In 1822, Susannah Wright appeared before the Lord Chief Justice charged with blasphemy. Despite her limited education, she was determined to conduct her own defense and duly began reading a carefully prepared statement. His “blasphemy” had nothing to do with being a smallmouth. On the contrary, Susannah was found guilty of selling a pamphlet that challenged the right of the established church to meddle in secular affairs. Exasperated by the effrontery of this young lacemaker from Nottingham, the judge tried to cut her off. Suddenly, she told him to be quiet: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”
It’s a thrilling moment. It is also, suggests Nan Sloane, the one who deserves to be much better known. The same goes for the many other occasions when working-class women dared to speak truth to power during the first third of the 19th century, a time of bitter turmoil when it looked like Britain might follow suit. France and America in the revolution. There is, for example, Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood with Henry Hunt at Peterloo in 1819 and only narrowly escaped death in the carnage sanctioned by the state that followed. Or Jane Carlile who, like Susannah Wright, was convicted of blasphemy for selling her husband’s newspaper, The Republican, and sentenced to two years in Dorchester prison with her newborn child.
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 that working-class women generally leave less of a mark. written than well-to-do activists. Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who both get a chapter, posted polemics that set off political fireworks and drew vicious personal attacks in the process (Horace Walpole dubbed Wollstonecraft “a hyena in a petticoat”) . With people like Wright, Fildes and Carlile, on the other hand, all we get are oblique glimpses of them in stories written by and about the men with whom they shared their lives.
The problem with this fragmentation is that it is difficult to trace the particular journey of a reforming woman and to see all of its complexity. For example, in 1832, a Yorkshire woman, Mary Smith, presented a petition to Parliament (or rather, Henry Hunt did so on her behalf) calling for the next Reform Bill to grant women’s suffrage. In the process, Smith tried to bolster his case by implying that William Cobbett, the great reformer who was a strong advocate of male-only suffrage, had recently been caught in a clinch with another man. As repugnant as this homophobia may seem today, it reminds us that real women living in historical time will not always think and act in ways we find easy to understand.
There is another reason, Sloane suggests, why this first generation of radical women is still overlooked. Too often, feminist history is written exclusively in terms of the slow march towards women’s suffrage, which was ultimately not achieved for 100 years. But many women of 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 tale is its heavy toll of infant mortality, against the backdrop of which desperately poor women march for bread and smash machinery to protest the consequences of unregulated capitalism. Voting, for them, is a luxury that will have to wait.