The political landscape in the nineteenth century is generally considered to have been bleak for women who could not vote and were discouraged from participating in public life. Yet, there were many important pioneers campaigning for women’s rights who remain largely unknown but who should be celebrated. Professor Sarah Richardson, expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century, from the University of Warwick, chooses just five.
1. The test case on the position of women
Alice Stubbs was a landowner in the tiny village of Ronton Abbey in Staffordshire, England. In the late eighteenth-century she challenged the state, at the King’s Bench, who were arguing that she had no right to hold local office. Whilst it was generally accepted that women were not eligible to vote or hold office for parliamentary elections, the same was not true at the local level. There are many examples of women both voting in elections and holding a variety of offices at local level on the grounds that they were ratepayers and property owners.
Stubbs became a test case with lawyers for the state arguing that she was not competent to hold the office of Overseer of the Poor, on the grounds of her sex. The state questioned if women had the strength and knowledge to collect poor rates, settle parish accounts and examine those applying for poor relief.
William Henry Ashhurst, the senior justice of the King’s Bench declared that the 1601 Act which established the position of Overseer of the Poor did not specify the sex of the office holder. In addition he saw no reason why women should be incompetent to perform the required duties. Alice Stubbs was therefore qualified to serve as Overseer of the Poor in the village. Although there may have been women acting as Overseers of the Poor before, Alice’s victory ensured their status could not be challenged in the future. As the leading landowner in the village, Alice naturally assumed she had the authority, and capability, to decide on the allocation of poor relief. This was to be a recurring theme in debates about women’s ability to vote and hold office.
2 and 3. Fighting against slavery and for suffrage
Anne Knight was a Quaker who toured Europe and campaigned along with US activist, Lucretia Mott for the abolition of slavery. Knight, Mott and other women were excluded from participating in the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London which only served to radicalise them further.
Mott was a key member of the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 and the first signatory of the Declaration of Sentiments published by the Convention calling for women’s right to the ‘elective franchise’.
Knight went on to found the first women’s suffrage society in Sheffield in 1851. Knight’s letter to fellow activist, Matilda Ashurst Biggs, was printed and is considered to be the first published pamphlet in Britain calling for women to have the vote: ‘Never will the nations of the earth be well governed until both sexes are fully represented.’
4. The radical intellectual
The 1830s saw a small group of radical intellectuals dominating the political scene in the UK. At their centre was a women, Harriet Grote, who became de facto leader of the ‘philosophical radicals’ as they were known. Harriet was married to the banker and MP, George Grote and they were close neighbours of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill.
Two mornings a week Harriet hosted breakfast meetings with economists, writers, and politicians such as John Stuart Mill, Charles Buller and Thomas Eyton Tooke. Her regular parties, dinners and salons were instrumental in keeping the small group of radicals together during the 1830s. This was especially important as the Whig government majority declined during the decade and they became more dependent on the support of the radical faction to pass key measures.
Harriet termed her husband George the ‘chief of opposition,’ however, it is clear from surviving correspondence that she was the more radical partner and acted assiduously to promote reform. She intervened in policy promoting the secret ballot and took a hard line with the Whigs, by threatening to withdraw radical support, writing, they should not, ‘by commercing with Whig promises, get Whig spectacles astride our noses, and Whig hearts in our breasts.’ Richard Cobden referred to her as ‘a regular politician in breeches’ and said that, ‘Had she been a man, she would have been the leader of a party.’
5. The ex-pat revolutionary
In the mid nineteenth century, many of the British and American ex-patriot community in Florence were drawn to support the revolutionary uprising led by Mazzini and Garibaldi, among them, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, Kate Field, Vernon Lee and Theodosia Trollope. Most gave money or wrote in support of the Risorgimento but others went further.
Jessie White Mario (pictured above) travelled to Italy as a reporter for the Daily News and became embroiled in the struggle, imprisoned and indicted by the Austrians for raising money to procure arms and ammunition for an attack on Genoa in 1857.
On her release she returned to the front line to report on the conflict. Many of her reports were tagged with the location, ‘Garibaldi’s Headquarters’ and she worked as a field nurse receiving two gold medals from the wounded Garibaldini in Palermo and Naples.
Later, she joined Garibaldi’s unit as an active participant rather than a passive reporter of events. She was recorded riding round Naples in a red jacket and attending events with ribbons, the colours of the Italian tricolour in her hair. There is a plaque to her memory in Florence stating that she was English born but a friend and worker for the Italians.
These are just a few of the many examples of courageous women challenging the view that they should have no right to intervene in the politics of the day. They laid the groundwork for organised movements to further women’s legal and political rights.
19 August 2019
Professor Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. This year she will present Warwickshire Women and the Fight for the Vote, a talk uncovering the unsung and unknown activists from the largely rural county of Warwickshire, at a number of venues across the county.
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