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Gender ideologies in working-class radicalism


In early nineteenth century, notwithstanding dominant discourse of domesticity and separate spheres

• seemed to be an opening up of opportunities for women within the radical politics of Owenism and Chartism but

• failure of both movements has led historians to argue for

• withdrawal from politics by working-class women by the end of the 1840s



• one of early nineteenth-century utopian socialist movements

• like other utopian socialist movements in Europe and US, hoped for

• reconciliation of all human needs through reason and co-operation

• transformation of society by ending competitive capitalism

• development of a harmonious system of co-operative work practices

• transformation of all oppressive institutions, including marriage

Owenism was a multi-stranded movement


Robert Owen (1771-1858)

• self-made entrepreneur, not afraid of innovation, prepared to travel

• 1800-1829 part-owner of a cotton-spinning mill at New Lanark in s-w Scotland

• New Lanark – typical early industrial complex

• rural setting

• run on paternalistic lines

• initially water-powered, using nearby waterfalls on the River Clyde

• on-site living accommodation for workers

• workforce largely composed of children

• distinctiveness of New Lanark under Owen’s ownership was

• its innovative management

• Scottish workers bel. to be feckless and undisciplined but

• Owen’s belief that human character was determined wholly by its environment influenced his management policies at New Lanark

• Argued that improvements in environment - social engineering - would result in the abolition of crime and human misery

• Instituted work incentives and welfare schemes at New Lanark

• model housing, healthcare, free schooling for all employees, organised child care for working mother

• this model of labour management was much admired by other industrialists

• in the 1820s Mr Owen becomes ‘Owenism’

• becomes the opponent of capitalism and promoter of a new social order based on classless, co-operative communities

• according to Engels, Owenism would ‘emancipate all humanity at once, not but one class’

• Owenism’s idea of co-operation was based on benevolent reason rather than class struggle or the pursuit of self interest

• Owenism was to become a flexible ideology attractive to many different groups from the middle and working class

• 1821-1845 seven Owenite communities set up in Britain

• all except one were rural

• all short-lived

• lurched from crisis to crisis

• failed because of economic bad management, personal tensions within the communities

• Owen 1824 gave up daily involvement in business – travelled to US to set up community schemes there

• Owenism and feminism

• Barbara Taylor

• Owenism’s criticism of marriage

• Liberation of men and women depended on liberation of the passions – articulated by William Thompson’s Appeal to One Half of the Human Race

• Robert Owen’s Lectures on Marriage

• Criticised existing system of indissoluble marriage because

• Distorted and degraded natural sexual instincts and relationships

• Personal and social relationships should be released from the isolating confines of the household

• These relationships should become part of the wider membership of a community

• All domestic work and childcare should be organised and carried out on a communal basis

• Owenism and the Rational Society

• By 1830s and 1840s, support of Owenism extending beyond a small number of mainly middle-class radical intellectuals, via medium of

• The Rational Society (education branch of the movement)

• Objective of self-improvement

• Reform of the behaviour of the working classes as a stepping stone to a new social system

• Importantly differed from middle-class desires to reform the working classes to accept the existing system

• 65 branches nationwide – set up schools, libraries, meeting rooms

• newspaper – New Moral World

• readership extensive – est. 100,000 – 400,000

• significance for women

• women published articles in the New Moral World

• gave lectures in Owenite Halls of Science

• education of women widely discussed in Owenite meetings

• Owenite movement ran varied social and cultural programme in which

• Women able to socialise on equal footing with men

• To encourage women’s attendance, Owenite events deliberately organised away from pubs and taverns

• Owenite Halls of Science were tee-total and set new standards of working-class behaviour

• However, limitations to women’s participation in Owenism

• Many of women’s lectures in Halls of Science focused on domestic matters

• Few female officials in Owenite movement

• Women were members of new Owenite communities but

• In the model communities, women’s dissatisfaction with the arrangements for collective living helped in the collapse of these communities

• Women worked in agriculture and manufacturing but

• Still expected to do the bulk of housework because it was not organised communally

• Women criticised Owen’s libertarian views on marriage

• Lack of material security

• Loss of protection, particularly for poor women, that married status provided


Most extensive organised working-class movement of the first half of nineteenth century but many leaders were middle or upper class

Chartists wanted reform of the apparatus of the state, repressive or exclusionary rather than reforming, including effects of the 1832 Reform Act and the 1834 New Poor Law

People’s Charter – 3 mass petitions presented to Parliament in 1839, 1842, 1848

6 Demands: universal male suffrage (1928), the secret ballot (1872), payment of MPs (1911), removal of property qualifications for public office (1858), equal electoral constituencies, annual parliaments

2 types of Chartism – moral force/ physical force

• Physical force could be violent, eg. Newport Riots (1839) but often threat of violence sufficient to intimidate opposition

• Movement built on working-class hatred of New Poor Law, effects of industrialisation on working-class families, introduction of rural police force

• Aimed for the mobilization of whole working communities

Support of working-class women sought by male leaders of the movement

• More than 150 female Chartist associations in England

• At least 23 in Scotland

Political rights for women

• Chartist women saw themselves as part of the ‘People’ who had been disenfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act

• Some male Chartists supported suffrage for single women

o Made the connexion between Britain’s female monarch and women’s exclusion from the suffrage

• Other male Chartists argued that demanding the female suffrage would impede the gaining of the vote for working-class men

• Demands for the female suffrage were removed from the first Charter

Women’s activities

• Typical of female ‘auxiliaries’ – tea parties, Sunday schools, processions, exclusive dealing, selling and distributing Chartist publications BUT

• Some groups of female Chartists bought weapons (Gleadle)

Women’s participation in Chartism

• Downplayed by early Chartist historians

o Believed accounts of women’s participation would prejudice the movement’s claims to validity as a serious political organisation

o Believed women’s participation was more characteristic of old folk traditions rather than of a modern, rational movement, which was what they were trying to project

• Criticised by nineteenth-century commentators

o Chartism ‘degraded’ by its decorative or folk elements, eg. women’s activities

• Feminist historians

o Saw female Chartists as not specifically feminists

Problems with working-class marriage and family life

• Chartist supporters – capitalism, esp. factory production, threatened the security of working-class family life, caused misery in families, women’s factory work = a ‘inversion of the natural order’, undermined manhood of working-class men

• Chartist opponents – working men were poor husbands and fathers – drunk, idle, passive, poor providers – not deserving of the vote; factory work made women immoral, insubordinate, deprived them of opportunities to learn domestic skills


Languages of Chartism

• Highly gendered – centred on a rhetoric of domesticity

• Strong patriarchal emphasis

• Rhetoric emphasised women’s domestic and supportive roles

• Idealised domesticity – possibly to conceal men’s ambitions for exclusion of women from well-paid or skilled jobs

• Way of demonstrating that working-class people were moral and deserving of political rights

• Domesticity used to dispel working-class sexual antagonisms

• For working men, acquisition of the suffrage represented part of their manhood

• New ideas of working-class manhood

o Sober, industrious

o Appealed to working-class women and

o Offered a solution to much long-standing marital conflict

• Women used a variety of languages to represent themselves within the movement

o Shared experience of motherhood

o Emphasis on domesticity = a way of deflecting middle-class criticism

o Modest, self-effacing image, helpmeets to husbands, fathers, brothers

o Developed into ‘militant domesticity’ (Clark)

o Saw themselves as heroines, rather than victims

o Justified their support of Chartism by defining motherhood in particular ways

 Motherhood was nurturing children plus

 Working to feed, clothe and house them

 Need for horizons beyond the domestic

 Rights of women might extend beyond domesticity and political rights, might include rights for education


Opposing views about early radical movements

1. the eventual failure of both Owenism and Chartism led to

• victory for the dominance of domesticity and separate spheres

• disappearance of claims for women’s rights by working-class campaigners

evidence for this:

increased state regulation of women ‘s work outside the home

formalisation of working-class politics in a male culture of clubs and pubs

2. women were able to use the dominant discourse of domesticity and subvert it for their own ends

use of ‘militant domesticity’ to take part in politics on their own terms and

campaign for issues that were crucial to them

evidence for this:

Chartist women’s involvement in temperance movement