In 1822 Susannah Wright stood before the Lord Chief Justice accused of blasphemy. Despite her limited education, she was determined to conduct her own defence and duly began to read out a carefully prepared statement. Her “blasphemy” had nothing to do with being a potty mouth. Rather, Susannah was found guilty of selling a pamphlet that challenged the right of the Established Church to meddle in secular matters. Infuriated by the effrontery of this young lacemaker from Nottingham, the judge attempted to cut her off. Sharply, she told him to be quiet: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”
It is a thrilling moment. It is also, suggests Nan Sloane, one that deserves to be far better known. The same goes for the many other occasions on which working-class women dared to speak truth to power during the first third of the 19th century, a time of bitter unrest when it looked as though Great Britain might follow France and America into revolution. There is, for instance, Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood on the hustings alongside Henry Hunt at Peterloo in 1819 and only narrowly escaped death in the state-sanctioned carnage that followed. Or Jane Carlile who, like Susannah Wright, was found guilty of blasphemy for selling her husband’s newspaper The Republican, and was sentenced to two years inside Dorchester prison with her newborn baby.
One of the reasons why these women have been “hidden from history” to use Sheila Rowbotham’s seminal phrase from nearly 50 years ago, is because working-class women generally left less of a paper trail than well-to-do activists. Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who both get a chapter, published polemics that set off political fireworks and attracted vicious personal attacks in the process (Horace Walpole famously dubbed Wollstonecraft “a hyena in a petticoat”). With the likes of Wright, Fildes and Carlile, by contrast, all we get are oblique glimpses of them in narratives written by and about the men with whom they shared their lives.
The problem with this fragmentation is how difficult it makes it to recover a reforming woman’s particular journey, and see her full complexity. For instance, in 1832 Yorkshire woman Mary Smith presented parliament with a petition (or, rather, Henry Hunt did on her behalf) calling for the forthcoming Reform Bill to deliver female suffrage. In the process Smith tried to bolster her cause by dropping broad hints that William Cobbett, the great reformer who was a staunch advocate for male suffrage only, had recently been caught in a clinch with another man. As repugnant as this homophobia seems today, it is a reminder that real women living in historical time will not always think and act in ways that we find easy to understand.
There is another reason, suggests Sloane, that this early generation of female radicals still gets overlooked. All too often feminist history gets written exclusively in terms of the slow march towards female voting rights, which was not finally achieved for another 100 years. But many of the women from this earlier period were more concerned with the immediate challenge of keeping their families fed and warm. One of the saddest things about Sloane’s narrative is its heavy load of infant mortality, against which background desperately poor women march for bread and smash machinery in protest at the consequences of unregulated capitalism. The vote, for them, is a luxury that will have to wait.