineteenth-century feminism as a coherent movement, derived from a single ideology.

Sometimes feminists, although aware of their contradictions, drew on these ideologies; at other times, the different traditions gave rise to violent disagreements between feminists.


The Socialist Tradition

The English feminist movement was influenced by French utopian socialist thought which was introduced into Britain by converts such as Anna Wheeler Doyle, who rephrased many of Fourier’s and Saint-Simon’s complex ideas in accessible language.

The English communitarian movement was based on the work of Robert Owen but also influenced by Fourier’s radicalism. Fourier wanted to re-organise society in small communities.

Marx and Engels - although they were not actively anti-feminists, emancipation of women was a peripheral issue to the freedom of the whole working class.

Engels believed women’s inequality occurred because they were excluded from socially productive work. Women would become equal when they were liberated from housework and participated fully in production.

For this to occur, the private sphere of homemaking and childcare would have to become a public responsibility and would only be possible with the abolition of private property and the coming of socialism. Thus the emancipation of women was irretrievably linked to the future of the working class.

Engels also bel. that capitalism was less oppressive on working-class women than middle-class ones because working-class marriages were less dependent on property considerations.

Despite many points of contact, however, socialism and feminism had a fraught history because

• even socialists who were also feminists were unsympathetic to organised feminist movements because of the limited goals of feminism

• some feminists were alarmed by the socialist desires for the radical transformation of society inherent in socialism, including their views on marriage and the family

• however, by ‘free love’, socialists often only meant that they did not agree with arranged marriages, organised with property considerations, rather than personal inclination, in mind

socialists believed love was the only true basis for marriage and their opposition to loveless marriages was taken further, and more controversially, by their attitude to divorce


The Zetetic Movement

Zetetic - means: proceeding by inquiry, research, or investigation – ‘free thinkers’, politically radical

This movement centred on the free-thought movement led by Richard Carlile, a London publisher, who was engaged in a legal struggle for freedom of thought and publication between 1815-1832.

Female supporters were central to the Zetetic Movement - Increased support for movement after Carlisle’s support for artifical birth control, rather than Malthus’s prescription of abstinence for the working classes. Carlisle challenged the sexual codes than dominated society; his support for contraception, for even though it was for social and economic reasons, was in opposition to dominant assumptions about ‘respectable sexuality’; he also argued for trial marriage with contraception as a prelude to legal commitment. He also left his wife and entered a new relationship with Eliza Sharples.

Zetetic Movement crucial to the formation of nascent Victorian feminism

• women were active in its organisation, provided funds to support it, helped in Carlisle’s business whilst he was in prison, went to prison themselves gave public lectures at Carlisle’s radical institute. Female supporters came from working and middle-classes - wives of artisans and petty shopkeepers, middle-class women, such as Sharples.

• the movement made an early link between feminism and sexual ideology which was later to become important, most notably in Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act

But the Movement also illustrated the limitations of women and feminism in the early nineteenth century: Eliza Sharples died in poverty in 1852, described as a ‘broken woman’.


The philosophy, based on the writings of Jeremy Bentham, argued that ethics, law and politics should be liberated from religious influence and founded on earthly happiness.

The principle of utility had to be applied to all human beings, including women and children equally.

There should be a ‘reformation of the moral world; this would favour women who should have the vote to give them more political power and enable them influence legislation in their favour.

Utilitarian also placed great stress on the education of women.

Utilitarianism and feminism were closely linked (Compos Boralevi)


Not all utilitarians were feminists - James Mill advocated universal suffrage but excluded women - their interests represented by those of their fathers or husbands.

His son, John Stuart Mill, criticised his father’s views and argued for female suffrage.

Utilitarian thinking also influential on the writings of other feminists, notably Anna Wheeler Doyle and her partner William Thompson, who were also connected with the Owenite socialist movement. William Thompson’s Appeal to One Half of the Human Race – refuted arguments of James Mill on the rights of women


Unitarians – ‘radical Unitarians’

Enlightenment ideas favourably to feminism were kept alive by groups of radical thinkers of whom the Unitarians were probably the most important.

Unitarians also believed in the power of reason, the concept of natural rights, of freedom and toleration.

They were ardent supporters of the French Revolution and, in Britain, of parliamentary reform

Also influenced in 1820s and 1830s by German Romanticism

More radical Unitarians were receptive to the idea of women’s rights and a large number of early feminists came from a Unitarian background.

One reason for this was that the Unitarians stressed the importance of female education, another was the Unitarian philosophy of reform.

As early as 1823, the Unitarian journal, the Monthly Repository, published an article on female education by Harriet Martineau, who denied the inferiority of the female mind.

In 1832, the Repository’s editor, William Fox, published articles calling for female suffrage.


Beginnings of an organised feminist movement

1856 - Langham Place Circle, whose leaders include Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), a Unitarian, and Bessie Rayner Parkes.

The Circle, drawn from middle-class women, wanted

reform of the legal system, particularly the property laws relating, to married women, reform of girls’ secondary education,

the provision of higher education for women,

the expansion of occupational opportunities for middle-class women

used tactics of networking, lobbying, and publicity

- initiated the Englishwomen’s Journal, a major forum for the discussion of women’s problems

Reform of married women’s legal position - impetus of the Caroline Norton case - ltd improvement in women’s legal position relating to the custody of their children by 1839; Langham Place Circle campaigned from 1854 until 1882 for legislation giving married women control over their property and earnings.

Supporters of married women’s property reform, such as many MPs and lawyers, were not feminists

Reform of secondary education and access to higher education - improved education a prerequisite for better occupational opportunities for women - women needed to be better educated if they were to take up careers. The main promoter of women’s higher education was Emily Davies who became involved with Langham Place Circle after 1864

Occupational Opportunities

1859 the Social for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW) set up in same building in Langham Place

SPEW set up a book-keeping service, a legal copying service, and in the 1870s, a drawing office, all staffed by women

also founded the Victoria Press, a printing and publishing business run by women


these premises in Langham Place acted as a recruitment centre for other women. SPEW set up a Ladies Institute with a reading room and a small club.


The roots of Victorian feminism can be found in many of the ideologies of the centre and the left: liberalism, utilitarianism, free thinkers, socialism. The influence of radical Protestant sects, most notably the Unitarians and Quakers, were also important in giving women a framework of moral and social reform.

It is also clear that many of the leading early feminists were men: Richard Carlile, William Thompson, Jeremy Bentham, William Fox played a crucial role in theorising and publicising the cause for women’s emancipation.

Organised women’s movements only emerged in the 1850s. The limitations of the very early feminist movement were graphically illustrated by the case of Eliza Sharples, which showed how women on their own were susceptible to personal attack and vilification, and often their early enthusiasm and ardour were replaced by bitterness born out of isolation.