Radical women in an era of repression

Mike Phipps reviews Uncontrollable Women: Radicals, Reformers and Revolutionaries, by Nan Sloane, published by Bloomsbury

Apart from Mary Wollstonecraft, you won’t have heard of most of the women in this book, predicts Ayesha Hazarika in her Foreword to Nan Sloane’s absorbing new book. Helen Maria Williams, for example, a contemporary of Wollstonecraft, was based in Paris during the French revolution and wrote extensively and enthusiastically about events there as they unfolded, “with almost unrivalled first-hand knowledge.” As the revolution radicalised, foreigners were increasingly regarded as spies and she was arrested and detained with many others in the former Luxembourg Palace, and later a convent, where the physical conditions were worse and the nuns were instructed to stop wearing religious dress. “Helen Maria and the other Protestant women spent a long night helping the nuns turn their habits into safe secular gowns.”

Released after two months, she had missed the worst of the Terror, but was dismayed to find that many former friends had perished at the guillotine, including Olympe de Gouges who was accused of “attempting to pervert the republic with her writings”. Robespierre was no supporter of women’s liberation. Helen Maria Williams left Paris for Switzerland, as in England she was regarded as a dangerous and immoral woman and vilified in the press. She returned to Paris and despite being briefly imprisoned by Napoleon, she remained there for most of the rest of her life, having sunk into obscurity.

Such middle class, white women activists are easier to locate because they wrote letters, books and diaries: they “left more of themselves behind”. But Nan Sloane also unearths a considerable amount of activity by working class women in Britain, including setting fire to factories and wealthy properties and involvement in food riots during the years of economic hardship in the early 19th century. Often juries were reluctant to convict, knowing the death penalty would usually be the punishment.

One exception, during the widespread food riots of 1812, was 54 year old Hannah Smith, who encouraged a crowd of about a hundred people to loot potatoes and butter that were overpriced. She was convicted of highway robbery and executed two months later.

In June 1819 the first Female Reform Societies were established. In 1821, the Blackburn Female reform Society Address, although read out by a man, was “one of the earliest political pronouncements from a pubic platform made by a group of women – and especially northern working-class women – in Britain.”

Organised female contingents form towns within reasonable walking distance of Manchester were present in large numbers at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. About a quarter of the 654 people injured that day were women, as were four of the eighteen killed. Evidence also suggests that women were disproportionately targeted: some fought back with courage.

Peterloo ushered in a period of greater repression with stricter laws on what could be said and published, the notorious Six Acts. Hampshire-born Jane Carlile, her husband already imprisoned for publishing banned works by Thomas Paine and attacking organised religion, was herself charged with publishing seditious libel in 1820. Notwithstanding statements she wrote to be read out on her behalf – effectively a form of self-defence – she was sentenced to two years imprisonment.

Carlile’s younger sister, Mary-Ann, another working class woman, took over the book-selling business and was charged with blasphemous libel a year later. With the jury unable to agree a verdict on one count, she left court a free woman – the first victory for the radicals since the introduction of the Six Acts. But for another charge, she was fined the immense sum of £500 and a year in prison. Moreover, unless the fine were paid, there would be no prospect of release.

A petition on her behalf was presented to the House of Commons, but one after another MPs rose to oppose it, including William Wilberforce who described Mary-Ann as “fallen and wretched”. Over time, the orchestrated fear of radicalism began to subside and eventually the government paid her fine and she was released, having served double the term of her sentence.

While the Carliles were in jail, courageous volunteers stepped forward to help run their shop which sold radical publications – at great personal risk. One of them was Susannah Wright, a Nottinghamshire embroiderer, was duly charged with blasphemy and made a detailed speech from the dock in her defence, sweeping on even when the Chief Justice tried to silence her – an “extraordinary performance” for “a working-class woman with limited formal education.”

All to no avail: it took the jury precisely two minutes to reach a guilty verdict. At the time of her sentencing she had a new speech prepared, which the judge again tried to interrupt, to which she responded: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”

Hannah was jailed for contempt in Newgate prison where she spent weeks in dire conditions, sleeping on a stone floor, with a seven-month old baby and just one hot meal a week. She was eventually given eighteen months and a hefty fine, of dubious legality given that married women possessed no property of their own. In poor health, she was released a month early, probably because the government feared her martyrdom.

Widowed and with two small children to feed, she opened a Freethought bookshop in Nottingham. Undaunted by threats of prosecution and frequent vandalism, she kept a loaded pistol on the shop counter. Tantalisingly, there are no public records of what happened next.

Nan Sloane brings new life to this gripping historical era, when English radicalism was in its prime. With the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, which extended the franchise to less than 10% of the adult population, it became clear that the middle class had benefited from the efforts and sacrifices of countless workers. This history underlines the price also paid by significant numbers of courageous female activists – a hundred years or more before all adult women got the vote.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

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