women chartists

Female Chartist organisations, 1838-1851

From Female Radical Associations to Chartist Societies, Political Unions, and Democratic Associations, Chartist women came together to build perhaps as many as 200 local bodies across the country through which to organise and campaign for the vote. This page looks at some of those groups.

Ninety-three female Chartist groups mapped. Click to view in Google Maps.

In August 1841, more than seventy delegates from Chartist localities converged on the City of York for a meeting to welcome Feargus O’Connor on his release from prison. The proceedings were not particularly momentous, being mostly concerned with the festivities that would greet ‘the liberated patriot’; but there was one feature which made this a unique event.

For among those taking part were two delegates representing the ‘Bradford females’: Mrs Elizabeth Ellis and Mrs Elizabeth Sumper (Northern Star, 4 September 1841, p6). There is, unfortunately, no record of anything either of them may have said at the conference, but the very fact of them having been there is remarkable. There is no other recorded instance in which women’s organisations were represented at a delegate event, regional or national. And, intriguingly, although Bradford was a Chartist stronghold, there were no representatives of the Bradford men at York that day.

Part of the delegate list carried in the Northern Star. Click for larger image.

Bradford was far from unique in having a women’s Chartist organisation. At Elland near Huddersfield, the Female Radical Association held its first public meeting on 19 March 1838 – some months ahead of the Charter’s publication – to agitate against the New Poor Law and workhouse system. Twenty-nine members enrolled and paid their entrance money, and there were three speakers: Elizabeth Hanson, Mary Grassby and Mrs Farnley (NS, 24 March 1848, p5). Like the many pre-existing male radical societies, the Elland FRA would swiftly evolve into a Chartist body – a report of the West Riding Delegate Meeting held on 18 January the following year passed a resolution thanking the female radicals of Elland for their ‘liberal donation’ to the proposed National Convention. They were not, however, represented at the delegate meeting (NS, 2 February 1839, p8).

Some sources refer to the Elland organisation as the Elland Anti Poor Law Association. And as women often played a central role in opposition to the Poor Law system, it was probably one of several such bodies.

The first definitively Chartist organisation, however, was the Birmingham Women’s Political Union1. Birmingham had been a centre of opposition to slavery, with many women involved in that campaign, and the (male) Birmingham Political Union had been at the forefront of the campaign behind the Reform Bill in 1832. The BPU was revived under the same middle-class leadership five years later when it originated what would become the first Chartist petition. A BPU-organised meeting in Birmingham Town Hall in April 1838 was said to have been attended by 1,200 women. By September of that year the Women’s Political Union was up and running with 3,000 paid-up members. Though its meetings were typically chaired and addressed by men, the BWPU had two places on the BPU Council – held by Miss Mary Ann Groves and Mrs Birch – and its chairwoman (the BWPU’s own word) Mrs Lapworth would eventually move beyond the BPU position to support exclusive dealing, and greater political rights for women.

Photo and papers left by City of London Chartist Susanna Inge. Click for larger image.

Many of the female political unions and radical associations that came into being in 1838 and 1839 looked to the BWPU for leadership. When in September 1838 ‘a very crowded Meeting of females’ gathered to petition for repeal of the New Poor Law and to form a Carlisle Female Radical Association, its chairwoman, Mrs Catharine Moore, noted that it had an additional purpose: ‘to act in conjunction with the Female Radical Association of Birmingham in petitioning parliament to pass the “people’s charter” ’ (Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838, p3). Carlisle, too, had a history of female radical organisation – in its case dating back to the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre (Carlisle Patriot, 2 October 1819).

The Carlisle Female Radical Association appears to have been well organised. It elected Mrs Moore as its president and a committee of ten to lead it. Just a few weeks later, around 200 of its members marched behind the newly made female radical association banner at a grand demonstration called by the ‘Radicals of Cumberland’ in support of the People’s Charter and National Petition. The Carlisle Journal described the banner: ‘On one side of this flag was a representation of a woman and three children, and a Poor Law Commissioner directing the children to be separated from the mother. Motto – “Tyrants! Beware! Think ye a mother’s love is not stronger than your laws?” On the other side a representation of a man and wife being separated by a Poor Law Commissioner. Motto – “What God has joined together let not man put asunder” ’ (27 October 1838, p3).

The Carlisle radicals’ efforts were rewarded with visits from George Julian Harney, who paid tribute to the town’s ‘excellent and formidable female radical association’ (Carlisle Journal, 5 January 1839), and Feargus O’Connor (Carlisle Journal, 12 January 1839, p3), who was presented by Mrs Moore and Miss Jane Hurst of the female radical association with the gift of a green woolen plaid – green being the Chartist colour. Unfortunately, though both women addressed the meeting, the Journal’s reporter declared himself ‘unable to hear a single word’ they said – though he added that Mrs Moore ‘appeared to speak with great feeling and earnestness of manner’.

Naming the organisation

Chartist women’s organisations, at least in the early years, adopted a variety of names. Taking their lead from Birmingham, there were female political unions in Nottingham, Newcastle, Ashton under Lyne, South Shields, and north of the border in Dunfermline, Forfar, and Montrose. Others called themselves female radical associations, including at Middleton, Leigh, and Hyde, at Wandsworth in London, and in Scotland at Perth and Irvine. It is possible that these built on earlier pre-Chartist organisation or had broader political agendas, however this may also have been the best available name for a women’s counterpart to the working men’s associations then being established. The London Working Men’s Association which formed a model for these organisations notably did not admit women members, though its most effective missionary, Henry Vincent, was involved in setting up the Bath Female Radical Association (The Charter, 25 August 1839).

With the first convention descending into disagreements over tactics and strategy in early 1839, George Julian Harney, an advocate of arming, was present at a meeting in London’s Red Lion Square to launch a Female Democratic Association (Weekly True Sun, 9 March 1839). This soon became the London Female Democratic Association (The Operative, 14 April 1839), and was followed by similarly named organisations at Cheltenham (The Charter, 25 August 1839), and Norwich, which had elected Harney as a delegate to the convention (Bury and Norwich Post, 27 March 1839).

Elsewhere, Calton and Mile End  in Glasgow had a Female Universal Suffrage Association (NS, 26 September 1840), Hanley in Staffordshire was home to the Pottery Female Chartist Society (London Standard, 23 May 1839), and there were numerous Female Chartist Associations, including at Trowbridge in Wiltshire (Coventry Herald, 10 May 1839, repeated from the Wilts Gazette), Hawick (Northern Liberator, 19 October 1839), and Newport in South Wales (Dorset County Chronicle, 21 November 1839).

However, with the launch of the National Charter Association in 1840, the term ‘Female Charter Association’ became almost universal. Some of these were simply the old radical associations and political unions under a new name, though others were undoubtedly new groups.

Structure and activity

Where it is possible to identify the internal structure of female Chartist organisations, these tend to follow a pattern familiar from the numerous trade unions, short-time committees, co-operative societies and other radical groups of earlier years – including, most likely, female anti-poor law committees. The London Female Democratic Association was typical, with a president, treasurer, secretary and in theory seven committee members (The Operative, 14 April 1839). At its launch, the London committee included Susannah Brown as president, Mary Elizabeth Warren as treasurer, Elizabeth Neesom as secretary, and six committee members: Martha Malcolm, Mary Ireland, Sarah Dymmock, Elizabeth Turner, Mary Palmer and Mary Chapman. They agreed that the association would meet weekly, on a Monday evening at the Democratic Rooms, Ship-yard, Temple Bar, with each member contributing a penny a week.

Such meetings were expected to enrol new members, transact business, organise fund-raising and petition-signing activities, invite speakers and express the views of their members – there was little point in passing a resolution or address if it was not then sent to the Northern Star and other sympathetic newspapers  for publication. Exclusive dealing (buying food and other goods for the family only from sympathetic shopkeepers) fell to women – and inevitably it was in large part the women’s organisations which would identify who should be boycotted and who supported. There were also, at least in the early years of Chartism, regular marches and public meetings to attend, with banners flying where possible, and female Chartists were expected to present big name speakers with silk cockades, scarves, plaids and other gifts on behalf of the local radical community. At a soiree in Newcastle to mark the release of some of the Chartist prisoners, members of the Female Radical Association were invited to deliver a ‘beautifully composed and spirited address’ before the chairman ‘threw over the necks of Messrs White and Burn two massive and beautiful silver chains’.

Chartist women’s organisations often went beyond the purely ceremonial or bureaucratic work involved in advancing the radical cause. At Elland in February 1838, the Female Anti-Poor Law Association famously confronted the Poor Law Commissioner Thomas Power, and ‘rolled him in the snow’.  At Cheltenham, members of the Female Chartist Association ‘attended St Mary’s Church in considerable numbers’ to make their presence felt (Cheltenham Journal, 31 August 1839). That summer, with feelings running high following Parliament’s rejection of the first petition, Chartists in Cockermouth armed themselves with pikes; while according to the local Cumberland Pacquet, members of the Female Chartists Association took to carrying ‘small daggers, about eight inches long, sharp-pointed, and barbed on both sides, which they are enabled to conceal about their persons’ (16 July 1839). ‘Nearly the whole of the respectable inhabitants’ were sworn in as special constables and a force of fifty privates, three sergeants and a trumpeter, commanded by two officers, were marched into town to maintain order.

A woman’s place

Chartist women’s organisations faced inevitable opposition and ridicule. Women Chartists were belittlingly described as ‘she-chartists’ in the press; they were accused of abandoning their families and domestic duties, and undermining their husband’s rightful place at the head of the home; and there were insinuations about their motives for wishing to become involved in politics. The Cockermouth Chartist women, it was suggested, had a fancy for men in uniform and were quite happy to have the army sent in to their town. Female Chartists undoubtedly infuriated many men. In Leicester, ‘the Shaksperean Chartists held a meeting of several thousands on Sunday last, to hear an address from a female Chartist, but in consequence of her receiving a note that if she attempted to speak she would be taken into custody, the address was not delivered’ (NS, 10 September 1842).

They also faced an uphill struggle within the Chartist movement. Many men supported their female relatives’ involvement in politics, and in some places the leading male and female Chartists were married couples – among them Abraham and Elizabeth Hanson in Elland, Charles and Elizabeth Neesom in East London, and Thomas and May Paris in Greenwich. In Newport, John Frost’s daughter was reported to be secretary of the female Chartists. And William Lovett later came to regret not including women’s voting rights in the People’s Charter. But Feargus O’Connor was not alone in regarding women Chartists as little more than useful helpers and supporters of their husbands – auxiliaries to the cause. The vocal male opponent of women’s political rights who unwittingly helped propel Susanna Inge and Mary Ann Walker to fleeting newspaper fame with his intervention at a City of London Female Charter Association meeting appears to have been a Chartist.

O’Connor and his allies expected women to keep their radicalism within boundaries: when Susanna Inge dared take issue with him on the governance of Chartism, the Northern Star simply declined to publish her letter – and nothing more was heard of her within its pages.

At Dundee, where Chartism was organised along trade lines, each trade sent its president and one delegate for every fifty members it had to a city-wide ‘democratic council’ (Leeds Times, 22 January 1842). Though this council had twenty-nine members, including three ‘youths’, the hundred-strong Female Chartist Association ‘has not the privilege of sending a single representative to the council, to watch over the rights of women’.

After 1842: decline and fall?
Click image to download exhibition slides of Chartist women in Sheffield.

Since the 1970s, historians have largely agreed that women’s involvement in Chartist declined after 1842. More recently, however, this has been challenged by Dr Matt Roberts3,4, who argues that there is simply too little evidence to support this argument – not least because the Chartist press, which is the main source for information on Chartist women’s organisations, was itself in decline after 1842, so there are fewer places to look.

The effective nationalisation of Chartist organisation after 1840, when all but a few local bodies became in effect branches of the National Charter Association, will also have had a significant impact on the evidence for women’s organisation. Unlike many previous bodies, the NCA recruited men and women on equal terms. Despite this, Roberts identifies a total of fifty-two separate female Chartist groups in the period 1843 to 1851, and suggests that earlier estimates from Dorothy Thompson and Jutta Schwarzkopf5 of 150 such bodies over the whole period 1838-51 should be revised up to some 200. There is, too, evidence that, organised or not, women continued to support the Chartist cause in large numbers. When the 1848 Chartist petition was presented to Parliament, the House of Commons clerks who counted it noted that women accounted for 8.2% of signatures

Even at the very end of the Chartist movement, female Chartists continued to organise. Roberts has done much to recover the story of the Sheffield Women’s Rights Association, launched in 1851 under the umbrella of Sheffield’s Chartist movement. Its politics clearly indicated by its name, the Sheffield WRA sent the first ever petition in favour of women’s suffrage to Parliament. Its story is told in the exhibition slides created by Matt Roberts and Denise Annett on Sheffield Chartist Women (above right) and in the video below.

Where were they?

Drawing together mentions in both the Chartist and local press, Roberts’ list in ‘Women and Late Chartism’, and the twenty Scottish groups identified by Alexander Wilson,6 I have been able to identify 93 Chartist women’s groups. In trawling the British Newspaper Archives for evidence, I have been strict in including groups only where there is some indication that a formally constituted body exists, which has meant excluding instances where, for example, it was reported that ‘the female Chartists of this town’ donated to Chartist causes or attended mixed-sex meetings if there is no other evidence of separate organisation. Where the same town had a female radical association or similar, and in a later year a female Chartist association, I have included only a single entry in the belief that these were often the same groups under different names or at least had a substantial overlap of members. Possible exceptions to this rule include London, where there is little evidence of any overlap between the activities of Elizabeth Neesom’s Female Democratic Association and its successors and the City of London Female Charter Association, and Bradford, which appears to have had several female Chartist groups in different areas of the town.

The geographical spread of the groups is predictable and largely matches the areas where Chartist organisation was strongest. There is a concentration in the West Riding of Yorkshire and from there across into East Lancashire, with another grouping in London. In Scotland, they are mostly clustered across the more populous central belt – though special mention should be made of the Mount Pleasant Female Chartist Association in Thurso, which was quite likely the northernmost Chartist organisation of all.

Sources and notes

1. Women and the People, by Helen Rogers (Ashgate, 2000) tells the story of Birmingham Women’s Political Union.

2. The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, by Dorothy Thompson (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2013) contains an important chapter on Chartist women.

3. Matthew Roberts, ‘Women and Late Chartism: Women’s Rights in Mid-Victorian England’, in  The English Historical Review, 136: 581, August 2021. Open access.

4. Matthew Roberts ‘Women, Late Chartism, and the Land Plan in Nottinghamshire’ in Midland History, 48:2, 2023. Open access.

5. Women in the Chartist Movement, by Jutta Schwarzkopf (Macmillan, 1991).

6. The Chartist Movement in Scotland, by Alexander Wilson (Augustus M. Kelley, 1970)