Women’s Chartist associations

Women’s Chartist associations existed across the country, especially in the early years of Chartism, but faced an uphill struggle to be heard both within Chartism and more widely.

More than 100 Chartist women’s groups are known to have been formed in the early years of Chartism, with perhaps another 50 identifiable during the 1840s.

They can be found in all parts of the country, from Aberdeen to Bath and from London to Leeds under a variety of formal names – Female Radical Associations giving way to Female Political Unions and Women’s Charter Associations and in at least one case to a Female Democratic Association.

The meetings of a few of these bodies were recorded if only in outline in the radical press. The Elland Female Radical Association found a ready outlet in the Northern Star, at least until the paper’s move away from Leeds; likewise meetings of the Birmingham Female Political Union were reported in the Birmingham Journal.

But as is the case with so many local Chartist organisations, little has survived of many women’s groups beyond brief references to the fact of their existence.

Identifying anything about the women involved in these organisations is more difficult still – not least because so few are named at all, and where they are named we are often given no more than a surname to go on: “Mrs Jones was called to the chair”.

Nevertheless, the table below names 103 women involved in various Chartist organisations and the lists the activities that earned them a mention at the time. The names can be added to a list of 44 Chartist women in Scotland to be found elsewhere on Chartist Ancestors.

Women’s Chartist associations of all varieties

Address of the Female Radicals of Elland
Address of the Female Radicals of Elland (click for larger version).

There was no such thing as a typical women’s Chartist organisation or female radical association.

At one end of a spectrum was the Elland Female Radical Association, which emerged along with much of Chartism in the North of England from the resistance to the New Poor Law.

Not shy of engaging in national debate, in a now well known “address” published by the Northern Star (14 April 1838) it urged the newly pardoned Tolpuddle Martyrs to support the leaders of a Glasgow cotton spinners’ strike who had themselves been sentenced to transportation.

But its members also adopted a robust approach to politics in their own community. In an account of the lives of Elland Chartists Abram and Elizabeth Hanson in Chartism: A New History, Professor Malcolm Chase recalls how the Elland women confronted assistant poor law commissioners visiting their town and “treated them to a roll in the snow”.

Such an approach was not unique but it was rare, and women’s Chartist organisations more typically stressed their middle-class respectability. Gorbals Universal Female Suffrage Association, for example, operated under the supervision of a “Committee of Guardians appointed by the male association” (Northern Star, 7 December 1839).

Despite having an elected female treasurer, its accounts were kept by a member of the men’s association, the minutes of its meetings were taken and read out by a male assistant secretary, and the speakers appear to have been entirely male. The women of Gorbals also agreed that in the event of finishing their meeting early, the final hour should be devoted to such activities as “reading instructive essays” and listening to short addresses by members of the Committee of Guardians.

Women’s involvement in Chartism

Women played a significant part in Chartism. The Chartist movement was renowned for its social life, and within the family there was much over which women had control – for example, in the way children were cared for and brought up – which helped to define the politics of Chartism.

Thousands signed the great Chartist petitions to Parliament, and in addition they:

  • collected money for Chartist funds, and signatures for petitions both on directly Chartist concerns and on wider issues, for example in opposition to the New Poor Law;
  • organised and attended soirees and other social events which combined entertainment and political speeches;
  • attended rallies either as individuals or as delegations from female suffrage organisations, and were often asked to make presentations to famous speakers;
  • were found in the pews of Chartist churches;
  • took part in strikes;
  • were involved in rioting, for example during the general strike of 1842 and following the Bradford rising of 1848;
  • joined the Chartist Land Company as individuals; and
  • contributed to the Chartist press.

In doing so, however, they had to contend with hostility and personal attacks in public meetings and in the press, and were typically viewed by male Chartists as providing a useful adjunct to their own political activities.

Hostility to women Chartists

The very existence of Chartist women was treated with incredulity, with local newspaper accounts of the setting up of female Chartist organisations picked up from their source and repeated endlessly by newspapers across the country, sometimes with the word female italicised to highlight the point.

The assault generally followed along familiar lines: that “respectable” women would have nothing to do with Chartism, that women were easily swayed by physically attractive male politicians, and that in any event it would be rude to argue with a woman and their views should therefore be ignored.

As one local newspaper, neatly combining the first two objections, told its readers as the first wave of Chartism was collapsing in a wave of arrests and prosecutions:

“We no longer hear of Mr George Julian Harney; and we believe he no longer hears from Norwich. Even the females, with whom he was a great favourite, have dropped their correspondence, especially since they have learned that Mr Harney is a married man. No more cash, therefore, goes from Norwich for this purpose. The members of the ‘Female Democratic Association’ have lately done little but get drunk and quarrel, and knock the windows of the rooms in where they met about their husbands &c” (Bury and Norwich Post, 11 December 1839).

Such attacks could become personal.

This unflattering image of Mary Ann Walker appeared in Punch, and as the authors of Images of Chartism note "Punch always found the idea of women Chartists hilarious and there is no reason to suppose that this caricature bears any resemblance to its subject".
This unflattering image of Mary Ann Walker appeared in Punch, and as the authors of Images of Chartism note “Punch always found the idea of women Chartists hilarious and there is no reason to suppose that this caricature bears any resemblance to its subject”.

Reporting a speech by Mary Grassby at a public meeting of the Elland female radicals, the local Halifax Express pitied her husband, adding a warning to its readers that they were paying their local rates so that “Mr Grassby may lie at home at ease with Mrs Grassby and all the little Grassbys”.

She responded in the robust manner typical of the Elland radicals (Northern Star, 17 March 1838), but was not alone in facing personal abuse.
Mary Ann Walker of the City of London Female Radical Association was attacked at public meetings, in the leader columns of The Times, and even in cartoon form in Punch magazine.

Limitations on the role of women in Chartism

There are aspects to women’s involvement in Chartism that seem surprisingly modern. Neither the women’s organisations nor the Chartist press seemed to find anything remarkable in talking of a “chairwoman”. Indeed the Birmingham Female Political Union had a “presidentess”.

But the things that Chartist women’s organisations did not do are in many ways as revealing as the things they did do.

They did not call for the vote for women. Although William Lovett claimed that he had considered including such a demand when first drafting the Charter, there appears to have been little pressure for such a demand from women in the Chartist movement.

They did not attend national conventions (or other delegate bodies), either as representatives of their local Chartist body or specifically on behalf of a Chartist women’s organisation within the locality.

They did not hold separate national or regional conventions of Chartist women’s organisations.

Such an approach was simply not what the Chartist movement expected of its women members, and nor for the most part did they expect it for themselves.

William Pattison, a leading figure in Scottish Chartism, outlined what he saw as the role of Chartist women when speaking at a “grand soiree” organised by the movement in Glasgow at which a number of women spoke, if only briefly, and presented ribbons to the main speakers (Northern Star, 26 September 1840).

“He knew that the females were maligned, more perhaps than any other party, for taking a part in politics. He did assure them that the position which females ought to occupy, was the duties of home and the family circle. But, under the present system of legislation, instead of being allowed to remain at home, they were forced to go and toil in the factory for their existence.”

This meant, he argued, that women had neither the time nor the opportunity to perform their duties as wives and mothers, and that it was for this reason that women now came forward “to honour the men who had advocated those rights and privileges”. Their role, once the Charter was achieved, it seemed, would be to leave the political sphere and return to the family home.

The decline of women’s Chartist associations

By 1840, women’s involvement in Chartism and specifically in female Chartist organisations was in steep decline.

There is no surprise in this. The clampdown on Chartist activity following the failure of the first Chartist petition and the suppression of the Newport rising saw widespread arrests among the national and local leaderships of Chartism and a collapse in activity generally.

However, in the rebuilding of the movement that followed, a new type of politics was more prevalent. The older community based activism that had seen whole families mobilise for Chartism was replaced to a large extent by an approach which excluded women from political debate.

This approach was entirely of a piece with the gradual exclusion of women from large parts of the workforce during the 19th century, and with the increasingly prevalent argument made by working class men for a level of wages which would enable their wives not to have to work.

Dr Helen Rogers of Liverpool John Moores University is the author of a detailed study of the Birmingham Female Political Union (“What right have women to interfere with politics?: The Address of the Female Political Union of Birmingham to the Women of England (1838)” in Explorations in Cultural History). With some 2,000 members this may have been the largest women’s radical organisation in the country.

Dr Rogers concludes that although most reformers enthusiastically welcomed the support of women, “Chartist men failed to provide women with the organisational structures, resources and recogntion that would enable them to sustain regular political activity”.

And she notes that while the Northern Star was happy to publish formulaic messages of support from female Chartists, it was not prepared to see women engaged in political disputes within the movement, simply declining to print their interventions.

Indeed, the City of London Chartist Susannah Inge, one of Chartism’s most successful women speakers, was rapidly slapped down when she dared to criticise the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor. She would disappear from the movement not long afterwards.

Members of female Chartist and radical associations

First nameSurnameAddressLocationActivityNotesSource 
ElizabethHansonElland, nr HalifaxSignatory to the Address of the Female Chartists of Elland.Married to Abram or Abraham Hanson, active in West Yorkshire radical and Chartist circles.Northern Star, 14 April 1838
MaryGrassbyElland, nr HalifaxSignatory to the Address of the Female Chartists of Elland.Northern Star, 14 April 1838
Martha SchofieldElland, nr HalifaxSignatory to the Address of the Female Chartists of Elland.Northern Star, 14 April 1838
HannahStewartElland, nr HalifaxSignatory to the Address of the Female Chartists of Elland.Northern Star, 14 April 1838
ElizabethReadiyhalghElland, nr HalifaxSignatory to the Address of the Female Chartists of Elland.Northern Star, 14 April 1838
Mrs SusannahFearnleyElland, nr HalifaxChaired meeting of Elland women in the Radical Association room.Northern Star, 17 Feb 1838
CatharineMooreWillow HolmeCarlislePresident or Chairwoman of Carlisle Radical AssociationCarlisle Journal, 6 October 1838; Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MaryGalloyCarlisleTreasurer of Carlisle Radical AssociationNorthern Star, 22 December 1838
Margaret CatrelCarlisleSecretary of Carlisle Radical AssociationNorthern Star, 22 December 1838
Miss BettyCleggRochdaleChairwoman of Rochdale Female Radical AssociationNorthern Star, 27 July 1839
Jane StoweKeighleySecretary of Keighley Female Radical AssociationNorthern Star, 12 October 1839
Mrs Lydia HardakerBradfordAllowed her house to be used for meetings of the Wapping (Bradford) Female Radical Association. "Upwards of forty members enrolled themselves."Northern Star, 4 May 1839
MrsMcIlwyCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association. Committee member.Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MrsGilesCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association.Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MrsGrahameCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association.Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MrsWilsonCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association.Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MrsHurstBackhouse's WalkCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838; Northern Star, 22 December 1838
MrsRailtonCarlisleSpoke at a meeting of Carlisle Female Radical Association.Northern Star, 22 December 1838
CatharineLeesLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
AnnRichardsonLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
MaryWhiteLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
ElizabethBlackLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
Maria HolroydLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
MaryWoodLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
CarolineLeesLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds. Treasuer of the association.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
MaryWilsonLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
AnnaPepperLeedsSignatory to an address from the Female Radical Association of Leeds, and secretary to the association.Northern Star, 5 October 1839
MrsHallCummersdaleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs FrancesJohnstonEnglish Damside, CarlisleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs MargaretCooperThe Bog, CarlisleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs MargaretSmithEnglish Damside, CarlisleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs CatharineCooperThe Bog, CarlisleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs SarahElliotTarrabyCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs EllenHodgsonThe Bog, CarlisleCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs SarahHansonBotchergateCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
Mrs MargaretDobsonJohn StreetCarlisleCommittee member, Carlisle Female Radical Association.Carlisle Journal, 6 October 1838
MrsDonaldPaisleyChairwoman of Paisley Female Radical Association at inaugural meeting. "There might be about 400 females present. No males were admitted except reporters and a few members of the Paisley Radical Association."Roscommon Journal and Western Impartial Reporter, 11 May 1839
MrsShieldsPaisleySpoke at inaugural meeting of Paisley Female Radical Association. "There might be about 400 females present. No males were admitted except reporters and a few members of the Paisley Radical Association."Roscommon Journal and Western Impartial Reporter, 11 May 1839
Mrs MNicolPaisleySpoke at inaugural meeting of Paisley Female Radical Association. "There might be about 400 females present. No males were admitted except reporters and a few members of the Paisley Radical Association."Roscommon Journal and Western Impartial Reporter, 11 May 1839
MrsHarveyPaisleySpoke at inaugural meeting of Paisley Female Radical Association. "There might be about 400 females present. No males were admitted except reporters and a few members of the Paisley Radical Association."Roscommon Journal and Western Impartial Reporter, 11 May 1839
MrsWilsonPaisleySpoke at inaugural meeting of Paisley Female Radical Association. "There might be about 400 females present. No males were admitted except reporters and a few members of the Paisley Radical Association."Roscommon Journal and Western Impartial Reporter, 11 May 1839
MrsBrownhillSheffieldSpoke at inaugural meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
Mrs SelinaSylvesterSheffieldSpoke at inaugural meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
Mrs CarolineScratchardSheffieldSpoke at inaugural meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
MrsLudlamSheffieldSpoke at inaugural meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
Mrs BarkerSheffieldSpoke at inaugural meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
SarahFodenSheffieldSecretary of Sheffield Female Radical AssociationSheffield Iris, 18 June 1839
Mrs SarahAdamsNorthamptonChair of the Northampton Female Radical Association.The Operative, 23 June 1839
MrsJonesNorthamptonSpoke at a meeting of the Northampton Female Radical AssociationThe Operative, 23 June 1839
Mrs SarahWaddingtonNorthamptonSecretary of the Northampton Female Radical AssociationThe Operative, 23 June 1839
MrsBarkerSheffieldSpoke at a meeting of Sheffield Female Radical Association.Sheffield Iris, 22 October 1839
MrsBowleyHathern, LoughboroughChaired inaugural meeting of Hathern Female Radical Association.Leicestershire Mercury, 2 November 1839
Mrs SGrayCoxhoe, NorthumberlandChaired inaugural meeting of Coxhoe Women's Charter AssociationThe Operative, 23 June 1839
Mrs SWillsDurhamChaired meeting of Durham Women's Charter AssociationAlthough listed under a report for Durham Charter Association, the meeting took place at "Mr Peggal's, Bedford-street, Sunderland".Northern Liberator, 10 August 1839
MrsCampbellSunderlandChaired "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association. Treasurer of Sunderland Women's Charter Association, spoke at meeting.Northern Star, 8 June 1839; Northern Liberator, 7 September 1839
MrsCullyLeicesterChaired public meeting of "about 4,000 persons, about half of whom werewomen" to form Leicester Female Chartist Association."Daughter of the late T R Smart, one of th earliest Chartist leaders".Lincolnshire Chronicle, 9 June 1848
Mrs SandersonSunderlandSpoke at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
MissMcLeishSunderlandSpoke at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
MissWilliamsSunderlandSpoke at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
MissHarrisonSunderlandSpoke at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
Mrs GamsbySunderlandPresent at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
MrsPorterSunderlandPresent at "Great meeting of the patriotic women of Sunderland". Elected to committee of Sunderland Female Charter Association.Northern Star, 8 June 1839
AnnHarrisonSheffieldChairwoman, Sheffield Charter Association, signed address "to the female Chartists of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales".Northern Star, 4 June 1842
Mrs STheoboldHullAddressed mixed male and female meeting "On the condition of woman, social and political". "The gentle 'heroine' of the 'six points'" called on female"Democrats" to join Female Charter Association.Hull Advertiser, 26 January 1849
MrsRogersLeicesterChaired meeting to set up Female Political Union.Leicestershire Mercury, 1 June 1839
CarolineKingCheltenhamSecretary of Cheltenham Female Chartist Association. Report in Cheltenham Journal reproduced in Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers' Gazette, 24 August 1839
MrsFitzgeraldLondonPresided over meeting of East London Female Patriotic Association.The Charter, 17 November 1839
MrsJonesLondonSpoke at meeting of East London Female Patriotic Association."Mrs Jones of Hampton".The Charter, 17 November 1839
MrsNeesomLondonSpoke at meeting of East London Female Patriotic Association.Married to Charles Neesom, Chartist activist.The Charter, 17 November 1839
Mrs AshSheffield"The founder of the Sheffield Female Chartist Association"; sang at meting of Political Victims Association in London.Northern Star, 11 October 1851
Miss SSimmondsBethnal GreenSigned address "From the National Female Chartist Association (branch no 2) to the women of Bethnal Green.Northern Star, 8 July 1848
Charlotte ReesBethnal GreenSecretary of Bethnal Green Female Chartist Association,. "They elect a female chairman and the orators are exclusively women", claimed 1,500 members.Lloyds Weekly Newspaper, 11 June 1848
MrsWhiteLeicesterSpoke at 2,000 strong meeting. Hereford Times, 10 June 1848
MrsSimpsonLeicester"Mrs Simpson said she had been discharged from a situation because she was in favour of Chartism. She recommended exclusive dealing and urged the women present to enrol their names as members of the Female Chartist Association.Hereford Times, 10 June 1848
Miss SusannaIngeLondonAuthor of address to the women of England, Secretary, City of London Female Chartist Association and regular speaker at Chartist meetingsNorthern Star, 2 July 1842, 22 October 1842
Miss Mary AnnWalkerLondonRegular lecturer at Chartist meetings and active in internal Chartist politics. Member of City of London Female Chartist Association.Northern Star, 22 October 1842, 26 November 1842
MrsWyattLondonSpoke at meeting to form City of London Female Chartist Association, and at earlier meetingNorthern Star, 22 October 1842, 17 September 1842
MissMilesLondonSpoke at meeting at Crown and Anchor with Mary Ann Walker and Feargus O'Connor. Played piano at concert for Dr McDouall, acted in amateur dramatics event for National Victim Fund.Northern Star, 26 November 1842, 22 July 1843, 4 November 1843
MissHolmanLondonElected as delegate at meeting of London female Chartists.Northern Star, 17 September 1842
MrsWinderLondonElected as delegate at meeting of London female Chartists.Northern Star, 17 September 1842
HannahLeggethManchesterTreasurer, Manchester Female Charter Association; put name to "Address of the female Chartists of Manchester"Northern Star, 24 July 1841
Sarah CowleManchesterSecretary, Manchester Female Charter Association; put name to "Address of the female Chartists of Manchester"Northern Star, 24 July 1841
Sarah LeatherbarrowBradfordSigned address from the female Chartists of Bradford-road Manchester.Northern Star, 19 February 1842
MaryGrassbyHullSigned "solemn appeal to the people" from the Hull Female Chartist Association.Given as Grassly in the Northern Star, but almost certainly should be Grassby. Not the same Mary Grassby who was active in Elland. This Mary Grassby was married to James Grassby.Northern Star, 2 February 1840
HelenMacfarlaneJournalist for Red Republican, translator of the Communist Manifesto (under pen name Howard Morton).
MrsLapworthBirminghamChaired meeting of the Birmingham Women's UnionBirmingham Journal, 26 January 1839, 1 September 1839, 27 October 1839
MrsOxfordBirmingham"Handed in 10s from Mr Porter, of Bull-street, towards the National Rent" at meeting of Birmingham Women's Political Union.Birmingham Journal, 3 November 1838, 26 January 1840
MrsHenleyBirminghamChaired meeting of the Birmingham Women's Political Union.Birmingham Journal, 23 February 1839, 30 March 1839
MissSouterBirminghamChaired meeting of the Birmingham Women's Political Union.Birmingham Journal, 8 September 1838
MrsBradshawBirminghamSeconded motion to give £10 towards the costs of the National ConventionBirmingham Journal, 8 September 1838
MrsSpinksBirminghamChaired meeting of Birmingham Women's Political Union.Birmingham Journal, 16 March 1839
CarolineBradburyBirminghamPresidentess, Female Political Union of Birmingham; signatory to address "to the women of England".Birmingham Journal, 6 October 1838
Miss AgnesLennoxGlasgowChaired meeting of the Gorbals Female Universal Suffrage Association. Later chairwoman Gorbals Female Charist Association. Northern Star, 7 December 1839, 26 September 1840
MissMcFarlaneGlasgowUnanimously elected treasurer of the Gorbals Female Universal Suffrage AssociationNorthern Star, 7 December 1839
Miss HelenLennoxGlasgowPresented ribbon to Dr McDouall at "grand soiree" in Glasgow.Northern Star, 26 September 1840
MissMuirGlasgowAddressed "grand soiree" in Glasgow on behalf of Calton and Mile End Female Chartist Association, and gave vote of thanks at conclusion of event.Northern Star, 26 September 1840
MissLudsyGlasgowPresented John Collins with silver medal on behalf of Calton and Mile End Female Chartist Association at "grand soiree" in Glasgow.Northern Star, 26 September 1840
MissErskineGlasgowRead address on behalf of Female Chartists of Gorbals at "grand soiree" in Glasgow. Northern Star, 26 September 1840
Miss JLindsayGlasgowSpoke on behalf of Gorbals Female Chartist Association at "grand soiree" in Glasgow.Northern Star, 26 September 1840
MissRoss GlasgowSpoke at "grand soiree" in Glasgow. Daughter of George Ross, Treasurer of Glasgow Charter Association.Northern Star, 26 September 1840
MrsPullenGlasgowSpoke at "grand soiree" in Glasgow. Northern Star, 26 September 1840
Miss Mary GrahamGlasgowSpoke at "grand soiree" in Glasgow. Northern Star, 26 September 1840
Miss ElizabethLindsayGlasgowChaired meeting of Calton and Mile End Female Univesal Suffrage Association.Northern Star, 18 July 1840