log in

  • Published in Book Reviews

Uncontrollable Women brilliantly tells the history of women who fought for rights and against repression during the radical years in Britain of 1789-1832, finds Ellen Graubart

uncontrollable-women-lg.jpg
Nan Sloane, Uncontrollable Women: Radicals, Reformers and Revolutionaries (Bloomsbury 2022), xiv, 288pp.

Uncontrollable Women is a history of some of the radical, reformist and revolutionary women in England who were active against injustice and repression between the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 and the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Their names and lives were on the whole undocumented, but their actions played an important part in contributing to the freedoms we now enjoy. This was a period when new egalitarian ideas struggled against old ones about the God-given rights of elites.

The importance of the role of women as agents of change in society and their fight against state oppression and for rights of the working class has too rarely been recognised, either because women’s voices have been written out of history or were never documented in the first place. They had no voice because they were illiterate or working class, and were ridiculed, or smeared in grossly misogynistic terms, accused of being drunkards and prostitutes. However, many were intimately involved in the fight against an oppressive regime and the exploitation of workers in the factories that were springing up during the Industrial Revolution.

Sloane brings to light some of these women’s stories, some of whom endured miserable incarceration and even death as a result of their actions. These women were not prepared to take the narrow role of the good, well behaved woman, never stepping out of her allowed boundary of good wife and mother, obeying her husband at all times, certainly not getting into politics or business – and God forbid – being activists, agitators, writers or thinkers. These were the uncontrollable women whose heroic actions contributed to the world we now live in, but whose lives on the whole remain undocumented.

The patriotic and conservative among the British had seen the French revolutionary version of liberty as a hideous perversion of an ancient British value, and after the French Revolution came to think of it as drenched in blood. The fall of the Bastille – an emblem of repression and tyrannical power of absolute monarchy – was seen as symbolic of the fall of the old order by the French, but also by Whigs (the parliamentary opposition), radicals, and the rising middle classes, artisans and labourers in towns and villages across Britain.

There had long been complaints over the state of political representation in Britain, and since the American Revolution there had been a number of petitions signed demanding parliamentary reform. Questions concerning the role of the Church, universal suffrage (though only for men), and the abolition of slavery were being discussed.

The people begin to rise up

The rising number of enclosures of agricultural land to supply wool for the textile mills had forced families to abandon agricultural work and move to industrial areas in search of work, resulting in a burgeoning urban working-class. The mechanisation of old trades made fortunes for a few, but workers found themselves trapped in exploitation and bad working conditions. Independent craftsmen were being undercut by the use of factory machines. In 1779 a mythical Ned Ludd was said to have smashed a stocking frame in Nottingham in a fit of rage. The idea caught on and Luddism became a movement, where machine breaking was the central tactic. Few women were involved in the actual destruction of machines, but there is evidence that they were involved in planning and organising attacks. In 1788 a group of female wool spinners in Leicester, calling themselves the ‘Sisterhood’, organised protests against the far too rapid changes that the introduction of machinery was bringing.

The new ways of working upset the social order, bringing periods of boom and then bust, with no safety net (except collectively through benefit clubs and societies) so working-class families were always at risk of penury and starvation. Disease was rife because of bad, cheaply built housing, overcrowding and poor sanitation, and there were periodic food shortages coupled with high prices.

For decades, government policy was to protect the incomes of landowners with tariffs on grain imports. The wealthiest aristocrats often effectively owned parliamentary seats, and could put their own men into the Commons. In times of food shortage, grain could only be imported legally once shortages had pushed domestic prices up to a certain level, often beyond the reach of working-class people. In times when poor harvests coincided with the driving down of wages, people could be driven to destitution.

The year 1812 was one of those times. Food riots erupted around the country in the spring and summer. In Skipton, women pelted a potato seller with his own stock, and at Knottingley near Wakefield, a crowd of several hundred women tried to intercept barges on the Aire and Calder Navigation Canal. When that failed they went into town and forced flour sellers to lower their prices (p.92). In Lancashire, there were riots in most towns at one time or another. A 54 year-old woman, Hannah Smith, encouraged a crowd of about one hundred to stop potato carts and remove the contents; she upended a cart and ran away with an apron full of potatoes. The next day she forced a Mr. Lomas to reduce his prices. She was arrested and charged with highway robbery, and eventually hanged alongside four men and three other rioters from Manchester.

Women and political radicalism

In the 1790s, a wave of revolutionary fervour had spread from London across the country, particularly into the industrial areas in the Midlands and the North, through societies, book clubs, schools, homes, public houses and churches. Parliamentary reform and revolutionary ideas were discussed, especially in the weaving towns and villages of Lancashire and Yorkshire; the Blackburn Female Reform Society, formed in 1818 and one of many, is the first known working-class women’s political organisation run by women themselves. In July, the Society had a formal role in a huge political event chaired by John Knight, who was also one of the main speakers. This was the first time that working-class women had a formal role in such an event.

A year later, the government rejected a large petition from Stockport demanding suffrage for men; in response the people organised a series of open-air rallies in the mill towns of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, attended by prominent local and national speakers. Many more rallies, meetings and consultations were to follow. The radical women of Lancashire began to plan for a ‘monster meeting’ in August in which they played a crucial role, although it was mainly led by men: notably John Knight and Richard Carlile.

On the day, 16 August 1819, thousands of people from almost every cotton town within reasonable walking distance sent its own contingent carrying banners, with most of the female Reformers wearing white dresses and green sashes. The day had been one of high excitement and joy, but the Manchester magistrates had long been aware of plans for the meeting; they had prepared in advance for what they believed would result in an insurrection, and they ordered their forces to attack the gathered masses of men, women and children, indiscriminately massacring them before the meeting had hardly begun. This bloody event in Manchester’s Petersfield was to become known as Peterloo.

After the events at Petersfield, the government set about rounding up radical leaders as fast as they could, arresting most of the speakers at the meeting. Parliament passed the Gagging Acts which banned unauthorised political meetings and gave magistrates powers to search houses for arms, banned military drills and speeded up trials for political offences. The Act also increased penalties for publishing blasphemy and sedition. Many radical papers closed or went underground. The press was increasingly silenced and the radical reform movement disabled.

Three remarkable working-class women who were sent to prison

In November of 1819, Richard Carlile, who had been selling his editions of Tom Paine’s work at his bookshop in Fleet Street, was convicted of blasphemy and sent to Dorchester Gaol. Three women in succession took up running his shop, first his wife Jane, then his younger sister Mary-Ann, then Susannah Wright, a friend of the Carliles. All three women in turn were arrested, tried and sentenced to gaol for selling seditious material. Sloane gives a full account of all three trials. Jane and Mary-Ann defended themselves (with advice Carlile gave them from inside Dorchester Gaol) as women doing their duty to support and stand up for their men.

Susannah, on the other hand, was an extraordinarily feisty woman, who spoke on her own behalf, about her own beliefs and refused to be told otherwise. A friend and supporter of the Carliles, she immediately offered to run their shop in Fleet Street ‘at whatever risk’. She was arrested for selling two twopenny pamphlets by Richard Carlile and charged with blasphemy. Being pregnant at the time, she was released on bail to await trial until after the birth.

The court discovered what lay in store for them before her trial, when in 1822 she was called as a witness at the Old Bailey. She showed herself as a difficult and obstructive witness. When asked about her own religious views, she refused to be drawn, replying: ‘When I am brought to trial, perhaps I may give my opinion.’

Susannah was fully aware of what she as a working-class woman with no power would face, so she prepared carefully for the trial. She also received advice from Carlile (still in Dorchester prison), but she knew what she wanted to say. They were both aware that the Chief Justice would use every tactic to distract and undermine her defence, so Benjamin Jones (a friend of Susannah and the Carliles) accompanied her, helping her by keeping track of her notes and helping with the baby. She received enormous support from friends and supporters, but was savaged by the New Times, a paper well known for its hard-line loyalist opinions and detestation of radical political women. The case of the prosecution was simple. Susannah was accused of being a wicked and evil person who disregarded the laws and religion of the Realm:

‘unlawfully, and wickedly did sell, utter and publish, and caused to be sold, uttered, and published, a certain scandalous, impious, blasphemous and profane Libel, of and concerning the Christian Religion…’.

She did not deny that she had sold the publications, and in a long to-the-point, shocking and often witty speech, she defended herself. The judge was horrified and tried to interrupt; much to the audience’s amusement, she ignored him and carried on. When the baby began to cry, the Chief Justice agreed an adjournment. She left the court accompanied by her support group and, to much cheering from spectators both inside and outside the building, carried her hungry baby across the road to the Castle Coffee House where she fed and changed him.

She then returned to court half-an-hour later to more cheering, picked up her speech where she had left off and carried on triumphantly to the end. She had no intention of disproving the charge, which she did not contest. Her intent was to state her case against Christianity and the Christian establishment and she was not afraid of the consequences. She argued that people should be able to make up their own minds, that laws had been made without the consent of the people.

The Chief Justice tried to stop her when she went on to examine in detail the material she had sold, but she carried on regardless. The whole procedure had become a theatrical spectacle, and the audience in the crowded galleries loved it, being both entertained and informed. She took apart the prosecution’s case, but the Chief Justice could take it no more when she began to criticise the judge who had presided over Mary-Ann Carlile’s case. It took the jury exactly two minutes to come to a ‘Guilty’ verdict.

Susannah Wright’s campaign continues

Susannah was sent to prison with her baby where conditions were abysmal, and she never fully recovered from the damage to her health, including the loss of sight in one eye, but her spirit was never broken. By the spring of 1824 it was clear that she might die and become the free-speech movements’ first martyr. Knowing that they had been beaten, the government released her a month early.

In 1832, her husband William died aged 32 and she moved back to Nottingham with her two children. There she set up a Freethought bookshop, but she ran into trouble with the landlord when he insisted she remove the sign she had hung over the door, The Republican. She refused in spite of the raucous angry crowds of outraged citizens that gathered outside the shop over succeeding nights. She was threatened with prosecution and attacked by the local newspapers, which only gave her more publicity for the shop. Finally, the Vice Society had to admit defeat: they were already facing a series of expensive prosecutions as well as the prospect of jailing a woman who was not afraid of them and who had triumphed over the appalling prison system. They backed off and the demonstrations outside the shop dwindled.

After 1826 her name disappears from the records. It is quite likely that by that time she had emigrated together with her family to America, as did so many other free-thinkers and radicals.

Susannah was not alone in a woman’s profound belief in her right to make up her own mind about everything, including religion. Large numbers of women had supported and funded her, expressed agreement with her views and writing to her while she was in prison, and her achievement was recognised all around the country.

There were female writers throughout this period, middle-class educated women who were not only writing about balls and husband hunting, but also about revolution, democracy, the abolition of slavery, war, civil rights – the list goes on. Though it was quite unacceptable for women to get directly involved in politics, they were allowed to express political views in the form of novels and in poetry. When they did step over the boundaries of ‘decency’, they were met with public outrage. There were also working-class women who were literate, whose letters to their husbands jailed for various acts of ‘insurgency’ have come to light because they were confiscated by the Home Office and are now in the National Archives (p.9).

Leading writers and radicals

Mary Wollstonecraft is an exception in that her name is widely known and today is championed as an icon for women’s rights. She had become an integral part of a radical circle based in Newington Green where she met Dr Richard Price, Thomas Paine and other intellectuals, some of whom would emerge as key figures of radical and revolutionary London in the 1790s. She became directly involved in politics when she wrote her book Vindication of the Rights of Men (which was about the politics of land use and society as a whole, which included women’s rights), as her angry response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Burke had attacked the ideals of the French Revolution, and expressed his alarm at the prospect of the Revolution being brought to Britain. Wollstonecraft had strongly rebuked his ideas about the sanctity of property and tradition, and also his ideas about women (pp.30-1). Although her radical ideas were being discussed in groups in Newington Green and London, the fact that a woman was expressing them - especially as a challenge to a man of the stature of Edmund Burke - was a sheer impertinence. Her later work, the Vindication of the Rights of Women, is now considered a major contribution to women’s fight for equality.

Helen Maria Williams was one of the most famous and widely read authors in Britain at the time, who had established her reputation as a poet in the early 1780s and was well connected in radical circles, including the one at Newington Green. She held her own literary salon, and was admired by such figures as Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. She travelled to France immediately after the Revolution to see events for herself. In her Letters from France, she made a vivid record of this remarkable period. Eventually she was vilified and ostracised because of her involvement in the revolution, her writing about politics and her free style of living, spending the rest of her life in France.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld was a woman with a rare ability to get across complicated ideas in clear and straightforward language, and was not afraid to express them, in spite of the vitriol that the public threw at her. Like many female writers of the time, she first made her name through poetry, but was best known for her children’s books and writings on education. She became directly involved in politics in 1790 when she wrote a pamphlet against the century-old Test and Corporation Acts, which prohibited non-conformist Protestants (known as dissenters) from holding any public office whatsoever, while still having to pay taxes to the state and tithes to the Church of England (p.57). The vilification eventually marginalised her, and by later in the nineteenth century she came to be remembered only as a rather old-fashioned poet and children’s writer.

Uncontrollable Woman is a thoroughly researched, inspiring and enjoyable account of the importance of these mostly invisible but wonderful and brave women, who laid the foundations of the political freedoms we enjoy today. The battle for women to achieve parity with men in a patriarchal society has been a slow and painful one, and remains a long way from being won, especially in the wake of the recent and disastrous attacks on women’s rights of abortion and autonomy over their own bodies: a stark warning of the threat to throw the fight for women’s rights back to the dark times of the past.

We owe all the uncontrollable women an enormous debt, first of all by not taking their achievements for granted, but most importantly, by continuing the fight for women’s rights, which includes fighting for the rights of all humans. If we hope to survive as a species on this planet, we have no other choice.

Before you go...

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart

Ellen Graubart was born in India of American parents and came to London from Virginia as a teenager to study art. She lives and works as an artist in Hackney. She is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War and Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today

Join Now