Female Chartism and the press

While conservative newspapers invariably tried to belittle and undermine female Chartists, the radical press was often – though not always – more supportive, as Phoebe Scott explains

Though women were widely involved in Chartism, the movement has often been viewed as a predominantly male phenomenon. Female suffrage was omitted from the Charter and female Chartism was often belittled and ridiculed within the conservative press. The treatment of the London Chartist, Mary Ann Walker, in particular is a case in point. But how did the conservative press view female Chartists? And how did the radical press react? A study of the press can tell us a lot about both Chartism as a whole, and female Chartism.

The Times was one of the most successful daily newspapers of the period; however, in The Northern Star radicalism found a significant mouthpiece with the paper often read aloud among groups and sold on at later dates. Its success was evident, reaching a highpoint of 50,000 copies sold weekly, even outselling The Times at points.

Punch cartoon depiction of Mary Ann Walker
Mary Ann Walker undermined. Source: Punch, 5th November 1842.

Though these two newspapers found similarly large audiences, their reporting of female Chartism was vastly different. Within the conservative press women’s involvement in Chartism was almost unanimously negatively perceived and women were not seen to have a place in the public sphere. The Times was particularly uncompromising in its reporting of female Chartists. Female Chartists were often seen as objects of ridicule in the conservative press, their involvement in politics such a paradox to Victorian separate spheres ideology that their concern and involvement in the movement was seen as a source of both mockery and immorality.

In 1848, the equally right-leaning Punch published a satirical cartoon suggesting that female Chartists should be chased away with rats, cockroaches, and other creatures. The paradoxical image of a female Chartist holding a banner reading ‘be firm’ while fleeing showed how the conservative press viewed women’s involvement in politics as fundamentally contradictory, and also demonstrated how they believed female Chartists could be easily forced from politics back into their domestic duties. Similarly, female Chartism is said to have provoked ‘laughter from the gentlemen’ – though this account is only included in The Times’ reporting of a Chartist lecture by Mary Ann Walker, and not in the more radical Bradford Observer’s account. This suggests an attempt by the conservative press to ridicule female Chartists not only among the middle and upper classes, but in their own radical circles too, an attempt to diminish their significance even further.

Prolific female Chartists also faced disparaging and ridiculing images of themselves. In 1842 Punch published a cartoon of Mary Ann Walker, depicting her with an angry expression, pointed nose, and outstretched finger. In an attempt to belittle her appearance and intelligence, the article also described how Walker had ‘masculine pretentions.’ This was used in such a way to unsex and dehumanise Walker, as a woman could not possibly, in the eyes of the conservative press and its readers, be a woman if she was involved in politics and public life. This ridiculing and belittling perception of female Chartist evidently influenced male Chartists who were concerned with the movement’s perceived respectability among the governing classes. A Mr Cohen voiced his disagreements with the Chartist orator Mary Ann Walker at a meeting in London, arguing that it was not as ‘nature intended’ for women to take public office. Mr Cohen showed how even Chartist men could be influenced by ideas of separate spheres.

Derogatory language was often used against female Chartists across the conservative press, with The Times dubbing female Chartists ‘hen Chartists’. This defamatory language continued to be used to belittle female involvement, with ‘She-Chartist’ also used, and Mary Ann Walker was described as a ‘public woman’- a term that was used describe prostitutes at the time. This coincided with suggestions of female Chartists being of little talent or interest, suggesting they were considered objects of entertainment rather than serious political activists. Mary Ann Walker was described as have nothing remarkable to say and that her ‘impudence’ was where her qualifications ended. This reinforced the view of the ruling classes that not only did women not have a place in Chartism and in politics, but they were simply not qualified.

Similarly, the presence of women and children in the movement was used by The Times as a means to lessen Chartism’s strength. Conservative reports of Chartist meetings would claim crowds ‘did not increase beyond a few women and children.’ They also accused the Chartists of using women and children to inaccurately augment the number of signatures on their petitions. This can be seen to demonstrate two things: the middle and upper classes dismissing female involvement as inconsequential, but also as evidence of the ability of Chartism to appeal to women and even the wider family.

There is no doubt female involvement was perceived in a far more positive light within radicalism and this is particularly evident when analysing radical interactions with the conservative press. In its attempts to bring down Mary Ann Walker, The Times elicited responses from multiple radical newspapers. The Bradford Observer remarked how The Times had ‘not been able to annihilate Miss Mary Ann Walker and the female Chartists of the metropolis.’ In this defence of a prominent female Chartist, it is clear many radicals supported this strong, public, female involvement and denounced any attempts to lessen their influence. The Bradford Observer makes a point of portraying Walker as a ‘heroine’ of ‘grace and dignity,’ quite the opposite of the previously mentioned unsexed and ridiculing portrayal made by Punch.

Punch cartoon shows rats and other creatures chasing female chartists
‘How to treat the female Chartists’: rats and beetles. Source: Punch, 1st July 1848. Click for larger image.

Though reports of female Chartism can be seen to dwindle in the movement’s later years, the Chartist press still continued to defend against attempts to discredit female Chartists, denying that women professing Chartism can be said to be forgetting their domestic duties. Away from Mary Ann Walker, other prominent female Chartists were also praised within radical circles. In 1851, Mrs Martin and Mrs Ash of Sheffield were credited with ‘talents that added greatly’ to a Chartist meeting. Similarly, Mrs Higginbottom of Sheffield became influential through the Sheffield Female Political Association in the early 1850s, seeking to gain a ‘seventh’ point of the charter, female suffrage. There was also Mrs Theobald who regularly lectured across the North of England, often giving lectures seven nights of the week. These lectures frequently attracted an ‘overflowing assembly.’ Female involvement could be perceived as highly valued by male Chartists, crediting them with being ‘high-minded, honourable and highly accomplished,’ a marked step away from the arguments of women’s ill qualification in the conservative press. In fact, women were argued to play a ‘noble part’ to bring about the Charter, crediting female involvement as admirable and rejecting the ruling classes characterisation of Chartist women as morally corrupt. This demonstrates not only the contempt held for the conservative press in their attempts to bring down female Chartists, but also the willingness of radicals to defend and even encourage female involvement as a prominent and influential part of the movement.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that female Chartism and women’s political rights could be contentious even within radical circles, as Mr Cohen has shown. Female suffrage in particular frequently became a source of debate. While many Chartists, William Lovett among them, supported female enfranchisement, there was still uncertainty and disagreement. This fear was evident even in the pages of radical newspapers such as The Northern Star, where it was argued that female suffrage would not only cause family dissensions but ‘would not advance or serve the cause of democracy at all.’ Many other articles were published debating both the principle and practicality of female suffrage, reporting debates among men about the rights (or otherwise) of women to the vote. Even well-respected female Chartists could often be stifled within the pages of the Northern Star. In 1842 Susanna Inge was seen to cross a line in her criticisms of the paper’s founder, Feargus O’Connor. Similarly, Helen Macfarlane, who was credited by Karl Marx as the only writer on George Julian Harney’s Chartist paper the Red Republican to have ‘original ideas,’ wrote under a male pseudonym, so even the radical press was not necessarily a welcoming haven for women Chartists.

It is clear that women’s relationship with both Chartism and the press was complex. The conservative press fervently opposed female involvement in anything outside the home and ridiculed and belittled female Chartists. However, many women continued to assert their place within radicalism and became prominent and influential within the movement, even if they were not welcomed by all. Despite the contentious nature of their involvement, women were significantly involved in Chartism.

This article was written by Phoebe Scott, a third year undergraduate at Sheffield Hallam University, and is based on research for her final year dissertation on women and Chartism.

Primary sources
Punch, 5th November 1842
The Sheffield Independent, 22nd October 1842.
The Times, 25th October 1842.
The Satirist or Censor of the times, 11th December 1842.
The Times, 30th January 1839.
The Times, 13th April 1848.
The Bradford Observer, 3rd November 1842.
Northern Star, 26th March 1842.
Chartist Circular, 12th September 1840.
Northern Star, 1st July 1843.
Northern Star, 18th November 1843.
Northern Star, 8th July 1843.
Northern Star, 11th October 1851.
Dundee Courier, 5th March 1851
Northern Star, 26th May 1849
Northern Star 6th January 1849

Secondary Sources:
J. Yeo, ‘Chartism, gender, and autobiography’.
M. Chase. ‘Building Identity, Building Circulation: Engraved Portraiture in The Norther Star’ in J. Allen and O. R. Ashton (ed.) Papers for the People, a Study of the Chartist Press, (Merlin, 2005).
Chartist ancestors, Helen Macfarlane.