The role and contribution of women to radicalism at the time of Peterloo deserves closer attention. In Mike Leigh’s epic and rigorously researched 2018 film Peterloo, one scene shows female reformers Mary Fildes and Susannah Saxton read a wordy address to a meeting of Manchester women, some of whom are rather bemused by the language and tone of their speech. This was one element of the film which sat uncomfortably with me, as it felt reminiscent of the contemporary attacks on Female Reformers, and particularly working-class women, as interfering in a political movement which they little understood. As I argue here, women involved in the early nineteenth-century radical movements in fact drew on a variety of resources to articulate their political experiences and ideals.
Female Reform Societies emerged in north-west England in the summer of 1819, just over a month before the fateful meeting at St Peter’s Fields, and were immediately faced with the scorn and revulsion of the conservative press and caricaturists. Female Reformers were described as devoid of morals or religion, and depicted as revolutionary harridans or sexual objects, not to be taken seriously as political actors. However, though the women-only groups were new, their interest in political issues was not. Women had been involved in bitter cotton industry strikes and food riots, and already attended and voted on motions at radical meetings. As they took to hustings at radical meetings, they drew on their experiences of social and economic injustice to argue that the franchise must be extended to working men to address issues of poverty and corruption.
The address of the Manchester Female Reformers reproduced in part in Leigh’s film reflects the highly stylised forms these speeches took, but the dramatic language of radical oratory would not have been alien to working women. As well as the speeches of radical men, Female Reformers drew on the often apocalyptic language of the Bible to emphasise the urgency and moral justice of their cause. Manchester’s Female Reformer’s Declared that:
‘Noah was a reformer; he warned the people of their danger, but they paid no attention to him; Lot did in like manner, but the deluded people laughed him to scorn; the consequence was they were destroyed … the great Founder of Christianity, he was the greatest reformer of all; and if Jesus Christ himself were to come upon the earth again … his life would assuredly be sacrificed by the relentless hand of the Borough-Judases; for corruption, tyranny, and injustice, have reached their summit; and the bitter cup of oppression is now full to the brim.’ – Manchester Observer, 31st July, 1819.
In spite of such elaborate rhetoric, and of their important role in the Lancashire textile economy Lancashire, the Female Reformers’ speeches were dominated by references to domestic life, and they defined themselves first as wives and mothers rather than in class-based terms or as political activists. The Manchester women’s address stated that they had been ‘compelled … to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes’, while the Blackburn Female Reformer’s complained that:
‘our houses which once bore ample testimony of our industry and cleanliness … are now alas! robbed of all their ornaments … by the relentless hand of the unfeeling tax gatherer, to satisfy … the borough-mongering tyrants, who are reposing on beds of down’. – Black Dwarf, 14th July, 1819.
Historians have tended to dismiss the focus on family and home as a strategy to render women’s public participation in political activism more palatable. But, if this was the aim, the Female Reformers were unsuccessful, as the attacks on them in the press demonstrate. In part, domestic tropes enabled working women to seek common ground with their middle-class sisters – the audience specifically addressed in the Manchester Female Reformers’ speech – but they also went right to the heart of questions of legitimacy and citizenship in British politics. Family was central to political discourse as the model for the state, with the king imagined as the benevolent but authoritative father of his subjects. The notion that an Englishman’s home was his castle, free from the interference of outsiders, informed notions of English liberty which in turn fuelled patriotic sentiment, particularly in the context of the wars against France. Women’s assertions that a tyrannical government undermined their attempts to maintain domestic order suggested a fundamental break in the social contract between the British state and its people.
The Female Reformers not only developed a political critique that connected everyday experiences with broader themes of morality, justice, history, and religion, but they also pledged to educate their children in the same radical tradition. In the Blackburn Society’s address, they informed their audience that ‘we have already come forward with the avowed determination, of instilling into the minds of their offspring a deep rooted abhorrence of tyranny.’ There is some evidence of this commitment being borne out in practice. Peterloo was notable not only for the prominence of women on the field, but for the presence of whole families. After the event, the involvement of children in radicalism continued to be encouraged by the production of educational resources such as the Peterloo map produced by the Manchester Observer, which was advertised as ‘an excellent lesson for children’, with a ‘Political Catechism’ provided alongside.
The women who took part in radical activity, either formally as members of a Reform Society, or through everyday activism such as boycotts or the political education of children, have received less attention than the men who led the radical movement. They are less well documented – we do not, for example, have a rich autobiographical source such as Samuel Bamford’s Passages in the Life of a Radical from the perspective of a radical woman, though recent work to uncover witness testimony from the time of Peterloo is beginning to uncover new material. We should not, however, underestimate their political understanding or their practical importance to early nineteenth-century radicalism. Female Reformers chose their words carefully to formulate a critique of an establishment that claimed to offer paternal protection to its citizens, but in fact proved neglectful and even, on the field of Peterloo, actively violent towards them.
Ruth Mather is a social and cultural historian of the long nineteenth century with research interests in the histories of gender and class, popular politics, everyday life and material culture. She is on Twitter @ruth_mather.