Radical Women : from Women Levellers to Women’s Liberation – part 1.




A  course on the history of  Radical  Women part one

I will be teaching part one of  a course on the history of Radical  Women. The course last 10 weeks,  starting  on 5th February and finishing on  16th April. (There is no class on 12th March).

The venue will be the Working Class Movement  Library, 51 Crescent, Salford,  M5 4WX. The cost of the course will be £60. Places can be booked by emailing: redflagwalks@gmail.com.

I have been researching and writing about the history of  radical women for a number of  years. My published work incudes “Up Then Brave Women”; Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918.

The course will include the following sessions:


Women in the English Revolution in the  1640s and 1650s

Women  were active members of the radical group, the   Levellers, marching and taking petitions to Parliament.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the few  women who came to prominence   in the English radical movement of the1 790s. Her treatise, Vindication of the Right of Woman, a follow up to her lesser known work, Vindication   of the Rights of Man, made her a well-known figure in English society, though it did not lead to the creation of a feminist movement.

Women rioters in 1812

Luddism was an organised  workers movement which attacked the machinery taking away their jobs in Nottingham, Yorkshire and Lancashire between 1811 and 1813. Whilst women did not generally play a role in the attacks on mills, they did play a prominent role in the food rioting in Manchester in the spring of 1812.


As the radical  movement  grew into a mass movement in the course of 1819, women stepped onto the political stage organising Female Reform Societies which issued addresses to the public. Women were present at Peterloo,  and were among the dead and injured.

Manchester Female Republicans

In the 1820s women were active in the Republican societies  inspired by the ideas and  writing of Richard Carlile.

Owenite Socialism

Organised groups of workers set up co-operative societies from the late 1820s onwards, inspired by the ideas of Robert Owen. Owen also attacked religion and traditional marriage, leading to a number of women, inspired by his ideas,  such as Emma Martin preaching around Britain in public lectures.


Chartism was mass worker’s movement at its height between 1839 and 1848 which called for wholesale political reform. Women were not among the leaders, but were active at grassroots level.

Trade unions

Lancashire had the highest number of women workers in England, mostly working in the textile industry as weavers. The Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades  Council was set up in 1895 to organise women in lowest paid industries into unions.

Women and Socialism

Women played an active role in the various socialist organisations which came into being in the 1880s and 1890s.

Votes for Women!

The struggle for Votes for Women  lasted from 1866 to 1928. Manchester played an important role in all phases of the movement, both militant and non-militant. This session will include the role of working class women in the suffrage campaign.



Some reflections on Mike Leigh’s film “Peterloo”….

As a socialist historian who has researched and written about Peterloo and included it in my  history courses on Radical Manchester, I was  very much looking forward to Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo.  Clearly a great deal of research has been done and a great deal of time and money expended on the production with many fine performances  from all of the cast. I particularly liked  Neil Bell’s portrayal of Sam Bamford, whose memoir Passages in the Life of a Radical , published in 1844 is  a key source on  the events of 1819.

And yet, whilst accepting that a story of such magnitude cannot be  told in full (even in a film which lasts 154 minutes)  I  was left frustrated by  some of the  omissions in the story. In my view the time spent in the first half,  showing the many meetings held in the months before Peterloo, could have been  curtailed and instead the film could have shown events such as  the  March of the Blanketeers which took place in  Manchester in March   1817.

Several hundred marcher assembled at St Peter’s Fields (the same spot where Peterloo took place two years later),  intending to march  to London to present petitions  to the Price Regent. They carried blankets to sleep in on the way.  Before  they  set off, they were addressed by Samuel  Drummond and John Bagguley, who  attacked the excessive spending of the government, high rents, the Corn Laws, the libel laws, the suspension of habeas corpus  and the Prince Regent’s ministers.  Drummond said . . . “. We will let them see it is not riot and disturbance we want, it is bread we want and we will apply to our noble Prince as a child would to its Father for bread.”

One local magistrate noted the presence of female radicals.”The women of the lower class seem to take  a strong part against the preservation of good order and in the course of the morning of the 10th, it was very general and undisguised cry amongst them that the gentry had had the upper hand long enough and that their  turn has now come.”

The marchers never got to London. Instead,  shortly after setting off, they were  pursued by  mounted troops and arrested. Just one man from Stalybridge, Abel Coudwell, allegedly succeeded in getting to London and presenting his petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth. The authorities in Manchester followed up their operation by claiming that “a most daring and traitorous conspiracy “had been discovered  and  on 28 March  arrested a number of reform leaders, including  Samuel Bamford and John Knight.

Another episode not  shown in the film took place in the autumn of 1818 when   thousands of male and female  weavers struck work in Stockport,  Manchester   and Ashton-under-Lyne and marched  between the towns with bands and banners.  Their  mass meetings were addressed by Baguley,  Drummond  and other reformers,  who were thus able to preach to thousands their  message that political reform was the remedy for economic distress .

The Female Reformers of Manchester are shown in the film with part of their eloquent address “Dear Sisters of the Earth” being used,   but there were  also similar societies in other towns.  Women  in Blackburn led the way,  appearing at a public meeting in the town on 5 July. A radical newspaper reported that “they were very neatly dressed for the occasion, and each wore a green favour in her bonnet and cap.” Their address was read to the assembled crowd by John Knight, in which The women said they determined  to  instill  into the minds of  their children”

“… a deep rooted abhorrence of tyranny, come in what shape it may, whether under the mask of civil and religious government, and particularly of the present borough-mongering and Jesuitical system which ahs brought the best artisans, manufacturers, and labourers of this vast community, to a state of wretchedness and misery  and driven them to the very verge of beggary and ruin.“

The film gives the viewer the  impression that  Peterloo was the first  time that Henry Hunt had spoken in Manchester,  but this is not in fact  the case. He had spoken in St Peter’s Fields  in January 1819, invited by the Manchester  radical leaders. Hunt addressed a crowd of at least 8,000 people, a colourful gathering with flags and banners and bands .

The meeting approved a lengthy Declaration  which  set out the Radical  programme in detail.  This   was unequivocal  in its view of  where  political power originated from,   stating  “That  the only source of all legitimate power, is in the People, the whole People and nothing but the People That all governments, not immediately derived from and strictly accountable to the People, are usurpations, and ought to be resisted and destroyed.”  It went on to declare that:

That every individuals, of mature age, and not incapacitated by crime or insanity, has a right to a vote for the election of a Representative in Parliament: and to refuse or with hold from any individuals the exercise of this just and lawful right, is to deprive him of all security for his life, liberty, and property, and reduce him to the abject condition of a slave; for a man cannot be said to be really free, or to enjoy either life, liberty or property, when  these  may, at any time, be taken from him, at the arbitrary will of another: and by laws that are made without his own consent.”

The Declaration also called for annual parliaments and universal suffrage and defended the right of the people to possess arms to defend their liberties.

Hunt stayed on in Manchester for a few days. One evening when visiting the theatre, he was assaulted by a number of military officers who claimed he had hissed when “God Save The King” was called for.  Hunt contacted  Samuel Bamford, who came into Manchester with a party of  ten  hearty young men, carrying cudgels,   to accompany him to the theatre on York Street and protect him if necessary.   They were joined at the pit-door by a group of Irish labourers with the same intention. In the end the manager, Mr Ward, cancelled the performance, whilst Hunt addressed the crowd from his carriage.

I was quite taken aback that the film ended with no account of the numbers killed and injured. In his excellent book The Casualties of Peterloo Mike Bush  estimated  that at least 18 people were killed on the field or died of their injuries some time later, while 654 were reported  injured, many seriously, Bush compiled these numbers  from the various lists drawn up by Committees who raised money to relieve the injured.

Neither does the film say what happened next. In the immediate aftermath there were protest meetings in different parts of the country, while the government targeted Henry Hunt and other reformers  who were jailed for two years. Richard Carlile, who wrote the first account of the events in Sherwin’s Political Register, published just two days later on his return to London,  was jailed in October 1819 for five years  for publishing the works of Thomas Paine.

What happened on 16th August  1819 was not forgotten. When a new mass movement, Chartism, arose  there was a huge meeting on Kersal Moor, Salford in September 1838 at which a number of banners referred to Peterloo. One showed the scene on St Peter’s Fields with the inscription “Murder Demands Justice,” while another bluntly proclaimed  “Slaughter of Our Unarmed and Peaceable Brethren On the Plains of Peterloo, AD 1819”.


Manchester Guardian journalist Madeline Linford writes about Mary Wollstonecraft in 1924

“Introduction” to Madeline Linford’s biography,  Mary Wollstonecraft, published by Leonard Parsons in their Roadmaker series in 1924

Mary Wollstonecraft has her place in history as the great pioneer of the feminist movement. It was she, more than any other person, who laid the first stones of that rough and painful road that has led to the enfranchisement of women and, among civilised races, an almost universal recognition of their rights as human beings.  In her lifetime Mary saw her work scoffed at and shunned; after her death a storm of calumny beat upon her name. But to-day any student reading the history of the women’s movement  back through the patriotic labours of the Great War, the brave, pathetic struggles of the Suffragettes, the few lone efforts of Victorian days, comes inevitably to Mary Wollstonecraft’s name as its founder.

The middle of the eighteenth century, the time of Mary’s birth, was the period when the spiritual condition of women had reached its lowest point. In the first half of the century before, the Puritans had set a high standard of morality, and morality in a nation is the greatest safeguard of her happiness that a woman can have. Reaction came with the Restoration, and the unashamed Seraglio, presided over by Charles II, lowered the status of women all through the country. Little girls were married when their age had barely reached double figures, and a married woman had no legal rights apart from her husband and no control  over her children.  The accession of the gross Kings of Hanover dragged their female subjects still further in the slough of ignorance and aimless latitude. Women had at this time all the penalties of life and few of its honourable privileges. It was perhaps the most brutal age in English history, and a woman suffered for  for any petty crime in the same ruthless way that a man would do.  She could be publicly burned or hanged or flogged, or transported to Botany Bay under conditions of extreme degradation.  She had to stand helplessly by while the development of industrial machinery turned her small children into slaves working fourteen hours a day in factories or mines. The Church did nothing to help her, and the only religious sect that granted her equality with man was the Society of Friends.

The ideal of marriage was very low. The sexual side of it was emphasised and the spiritual entirely ignored. Woman was an animal  created for the physical delight of her husband, and to serve this function all her fragmentary education was directed. Modesty was the virtue most highly  esteemed  in the maiden, and modesty meant, not self-respect, but a sort of veneer of coy and pretty bashfulness which the omnipotent male would be pleased to trample down and smash. Delicate health, ignorance, helplessness, were all encouraged so that they might accentuate the flattering contrast of men’s superiority. The eighteenth-century gentlemen, quick with his sword, over-indulgent to his appetites, and not nice in his choice of language, liked to see his robust powers set off by the languorous, slender-brained creature beside him.

The obvious remedy was the establishment of a better relation between men and women, in which sex would be less predominant and comradeship possible. To the average eighteenth century a woman had no raison  d’etre but the gratification of  her husband and the care of her children.  Those who did not marry were failures, and all they could hope for was that luck should offer some innocent diversion to occupy their idle hours. Education seemed to the few friends of the emancipation of women to be the only way of raising this low ideal. The literature of the eighteenth century is full of reactionary protests against the notion that women deserved a better education than the time had given them. The most famous obscurantist was Rousseau, whose diatribes on the subject are well known. As,  for instance:-

“The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us  when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy….Women are specially made to please men.”

Lord Chesterfield described women as being only children of a larger growth whom a man of sense treats with the playful flattery that he would offer a sprightly child. Addison and Steele bemoaned the frivolity of the sex, and suggested that the great happiness of mankind depended upon the education of women.  In 1776 Dr. Johnson remarked that the ladies of the present age were more faithful to their husbands and more virtuous in every respect than in former times, because their understandings were better cultivated. It is notable that, with the almost sole exception of Mary Wollstonecraft, women writers of the period opposed any movement for the intellectual advancement of their sex. Mrs. Barbauld and Hannah More were among the most emphatic upholders of the theory of female inferiority.  In  1775  the enlightened Elizabeth Montague  proposed  to found and endow a college for the higher education of women , and she offered the post of superintendent to Mrs. Barbauld.  That virtuous lady refused  with horror. Young ladies, she said, ought only to  have such a general tincture of knowledge as to make them agreeable companions   to a man of sense and to enable them to find rational entertainment for a solitary hour. The thefts of knowledge in their sex were all connived at, while carefully  concealed, and if displayed, punished with disgrace. Elizabeth Montague shrugged her shoulders and accepted the standards of her time. The proposal was dropped, and not till seventy years later was any practical step taken for the better education of women.

Such, very briefly, was the state of spiritual darkness in the days when Mary Wollstonecraft passed her short life of thirty-eight years. She herself suffered at every turn from the narrow limits which bounded the range of her sex.  She was hampered by poverty, poor education, the tyranny of men and by the hard conservative bitterness that greeted every step she took towards progress. Her life was nearly all tragedy, and her own impulsive heart led her into actions  which the righteous could do nothing but condemn. But in her private existence she was never known to do an unworthy  or selfish action, and in all that she wrote there is no word where prudence has dictated to conscience or courage failed to stand by the truth as Mary saw it. The sex that bears the children of the race will, to the end of time, carry the heavier burdens of life, but the women of to-day are wonderfully free and honourable beings compared with the weak, sex-ridden creatures of a hundred and fifty years ago. Mary did not live to see any of the improvements for which she had striven. Women had not even begun to raise the herald note of salvation: “What must I do to be saved?”,  and they had no eyes for the little patch of road that Mary Wollstonecraft had laid – a road  that, winding bravely through the years, would carry all the pride and privilege of their granddaughters.

Women at Peterloo

Dear Sisters of the Earth”:  Women at  Peterloo


In October 1816  there was an open air-meeting In Manchester attended by a number from outside Manchester, including Failsworth. On 7 October  a meeting calling for parliamentary reform was held in Stockport  at which speakers asserted  that there had to be a change in government or no government at all.  Resolutions  were passed proposing that parliament be convened immediately to deal with the distress , that the sinecures and standing army be ended, and that parliament be reformed

The revived reform movement attracted a good deal of support amongst working people in the north of England   because of the growing economic distress in industrial towns.


The government reacted swiftly  to this imagined threat with its tried and tested  methods,  honed over three decades of repression; suspending Habeas Corpus until July and passing Acts which  banned public meetings of more than 50 persons. It also rallied its network of  supporters, as in the 1790s,  to  publicly  attack the emerging radical movement.

In Manchester on 13 January 1817 Loyalists  called a meeting “to consider the necessity of adopting additional measures for the maintenance of the public peace”. Speakers at the meeting  denounced  “the numerous meetings held both  publicly and secretly – the organized system of committees, delegates and missionaries”  which “afford strong manifestation of mediated disorder and tumult”. They  established the Association for the Protection  and Support of the Civil Authorities.

In Stockport the same day  Stockport radicals  held another meeting to protest at the Corn Laws and call for parliamentary reform. At the same time the radical  press  and radical  pamphlets were being sold in Stockport such  as Black Dwarf, Sherwin’s Political  Register, Hone’s Political Catechism and Political Litany.  Samuel Bamford said that the writings of Cobbett “were read on nearly every cottage in the manufacturing districts of South Lancashire”.

The Manchester authorities noted in February   that Reformers’ meetings   “are swelled much in numbers  from the moment  the Spinning Factories in the neighbourhood   leave off working  – a proof  that the discontent  is not confined to those  who are distressed, the circumstances of the Spinners  are comparatively  good. This body have of late contributed out of their funds assistance to the Reformers”.

On 3 March the  Manchester  reformers held  a public meeting at which they announced that they intended to march to London to present a petition to the Prince Regent. Marchers were to take a blanket to sleep on and hence it became known as the March of the Blanketeers .

On 10 March a group of several hundred marchers gathered at St Peter’s Fields  as did a  crowd of about 12,000,  who  were addressed by local reformers, including John Bagguley, a Manchester apprentice aged 18,  and Samuel Drummond, a Manchester reedmaker, aged 24.  They attacked the excessive spending of the government, high rents, the Corn Laws, the libel laws, the suspension of habeas corpus  and the Prince Regent’s ministers

One local magistrate noted the presence of female radicals.

The women of the lower class seem to take a strong part against the preservation of good order and in the course of the morning of the 10th, it was very general and undisguised cry amongst them that the gentry had had the upper hand long enough and that their  turn has now come. 

Shortly after the  march had  set off  the magistrates  ordered  the arrest of the speakers, reading the Riot Act,  and using the King’s Dragoon Guards.to  clear the people from the  field. The marchers were pursued by troops and stopped at Stockport’s Lancashire Bridge where 48 were arrested. A number avoided arrest by wading across the Mersey.  Thousands came out to watch the proceedings.  Another 170 were arrested in the Market Place. Some struggled on towards Macclesfield but gave up.  Just one man from Stalybridge, Abel Coudwell, allegedly succeeded in getting to London and presenting his petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth.

The authorities in Manchester followed up their operation by claiming that “a most daring and traitorous conspiracy “ had been discovered  and  on 28 March  arrested a number of reform leaders,   including  Samuel Bamford, John Knight  and Benbow at a meeting in Ardwick. For the time being the authorities had succeeded in disputing radical activity.

For the rest of 1817 there was little radical  activity in Manchester or Stockport Government  repression seems to have worked but it was only a pause, however,  and not an end.


On 3  January 1818 the Manchester Observer began publishing with offices at 18 Market Street. Its founders were John Knight, James Wroe and John Saxton. It helped fan the reviving radical movement and was soon selling in  4,000 copies each week. and circulated  well beyond  Manchester.  Henry Hunt called the Manchester Observer “the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights”.

Throughout the spring reform meetings were held in Manchester and other towns.  Stockport radicals held a meeting on 13 April , chaired by Joseph Bertinshaw, the veteran radical  cobbler.  The meeting passed resolution in favour of annual parliaments, adult male suffrage, reform of taxation and the formation of reform societies.

At the end of July 1818 there were major strikes by spinners, powerloom weavers and handloom weavers for higher wages. This was opportunity for the reformers  to reach a larger audience.  Bagguley addressed a weavers meeting  before the strike and allegedly urged them to arm themselves in preparation got their confrontation with the masters.

On 1 September,  the first day of the weavers strike,  1,222 men and 355 women marched through Stockport with banners and music.  Some of them, joined a reform meeting which  lasted 5 hours and was addressed by Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston.  It dispersed peacefully. The speakers were arrested  and bail was set out the enormous sum of £2,000. Their trial did not take place until the following spring

The following day Stockport weavers, “with many women”  amongst them,     according  to the Manchester Chronicle,”marched to Manchester with music and large banners, including one which read “Seven Shillings in the Pound and No Less”. On 3 September weavers from Manchester came to Stockport and paraded through the streets. The following weavers from Manchester and Stockport went to Ashton to march there. Within days the strike was over with weavers accepting the masters offer, an increase of 10% each month until 35% was met.

In the autumn  the radical  movement in the town revived with veterans John Knight from Manchester and Joseph Mitchell from Liverpool giving support. In October the Stockport Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness was established which within months grew into  the most successful radical organisation the town had ever  known to this . Its objects were the traditional radical programme – universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments and vote by secret ballot. G L  Bolsover, a Stockport surgeon and union member, wrote to Henry Hunt that the object was

…to obtain  a great and positive good, viz equal rights, equal laws, and equal justice; and our weapons being reason , discussion and persuasion, it follows that we shall obtain our object without either anarchy or confusion.

The town was divided into a dozen sections.   The core activity was the provision the holding of weekly classes which consisted of  readings out loud for about 30 minutes,  followed by 30 minutes of general conversation , when,  according to someone who  attended in 1819, “each member states his opinion and ideas of government…” Those attending paid a penny each week, collected by the class leader who forwarded it  to the Union committee where the permanent  secretary was Joseph Harrison and the Treasurer Thomas Cheetham . Other members of the Committee were delegates from each district. The headquarters were the Windmill Rooms on Edward street which also contained a reading room. They also provided reading and writing schools for children, an evening class on for adults and a Sunday school.  where Henry Hunt noted on a visit that scholars were” taught on the basis of of true Christian morality and the spirit of genuine liberty”.  Within year 2,000 children were being taught. It inspired similar  schools in Manchester , Oldham and Bury.  Another Union society was set up at Gee Cross.

Women had already been attending radical meetings but not as  speakers or even as voters. In his memoirs Sam Bamford claimed credit for a radical innovation in the summer of 1818 in the rights of women attending public gatherings.

At one of these meetings , which took place at Lydgate, in Saddleworth…..I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages, voting by show of hand, for, or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it, – and the men being nothing dissentient, – when the resolution was put, the women held up their hands, amidst much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at radical meetings. I was not then aware, that the new impulse thus given to political movement, would in a short time be applied to charitable and religious purposes. But it was so; our females voted at every subsequent meetings; it became the practice, – female political unions  were formed, with their chair-women, committees, and other officials…..

The radical newspaper  Black Dwarf devoted an editorial on  9 September to the “Rights of Women”  which begins by attacking  the so-called “Dandies”.

Some of the present race ashamed to wear a name to which they have no pretensions have adopted a new one. They are no longer Englishmen but “Dandies”! …Their gender is not yet ascertained, but as their principal ambition seems to be to look as pretty as women, it would be uncharitable to call them men.

He then goes on to consider women:

Their arguments are very forcible. They say that since the men abandoned  the cause of freedom, they will support it. They say freedom was a woman and therefore every woman ought to be free. Man, they say, has shamefully deserted his post  – and has no right to control woman; – since he has lost the power of defending himself …that woman can expect no protection from the cowards that cannot protect themselves! And they demand Universal Suffrage in its fullest extent.



On 2 January  the Manchester Observer  called for a vigorous reform campaign. Henry Hunt was invited to speak in Manchester  for the first time.  He  addressed a crowd of at least 8,000 people at a meeting on St Peter’s Fields. It was a colourful gathering with flags and banners and bands . He  urged the assembly not  to waste time sending yet another petition to the House of Commons but draw up a Remonstrance to be  sent directly to the Prince Regent.   The meeting also approved a lengthy Declaration  which  set out the Radical  programme in detail.  This   was unequivocal  in its view of  where  political power originated from,   stating  “That  the only source of all legitimate power, is in the People, the whole People and nothing but the People That all governments, not immediately derived from and strictly accountable to the People, are usurpations, and ought to be resisted and destroyed.”  It went on to declare that:

That every individuals, of mature age, and not incapacitated by crime or insanity, has a right to a vote for the election of a Representative in Parliament: and to refuse or with hold from any individuals the exercise of this just and lawful right, is to deprive him of all security for his life, liberty, and property, and reduce him to the abject condition of a slave; for a man cannot be said to be really free, or to enjoy either life, liberty or property, when  these  may, at any time, be taken from him, at the arbitrary will of another: and by laws that are made without his own consent.

The Declaration also called for annual parliaments and universal suffrage and defended the right of the people to possess arms to defend their liberties.  In its political programme – and even its language –  there are clear continuities with the views expressed by the Levellers at the Putney debates. Thomas Rainborough would have found little to disagree with.

The Black Dwarf reported that

the order of the meeting met with no disturbance : although it would appear that some of the manufacturers were disposed  to do what they could to occasion tumult.  Some of them, it is said, actually locked their men in the manufacturies, lest they should attend the meeting! That this should  occur in England  is certainly , after all our boasting a melancholy circumstances; for its shews that our boasted liberty is bauble – our freedom a mere name, not worthy of our treasuring in sound. …Upon  such a subject  the wish the duty to attend was naturally felt by the  mechanics and artizans of Manchester. They posses a high degree of  political intelligence; and upon subjects of political economy, they know more in tenfold degree than the tyrants who oppress them

As the reform movement gathered momentum    women  stepped onto the public stage, setting up   Female Reform societies in Manchester, Stockport, Blackburn, Oldham and Royton.

Blackburn women  led the way,  setting up their society on 18 June.  On 5  July the Female Reformers  attended a very large outdoor  public meeting, chaired by John Knight This is  a report from Black Dwarf:

The Committee of the Blackburn Female Reform Society appeared at the entrance to the ground, and were desirous of approaching the hustings. – they were very neatly dressed for the occasion, and each wore a green favour in her bonnet and cap.  No sooner did our worthy Chairman perceive the anxiety of the ladies to make their way through the immense crowds, than her signified his wish that road might be opened for the accommodation of the Committee of the FeMale Reform Society; which was no sooner said, than the request was instantly complied with.  The ladies ascended the hustings amidst the reiterated acclamations of the people which continued for several minutes before the silence could be restored. The ladies then stepping forward toward the chairman; one of them, with becoming diffidence and respect, presented him with a most beautiful Cap of Liberty, made of scarlet silk or satin, lined with green, with a serpentine gold lace, terminating with a rich gold tassel.

No language can express the torrent of appreciation that spontaneously burst from the people “LIBERTY” or DEATH” was vociferated from every mouth – the tear of welcome sympathy seemed to trickle from every eye “God Bless the women”, was uttered from every tongue; in fcat, imagination can only do justice to this interesting scene.

Alice Kitchen made a short speech, a rare  example of  a woman  at this time speaking in public:

Will you Sir, accept this token of our respect to these brave men who are nobly struggling for liberty and life: by placing it at the head of your banner, you will confer a lasting obligation on the Female Reformers of Blackburn. We shall esteem  it as an additional  favour, if the address which I deliver into your hands,  be read to the Meeting: it embraces a faint  description of our woes and may apologise for our interference  in the politics  of our  country. Black Dwarf,  14 July 1819, pp.455- 456.

Alice’s speech was greeted with  very great applause. John Knight then read the address which  began:

The members of the Blackburn Female Reformers, beg leave,  with the greatest diffidence and respect, to render into your hands the emblem that has ever been held scared , in the most enlightened ages of our history and particularly to our ancestors , who contributed much to the fame of our beloved country. In presenting this Cap of liberty, which we trust no ruffian banditti will be allowed to wrest from your hands but with the forfeiture of your existence, we hope it will not be deemed presumptious to offer  a faint sketch  of the misery and sufferings we are doomed to endure; and which we are thoroughly convinced, arise  from the misrule of a profligate system of government.

The women said that they came forward  determined  to   instill  into the minds of  their children

 a deep rooted abhorrence of tyranny, come in what shape it may, whether under the mask of civil and religious government, and particularly of the present borough-mongering and Jesuitical system which ahs brought the best artisans, manufacturers, and labourers of this vast community, to a state of wretchedness and misery  and driven them to the very verge of beggary and ruin.

They stated that their homes

which once bore ample testimony, of our industry and cleanliness, and were once fit for the reception of a prince, are  now,  alas!,  robbed for all their ornaments, and our beds, that once afforded us cleanliness, health and sweet repose , are now  torn away from the us by the relentless hand of the unfeeling tax-gatherer, to satisfy the greatest monsters of cruelty, the borough-mongering tyrants…..But above all , behold our innocent wretched children! Sweet emblems of our mutual love!  how appalling are their cries for bread! We are daily cut to the heart to see them greedily devour the coarse food that some would scarcely give to their swine “

The women finished  by  addressing themselves directly  to men@

We the Female Reformers of Blackburn, therefore  earnestly entreat you and every man in England, in the most solemn manner, to come forward and join the general union, that by a determined and constitutional resistance to our oppressors, the people  may obtain annual parliaments, universal suffrage and election by ballot, which alone can save us from lingering misery and premature death. We look forward with horror to an approaching winter, when the necessity of food, clothing, and every requisite will increase double-fold… Black Dwarf,  14 July 1819, p. 456.

William Cobbett commented on the address.

Never was there a paper that did more honour to its authors than did this address. Unaffected, clear, strong eloquent and pathetic; the heart that dictated it is worthy of the fairest and most tender bosom, and the heart that remains unarmed by it is unworthy of the breast of a human being. We shall, by and by, see this address, side by side with the address of a Queen; and then, we will challenge the “higher orders” to a comparison of the two. The men, of what our foes have the insolence to call the “lower orders”  have, long since, shown their superiority , in point of mind, over the self-styled “higher orders”, and now we have  before us the proof that  our sisters surpass them in the same degree. We have too long, much too long, had the false modesty to admit, as a matter of course, that we were inferior to them in knowledge and talent. This gross and mischevious error is now, thank God, corrected.

Black Dwarf opined:

I have news to tell thee – news that will make thy heart leap with satisfaction; as I know thee to be advocate of female heroism, and a zealous  advocate for the rights of woman, as well as of the rights of man…Here the ladies are determined at last to speak for themselves; and they address their brother reformers in very manly language. …this array of women against the system my friend, I deem  the most fatal omen  of its fall.

Conversely  the women were attacked by anti-reformers  in a pro-government newspaper, the Courier on 15 July,  for abandoning domestic considerations for political consideration

Of the degraded  females who thus exhibited  themselves, we know nothing, and should care less, if we did not discern, in their conduct the strongest proof of the corruption of their husbands, fathers and brothers. We consider, therefore, the fact of these women, thus deserting their station, as a painful evidence that their male kindred, in the pursuit of their guilty objects, have disunited themselves from those social ties and endearments which are the best pledges of their fidelity to their God , their country and their King  L

We have lately witnessed a new contrivance for the ruin of society: Female Establishments, for demoralizing the rising generation: Mothers instructed to train their infants to the hatred of every thing that is orderly and decent, and to rear  up Rebels against Good and State. Hitherto, this diabolical attempt has been confined to the most degraded of the sex:  and it is to be hoped, that no woman  who  has a spark of virtue or honor remaining in her character, will engage in a scheme so disgusting and abominable.  Quoted in Robert Glen, Urban workers p.232

The women were also  attacked in a cartoon The Belle Alliance or the Female Reformers of Blackburn, by George Cruikshank, in which they are portrayed as harridans.

A female reformer from Ashton sent a letter to the women in Blackburn congratulating them on forming the Society. She argued against waiting patiently for the rulers of the country to grant political redress because “hope hath failed and it is ridiculous to look any more  to that quarter.”  She declared that “if the reformers have both women and truth  on their side, they cannot fail of proving victorious…let there be no more begging  and praying ”.  If reform was not granted, they should urge men to take direct action, they had “nothing to lose but [their] lives ; and those  will be better lost than kept, on the terms that we hold them at present”. She concluded that “we are on the precipice  from which there is no retreat…let us boldly take the plunge for there is no other way left but either slavery or exertion.. Let us prove we are true-born English women and that we are determined to bear this illegal  oppression no longer ”.

It was reported  in a hostile report in the  Morning Post that the Blackburn women had held a  meeting on the morning of  15 July:

With the names of the Chairwomen  and different lady speakers it would be idle to trouble you: they can never shine brighter than by being left in their native obscurity. The business of the day was to consider of the best means of  forwarding the great object for which they have abandoned their proper domestic cares, and given themselves up to mania of mending Constitution, to the neglect of the more fitting occupation of mending their husband’s breeches.  It was, after some discussion, unamimously that the Members  should go in parties to the public market on Thursday next, and endeavour by every means at their disposal to win people over the cause of Reform,   Morning  Post 19/7/1819, p. 3

There was no female reform society in Middleton because, it appears, that women in the village were allowed full membership in the reform union.

The Stockport Female Union was founded on 12 July at the third meeting of the women reformers.  They  decided that each class should number twelve  and that a committee of twelve would  run the Union, six to go out office every six weeks. They explained in their Articles of Association   that it  had been founded “for the purpose of co-operating with their male associates”.

We who form and constitute  the Stockport Female Union Society, having reviewed for a considerable time past  the apathy, and frequent insult of our oppressed countrymen, by those sordid and all-devouring fiends, the Borough-mongering Aristocracy, and in order to accelerate the emancipation of this suffering nation, we, do declare, that we will assist the Male Union formed in this town, with all the might and energy that we possess, and that we will adhere to the principles, etc., of the Male Union…and assist our Male friends to obtain legally,  the long-lost Rights and Liberties of our country.

In their rules they pledged themselves to:

 “collectively and individually to instill into the minds of our children a thorough knowledge of  their natural and inalienable rights, whereby they shall be able to form  just and correct notions of those legalised banditti of plunderers, who rob their parents of  more than half the produce of their labours; we also pledge ourselves to stimulate our husbands, and sons to imitate  the ancient Romans, who fought to a man  in defence of their liberty and our daughters  and female friends to imitate the Spanish women, who,  when   their husbands, sons and other kindred had gone out to fight in defence of their freedom, would rather have heard of the death of any of them, than their deserting the standard  of liberty.    Lancaster Gazette, 31/7/1819, p. 4.

They appealed for  correspondence  from like-minded societies so that a “national union of sentiment can be formed”. All communications to Mrs Hallam at  the  Union Rooms, Union Place,  Stockport.

That same day (12 July)  the Blackburn women visited Manchester and paraded “different parts of the town, but particularly the neighbourhood of  Newtown, in the costume that made such an impression at the late meeting in Blackburn”. They then attended a meeting of the Manchester Female Reform Society at the Union Rooms on George Leigh Street.

The second meeting of the Stockport Female Reformers took place on 19 July in the large room at the Windmill. Mrs Stewart moved that Mrs Hallam be president as she knew her  from her well tried principles. She accepted and asked the men present  to withdraw because  “if in our debates (for it is something new  for women to turn  political orators) we should  for want of knowledge  make any blunders,  we should be laughed at, to prevent which we should prefer being by ourselves.” The men immediately obeyed.

Mrs Hallam  said:

Ladies, you have this evening placed me in a situation which I never occupied before, I kindly thank you for the honour you have done me, but cannot help observing  that  I am a very unfit person for the office, but as you have placed me here to protect order and peace, I will perform the task as well  I am able. I assure you that I am determined to dedicate to Liberty,  my heart, my body, yea, my very life (unbounded applause with cries of “Liberty”) I  am young , but Ladies, young as I am, I can assure you, that the Borough villains have furnished me with such a woeful life of  wretched experience, that I can feel for myself, and equally with myself feel for my injured, plundered country- women, this feeling is so acute, that an eternal war is waged betwixt us , which will never end, but in the emancipation  of a distressed and over burthened people from slavery to Liberty (reiterated applause)…These are sentiments I imbibed when almost a child , and as i grow older, the grumbling spirit goes (Laughter) I thank you Ladies for your  kind attention, but assure you, I do   not look for your applauses, applaud me not, it cannot please me, for I consider it my duty to use every ability in the cause without receiving any reward at all for my weak endeavours. It is a good cause, it is the cause of God…for its is the cause of the people and the voice of the people is the voice of God. ..we therefore are sure to triumph.  Seeing then, that it  is the common cause, let us all  unite, and never cease from persevering in a cause so just and holy, until we possess  those constitutional liberties and privileges which are the birth-right of every Englishman and woman.

In the discussion it was moved that the Female Union “cooperate with their male brethren in relieving those unfortunate individuals , now confined in Chester Castle, Messrs Bagguley, Johnston, and Drummond and all who may in future be incarcerated the cause of the people.”

Miss Whalley addressed the meeting:

Mrs President  and  Sisters, I love liberty and hate slavery. I know too truly the horrors of the one, and the virtues of the other. If a Borough-monger were to come to Stockport and be compelled to weave for his living, he would  more impatiently (when he saw he could  get nothing  more than a mess of pottage for his labour)  cry out for Liberty and Reform! As well as those who are called the incorrigible swine, the disaffected, and the lower orders. I will not detain you, I have only to say  that I could wish us to have a Cap of Liberty , and present it at the next Public Meeting, as our sisters  at Blackburn  did at theirs; and that we form the determination to bring it victoriously back again, or lose our lives in its defence.

A commitee was elected: Miss Goodier, Miss Knowles, Miss Lowe, Mrs Hodgson, Miss Whalley, Mrs Kenworthy, Mrs Rhodes, Miss Longson, Miss Johnstone, Mrs Stewart (Secretary), Mrs Hambleton (Treasurer).

A vote of thanks was proposed to their “Presidentess” who replied:

Ladies, I do assure you, you have so wounded me by the kind attention you have honoured me with , that the load overwhelms me with such a sense of obligation, that I  cannot express my thanks. Suffice it to say,  that this mark of esteem ,I will ever dearly cherish  in my heart. I can only say that it will be a fresh stimulus to spur me on with greater avidity in the common cause. Go peaceably home, for fear of furnishing the Borough-mongers, with materials for another green bag. A plot is what they are, as Cobbett observes, dying for; and the only plan to frustrate their hellish  wish, is to act constitutionally  in all your undertakings.

The meeting then dispersed about half-past ten o’clock, “highly pleased with the proceedings of the evening .”

The Manchester Female Reform Society was also formed in July and issued an address on 20 July. It was an appeal directed at other women “to the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the higher and middling classes of society”.

 Dear Sisters of the Earth, It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that  we are induced to address you, upon the causes of  that have compelled  us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes.  Bereft, not only of that support, the calls of nature require  for existence; but the balm of sweet repose hath long been a stranger to us. Our minds are filled with a horror and despair, fearful on each returning morn, the light of heaven should present to us the corpse of some of our famished off spring, or nearest kindred, which the more kind hand of death  had released from the oppressor. The Sabbath, which is set apart  by the all-wise creator for  a day of rest, we are compelled to employ  in repairing the tattered garments, to over the nakedness . Every succeeding nights  bring with it  new terror, so that we are sick of life and weary of a world, where poverty , wretchedness, tyranny and injustice, have so long been permitted to reign amongst men. 

Like their sisters in other societies they blamed the aristocracy and land-owners for their plight . “The lazy  boroughmongering eagles of destruction” who have “nearly picked bare the bones of those who labour” will “chase you to misery and death until the middle and useful class of society is swept by their relentless hands from the face of creation.”

The address also condemned the recent war against France and the carnage at Waterloo and  called on women to join to eradicate tyranny and oppression “our enemies are resolved upon destroying  the natural Rights of  Man, and we are determined to establish it….it is not possible therefore for us to submit to bear the onerous weight of our chains any longer, but to use our endeavour to tear them asunder , and dash them in the face them”.

The Society’s address was issued from Union Rooms on George Leigh Street, Ancoats and  the public was advised  that  the Committee sat every Tuesday evening from six to nine for the purpose of enrolling new members and transacting business. The address was signed by Susanna Saxton as Secretary of the Society. She was the wife of John  Saxton, a former weaver and now a leading reformer,  who had founded  the Manchester Observer with James Wroe and John Johnston.  Like many of the women whose names appear in the press at the time little is known about them,  other than that they  were often the wives or sisters of the male reformers.

At the end of July a member of the Stockport Female Union Society spoke at a meeting in Macclesfield, addressing the women present.  According to the report  in the Times  (which did not state her name) she said, “ Sisters, I am deputed by the Stockport Female Union Society to impress upon you the necessity of forming a similar union in this town, and as the rules of the society are here I cannot  explain to you better than  causing them to be read. “After they had been read   she urged them to adopt the same course and said that the Stockport Society was corresponding with the Blackburn Society, and if the sisters in Macclesfield needed help, they had only to write to the Union Rooms in Stockport   and they should have an immediate answer. She again begged them to persevere, to stand firm and they were sure to conquer.  

At a large  reform meeting in Wigan John Saxton paid tribute to” the great number of females who appeared to take such  an unusual interest in the proceedings of the day – it was indeed delightful to behold the sweetest bloom of the country all arrayed  under the banners of Freedom –  he hoped they would persevere in the great principle of Freedom, and suffer no coxcomb to divert them from the noble cause in which they had volunteered their welcome services – (Very great applause)…At the end of the meeting the Cap of Liberty which had been presented by the Rochdale Society of Female Reformers, and the banners were then taken down, and carried in procession with a band of music from the place of Meeting. The people then peaceably departed to their respective homes.

At a very large reform meeting held on 19  July   in Nottingham the resolutions included   the following:

  1. That this Meeting hear with peculiar pleasure the zeal manifested by the females of Blackburn, in promoting a Radical Reform and hope that their example, and the extreme sufferings of the poor in this town and neighbourhood, will stimulate the females of Nottingham and its vicinity to form themselves into societies, in order to accelerate the good cause, and thereby prevent the actual starvation of themselves,  and their beloved children.     Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register, 24/7/1819, p.182

On 11 August twelve young women attended a political meeting in the marketplace in Leigh “all dressed in black with white sashes” and carried a banner that read “No Corn Laws, Annual Parliament  and Universal Suffrage.”

In these addresses the women, whilst  expressing solidarity with men and asserting their right to comment  publicly on political  questions, made no claim for political  rights for themselves, at least  publicly. Their private thoughts are more difficult to discern as, unlike the men,  none of the women  published political memoirs in later life.

Joseph Johnson wrote to Henry Hunt on behalf of the Manchester  Reform Society,  asking him to visit Manchester again, thus  setting in train the events that led to Peterloo.

At the end of July it was announced that a meeting would be convened for Monday 9th August at St Peter’s Field’s “for the purpose of taking into consideration  the most effectual  legal means  of obtaining a Reform in the Representation of the  House of Commons”, and that Henry Hunt would be speaking. This was a direct challenge to the existing political order which reserved the right to vote for  a handful  of wealthy men., as  any person chosen by a meeting of thousands would have greater political legitimacy and set a dangerous precedent.

Sherwin’s  Weekly Political Register  reported in its issue dated 7 August that;

We are informed by the daily press that  is the intention of the  Magistracy to disperse the meeting by force. ‘The Magistrates,’ say the Courier, ‘have come to a determination to act with decision, and suppress all seditious meetings immediately as they assemble, and if the civil power be not sufficient, then to read the Riot Act and call in the military.’ It will be seen whether  the People will submit to this infamous violation of law.

William Perry of the Stockport Union wrote to Hunt, inviting him  to stop at Stockport on the way to Manchester, telling him “ the idea of your arrival strike terror to the very foundation of the borough faction in this part of the country.” Hunt did stop in Stockport on 8th August before proceeding to Manchester.

On  12 August  Colonel  Fletcher  wrote to the Home Secretary reporting on developments including a meeting  that day in Leigh:

During the morning a great concourse of the lower order of people were waiting for the arrival of Mr. Hunt, whose presence was anxiously expected, in consequence of which, the meeting was delayed until past two o’clock. Mr. Hunt, and none of his partisans forthcoming, it was deemed necessary to commence the proceedings of the day. Two carts were lashed together in the market place, (a fine open space of ground), when Mr. Battersby, (an itinerant preacher,) Mr. Thomas Cleworth, and a Mr. Bamber, (one of the Society of Friends) with several others, as- cended the platform.

 As soon as Mr. Bamber was chosen for their chairman, a parade of the female reformers took place, headed by a committee of twelve young women. The members of the female committee were honoured with places in the carts. They were dressed in white, with black sashes ; and what was more novel, these women planted a standard with an inscription, ” No Corn Laws, Annual Parliaments, and Universal Suffrage ;” as well as another standard, surmounted with the cap of liberty, on the platform. Both the flag and the cap were presents from the Ladies’ Union ! !

In the meantime the magistrates in Manchester had  issued an order banning the meeting, plastering the town with placards to this effect. The reformers,  after  having sought a legal opinion which went against them,  baulked at  a direct challenge  to the town authorities,  and  therefore re-arranged the meeting for  the following. Monday, 16th August.  The purpose of the meeting was now announced as to consider “the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a Reform in the Commons’ House of Parliament.” The requisition for the meeting was opened for signatures at the office of the Manchester Observer where in space of three hours over 700  householders added their names,  with  hundreds of others  gathered, unable to get into the office.

.On reaching Manchester Hunt issued a letter from Smedley Cottage.

You will meet on Monday next , my friends, and by your steady , firm and temperate deportment, you will convince all your enemies, that you feel you have an important, and an imperious public duty to perform;  and that you will not suffer any private consideration on earth to deter you from exerting every nerve to carry your praiseworthy and patriotic intentions. The eyes of all England, nay, of all Europe, are fixed upon you; and every friend of real Reform, and of rational Liberty, is tremblingly alive to the results of your Meeting on Monday next.  OUR ENEMIES will seek every opportunity , by the means of their sanguinary agents, to excite a RIOT, that they  may have a pretence for SPILLING OUR BLOOD, reckless of the awful and certain retaliation that would ultimately  fall on their heads…..Come, then, my friends to the Meeting on Monday, armed with NO OTHER WEAPON  but that of aself-approving conscience; determined not to suffer youselves to be irritated or excited, by any means whatsoever, to commit any breaches of the public peace. Impartial Narrative , p.25.

On the morning of 16th August for miles around Manchester people gathered in their thousands  and set off on  the long walk into Manchester.  The Middleton contingent carried brightly coloured silk  banners, whose slogans included  “UNITY AND STRENGTH!, !LIBERTY AND FRATERNITY”, “PARLIAMENTS ANNUAL”  and  “SUFFRAGE UNIVERSAL” . The Saddleworth,  Lees and Mossley  Union banner read “EQUAL REPRESENTATION OR DEATH”.

The Reformers, who seemed determined  to make this a splendid day…..in preparing flags and small bands of music, and in arranging matters for the approaching meeting. It is evident, however, from  the great number of females, and even children, who formed part of the procession, that nothing was anticipated that could involve them in the least  degree of peril; and an immense multitude gathered together, relying in confidence on each other’s peaceful intentions, and certainly not expecting , that the precautions taken by the magistracy to preserve the peace, would be employed to destroy it, and convert a peaceable assembly into a scene of terror and alarm, danger and death.

Francis Philips, a Manchester manufacturer and merchant  observed the Stockport  procession as it made its way along the road to Manchester

On the 16th August I went on the Stockport Road about eleven or a little after,  and I met a great number of persons advancing towards Manchester with all the regularity of a regiment, only they had no uniform .They were all marching in file, principally three abreast. They had two banners with them. There were persons by the side, acting as officers and regulating the files. The order was beautiful indeed.

The banners read NO CORN LAWS, ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, VOTE BY BALLOT and SUCCESS TO THE FEMALE REFORMERS OF STOCKPORT, the latter banner was carried by Mary Waterworth.  Phillips estimated that there were about 15,000 with 40 women.

The Royton women  numbered about 100 and had their own flag. The Oldham column was headed by a group of about 150 women in white. The Failsworth  contingent was led by a group of 20 women, also dressed in white who took it in turns to carry the flag. The Bury contingent was led by a group of 300 women, walking five abreast.

According to Sam Bamford,  the Middleton contingent  included  six thousand men and several hundred women, including his own wife.

Our whole column, with the Rochdale people, would probably consist of  six thousand men. At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them – women, mostly young wives , and mine own was amongst them – A hundred or two  of our handsomest  girls, – sweethearts  to the lads who were with us – danced to the music, or sung snatches of popular songs: a score or two of children were sent back , though some went forward ; whilst, on each side of our line walked some thousands of stragglers.  And this, accompanied by our friends, and our nearest and most tender connections, we went slowly towards Manchester.  Bamford, chapter 34

The column from Oldham was headed by a band of 156  women dressed in white They were joined en route by a contingent of reformers  from Failsworth,   led by a troop of twenty women in white who took it in turns to hold the flag.  The procession from Bury had a contingent walking five abreast, numbering 300.

Richard Carlile from London   wrote the first published account of what happened which wa s published in Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register just two days after the events  on 21 August. It was entitled “Horrid Massacre in Manchester” and began:

It is impossible to find the words to express the horror which every man must feel at the proceedings of the agents of the Borough-mongers on Monday last, at  Manchester. It is out of the pale  of words to describe the abhorrence which every true Englishman  must feel towards the abettors and the actors in that murderous scene. All prospect of reconciliation must be now considered as being effectually destroyed, and the people have no resource left but to arm themselves immediately, for the recovery of their rights, and the defence of their persons, or patiently to submit to the most unconditional slavery. The Governmnet

He had  walked the three miles out of Manchester to where Hunt was staying at Smedley Cottage and presented  him with several copies of a  pamphlet “An Address to  People of Great Britain and  People of Ireland, which carried a speech made by Hunt in London on 21 July in which he had  urged unity of the reform movements in the two countries under the banner of “Universal Civil and Religious Liberty.” Carlile noted that people gathered around Smedley Cottage at 11am,  and Hunt set off in a barouche at noon in which Carlile managed to get a seat:

 They had not proceeded far when they were met by the Committee of the Female Reformers, one of whom, an interesting looking woman, bore a standard on which was painted a female holding in her hand a flag surmounted with a  cap of liberty, whilst  she trod underfoot  an emblem of  corruption, on which was inscribed that word. She was requested to take a seat   on the box of the carriage, (a most appropriate  one ) which she boldly and immediately acquiesced in,  and continued waving her flag and handkerchief until she reached the hustings, where she took her stand at the front, on the right. ..Females from the age of twelve to eighty were seen cheering with their caps  in their hands, and their hair, in consequence, disheveled…  

The Manchester Female Reformers had intended to present Hunt with an address and the flag in the course of the meeting,  but this was not be. (The undelivered address was later published in the Manchester Observer and other newspapers).  The banner of the Union Female Society of Royton was also on the platform, a crimson banner with the motto “Let Us Die Like Men and Not Be Sold Be Slaves”. According to eye-witnesses, there were a number of other women on the platform,  and also a group immediately in front of the hustings, eager to see Hunt.

The procession came through Shudehilll, Hanging Ditch, Old Millgate, Market Place, St Mary’s Gate, Deansgate and Peter Street.  By 1pm tens of thousands were gathered in St Peter’s Fields.  The Manchester Observer estimated the crowd at 153,000

Hunt began speaking

My friends and fellow countrymen – I must entreat your indulgence for a short time; and I beg you will endeavour to preserve the most prefect silence.  I hope you will exercise the all powerful right of the people in an orderly manner; and if you perceive any man that wants  to raise a disturbance, let him instantly be put down , and be kept secure. For the honour you have done me in inviting me a second time to preside at your meeting, I return you my thanks ; and all I have to beg of you is , that you will indulge us with your patient attention. It is impossible, that, with  the utmost silence, we shall be able to make ourselves  heard  by this tremendous assembly. It is useless for me to relate to you the proceedings of the past week  or ten days in this town and neighbourhood.  You know them all, and the cause of meeting appointed for last Monday being prevented. I will not therefore say one word on that subject; only to observe, that those who put us down, and prevented us from meeting on Monday last, by their malignant exertions have produced two-fold the number to-day. It will be perceived, that in consequences of the calling of this new victory, our enemies, who flattered themselves they had gained a victory, have sustained a great defeat. There have been two or three placards posted up during the past week with the names of one or two insignificant individuals attached to them…”

Here he broke off as a troop of horsemen approached.

What had happened was that the magistrates had, prior to the crowd assembling,  taken oaths from number of men  that the peace of the town was endangered by the assembly.  They later claimed to have read the Riot Act, although nobody present on the field ever claimed to have  heard it.  They summoned the  Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry,  who were stationed  in Pickford’s Yard. They mounted their horses and galloped onto the field. On the way  knocked over a woman and child,  a young  boy named William Fildes, who  was killed.

The troop arrived on the field, about a hundred, and halted in front of the magistrates house. Hunt called for  three cheers and urged the crowd to be firm. They  then wheeled and  began pushing through crowd towards  the hustings,  using their  sabres,   both on the crowd and the special constables who were in their  way. They were led by a bugler and an officer . One of the constables later  died from his injuries.

John Tyas, The Times reporter  wrote in his account,  “ Not a brickbat was thrown,  not a pistol was fired  during this period; all was quiet  and orderly , as if the cavalry had been the friends  of the multitude and had marched  as such into them.” They were led by a bugler and an officer.  The officer told Hunt that he had a warrant for his arrest. Hunt  said, ”I will willingly surrender myself to any civil officer  who will show me his warrant”. Joseph Nadin then stepped forward. They also arrested Mr Johnson.

Richard Carlile writes that the Yeomanry:

…galloped furiously round the field, going over every person who could not get out of their way, to the spot were the police were fixed, and after a moment’s pause, they received the cheers of the Police  as the signal to attack. The meeting at the entrance of the Cavalry, and from the commencement was one of the most calm and orderly I ever witnessed. Hilarity was seen on the countenance of all, whilst the Female Reformers crowned the asemblage  with grace, and excited a feeling particularly interesting. The Yeomanry made their charge with the most infuriate frenzy : they cut down men, women and children indiscriminately, and appeared to have   commenced a premeditated  attack with most insatiable thirst for blood and destruction…The women  appear to have been the particular objects of the Cavalry Assasins. One woman, who was near the spot where I stood, and who held an infant in her arms, was sabred over the head and her tender offspring DRENCHED IN HER MOTHER’S BLOOD. Another was actually stabbed in the neck  with the point of a sabre which must have been a deliberate attempt on the part of the military assassin. Some were sabred in the breast: so inhuman, indiscriminate, and fiend-like, was the conduct of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry.     SWPR, 21/8/1819. P. 241.

 Carlile wrote a further account of the events of the day in February 1822 in the course of a long and bitter letter to Henry Hunt with whom he was now totally at odds:

I was on the hustings until almost the last, or until the Yeomanry were almost within a sabre’s length. There were five women on the hustings, part of the Female Reformers’ committee, another part had seated themselves in the barouche in which we had rode to the hustings. Four of the women took a stand in the bottom of the wagons that formed the hustings, the other who was Mary Fildes,   I believe, was elevated at one corner in the front, with a banner in her hand and resting on a large drum, a most singular and interesting situation for a female at such a meeting..,On the first approach of the Yeomanry I was standing by the side of Mary Fildes in the front of the hustings…I offered comfort and courage to Mary Fildes  but I found her above everything like fear…

Once Hunt and others  had been arrested there was a cry from the mounted horsemen “Have at their flags”. They began attacking the flags on the hustings, but also those in the crowd held aloft, attacking the crowd with their sabres to get at them.  Two horsemen singled out John Saxton, one  saying to the  other “there is that villain Saxton, do you run him through the body”, “no “, said the other, “I had rather not, I leave it to you.” The man immediately lunged at Saxton and it was only by slipping aside that he saved his life, as it was his coat and waistcoat were cut. Another man a few yards away had his nose completely cut off by a blow from a sabre.

Sarah Taylor was under the hustings and saw John Ashton, who carried the Saddleworth flag, sabred and trampled. He died two days later.

The Manchester Yeomanry  were joined by the Cheshire Yeomanry, the Dragoons and 15th Hussars, who did not hesitate to use their swords on the people  and within moments  the crowd was fleeing   in terror.

This is a vivid account by Jemima Bamford.

 By this time Mr. Hunt was on the hustings, addressing the people. In a minute or two some soldiers came riding up. The good folks of the house, and some who seemed to be visitors, said, ‘the soldiers were only come to keep order; they would not meddle with the people;’ but I was alarmed. The people shouted, and then the soldiers shouted, waving their swords. Then they rode amongst the people, and there was a great outcry, and a moment after, a man passed without hat, and wiping the blood of his head with his hand, and it ran down his arm in a great stream.

The meeting was all in a tumult; there were dreadful cries; the soldiers kept riding amongst the people, and striking with their swords. I became faint, and turning from the door, I went unobserved down some steps into a cellared passage; and hoping to escape from the horrid noise, and to be concealed, I crept into a vault, and sat down, faint and terrified, on some fire wood. The cries of the multitude outside, still continued, and the people of the house, up stairs, kept bewailing most pitifully. They could see all the dreadful work through the window, and their exclamations were so distressing, that I put my fingers in my ears to prevent my hearing more; and on removing them, I understood that a young man had just been brought past, wounded. The front door of the passage before mentioned, soon after opened, and a number of men entered, carrying the body of a decent, middle aged woman, who had been killed. I thought they were going to put her beside me, and was about to scream, but they took her forward, and deposited her in some premises at the back of the house.” Bamford,  Passages  in the Life of a Radical, XIII & XIV pp. 222-223

In his account Samuel  Bamford  describes  an anonymous young  woman fighting back against the soldiery:

A number of our people, were driven  to some timber which lay at the foot of the wall of he Quakers’ meeting house. Being pressed by the yeomanry, a number sprang over the balks and defended themselves with stones which they found there. It was not without difficulty, and after several were wounded, that they were driven out.  A  heroine, a young married woman  of our party, with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string, and her apron weighted with stones, kept her assailant at bay until she fell backwards and was near being taken; but she got away covered with severe bruises. It was near this place and about this time that one of the yeomanry was dangerously wounded, and unhorsed, by a blow from the fragment of a brick; and it was supposed to have been flung  by this woman . Bamford, Passages, chapter 36.

According to  research carried  by  Michael Bush for his book  The Casualties of Peterloo, at least 18 people (including a child)  were killed either on the day or died of the injuries. Four of them were women.

Margaret Downes, Manchester – sabred in the breast.

Mary Heys, Chorlton Row  – trampled by cavalry  and died of her injuries four months later after giving  birth prematurely

Sarah Jones, Silk Street Manchester – truncheoned on the head by a special constable, Thomas Woodworth.

Martha Partington, Barton – crushed to death  in a cellar

Michael Bush has established  that 654 people  were recorded as being injured,   of  whom  168  were women.  He believes, based on the casualty figures, that the women were present were particularly  singled out for violent attack for having involved themselves publicly in the campaign for political reform

Accounting for the violence committed against the women  was not simply the fact that they were inescapably in the way,  but that the considerations of protection, respite and mercy that men  were normally expected to show to women – in accordance with deeply imbedded notions of gallantry, chivalry and paternalism – failed to come into operation. This was undoubtedly in reaction to the obtrusive behaviour of female reformers  at recent political meetings in the North West – an unprecedented and successful invasion by women of a world traditionally accepted as a male prerogative. Bush , The Casualties of Peterloo, p. 33.

Mary Fildes was truncheoned  by the Special Constables when she refused to let go of the  flag  she was carrying.  She tried  to escape by  leaping off the hustings  but a protruding nail  caught her dress and she was suspended.  One of the Yeomanry slashed at her and then seized her flag but by a miracle, she escaped serious injury.

Women were also amongst those arrested.  Elizabeth Gaunt  was in the crowd,  but  was put in Hunt’ s carriage for  her own safety where  she fainted.  She  came to and  went to a house but was  arrested later in the day, it was  believed,  because the authorities thought she was Mary Fildes. She was released after 12 days by which time she was very weak. Sarah Hargreaves was also held for 12 days and released,  “very ill from confinement” according to one report.

Ann Scott, of Liverpool Road, was arrested  on the  evening of Peterloo  by Charles Ashworth Special Constable,  In a statement she said she was “violently laid of in Deansgate”  and then  dragged to the police office  and then taken with others to  the New Bailey prison. She was detained from Monday to Friday with no bed, even though the floor was floating with water and filth, and were not allowed to leave the cell, even to perform what she called “the common offices of nature”. On Friday she charged at a hearing  before the Reverend Ethelstone with inciting the  people to commit assault, a charge she vehemently denied.  She  was sent back to prison where she was confined with other women and allowed occasionally to take air. Not surprisingly she became ill because of the conditions in the prison and was eventually moved to the hospital. She made a statement about her treatment in mid  October.

Afterwards, when I had been a fortnight in the hospital, and suffering under a relapse of the fever, I was permitted to see my husband, for the first time since my arrest, although I had repeatedly entreated that he might be let in to speak to me; and when I saw him I was scarcely able to speak to him. He remained with me about ten minutes, when Jackson ordered him away…About a fortnight  afterwards, I was again allowed to see my husband: but he was not permitted to remain with me above ten minutes, the turnkey standing beside us during our conversation. Ruth and Eddie Frow, Political Women , pp.28-29

The Manchester Female Reformers flag,  seized  from Mary Fildes by a cavalryman, was put on display that evening  in Mr Tate’s  grocers shop on Oldham Road in the manner of a spoil of war.  An angry crowd of women and children quickly gathered and threw stones, breaking the windows, The military were sent for, who read the Riot Act and then opened fire. Some accounts say that people were killed. They also arrested a number of women,  including one whom  it was alleged   had  “talked loudly against the Prince Regent”,  and  said things “it  would not be proper to repeat”.  There were further disturbances in the area and two women were , reportedly shot by the military.

The day after the Times reported that the military were patrolling the streets and that the Reformers were angry and that  threats of revenge were directed against members of the Manchester Yeomanry  who lived in the town  and “being well known  to the disaffected persons, became  distinctly marked out as  objects of their hatred.  The female part of the multitude  were not less conspicuous than on Monday for the share they took  in what was going on and were even more bitter and malignant  in their invectives than their male associates”.

Robert Campbell, a special constable was killed by a crowd in Newton Lane on 18 August.

Women relatives of reformers  were targeted by the authorities in their crackdown in the wake of  the massacre, as detailed by Joseph Johnson in   a letter to the press  in late September.

Not content with multiplying  indictments upon Mr Wroe, the intrepid  proprietor of the Manchester Observer, and exasperated at his perseverance and their capacity to obtain possession of his person ,  the revengeful  animals have directed all the engines of their prostituted authority to the persecution of his wife and children, who continue to sell that and other obnoxious publications. Twice have the mean violators of the law and deciders of justice held Mrs Wroe to bail,  and twice have her children been taken out of his shop,  and sureties been demanded for their appearance to answer the charge of having published scandalous libel that told too much truth of these… In addition to Mrs Wroe, the wife of one of the journeymen Mrs Hough and her daughter, were arrested and confined in the New Bailey all night because forsooth the magistrates, after having them into custody, could not make it  convenient to wait until their friends  could be sent  for to put in security for an appearance which the magistrates  dare never require of them before any jury.  Black Dwarf , 29 September 1819, p.633

A vivid glimpse of the experiences of some  women  at Peterloo can be found in the pages of the inquest into the death of John Lees, a weaver from Lees near Oldham,   who was sabred on the field  and died on his injuries on 6 September.  The inquest into his death  was turned into an enquiry into  the events of Peterloo by Mr Hamer –  a solicitor engaged by the Lees family – who,  in the teeth of bitter  opposition from the Coroner and an opposing solicitor engaged by the magistrates,   cross-examined the Crown’s witnesses and also  summoned his own. The proceedings were taken down in notes  and shorthand and published in full  by William Hone the following year.  (The inquest was adjourned after ten days and never resumed).

Martha Kearsley  from Oldham,  had been sitting on the outside  of Henry Hunt’s carriage very close the hustings.  She  said that what occasioned the  tumult  on the field  had been  “the soldiers coming and cutting and slashing among the people” . She had seen a man fighting off two soldiers who were attacking him with swords when a third came up and wounded him on the back of the shoulder. “I was so struck with horror,  that I turned round and saw no more of him.” She saw many others cut by the soldiers.

Ellizabeth  Farren,  of Lombard Street, Manchester,  explained  she had been cut on the forehead, raising her bonnet and cap and bandage to show  the wound, which had not completely healed. She said she was cut as the  cavalry went  to the hustings. “I was with this child (shewing the child she held in her arms). I was frightened for its safety, and to protect it, held it close to my side with head downwards, to avoid the blow. I desired them to spare my child, and I was directly cut on my forehead.” She passed out and awoke three hours later in a strange cellar.

Hannah Croft was living in a house  Windmill Street, right by St Peter’s  Fields. She described  looking out of the window and seeing the Manchester cavalry riding among the crowd “and the people falling in heaps”.  The people tried to get away “but the soldiers rode so hard that they knocked them down before they could get out of the way”.

Margaret Goodwin from Salford was situated  between Saint Peter’s church and the hustings. She saw two men wounded near the church “ and all covered with blood and gore”  and a woman cut within a few yards of where she was standing.  She was trying to get away when she was wounded by Thomas Shelmerdine and knocked unconscious.

Ann Jones lived on Windmill Street. She told the inquest that she saw the cavalry cutting and slashing and saw a large quantity of blood on the field after they were gone.  “I saw a great many people wounded, and very bloody indeed,…there a great many people in my house, and all was in great confusion, and some of the special constables came up in great triumph before my door, calling out, “This is Waterloo for you! This is Waterloo.”

A militant position  was taken by Ethelinda Wilson who  wrote articles in  Republican, a journal published by the political and sexual radical Richard Carlile. She condemned the failure of the male reformers to hold another meeting on St Peter’s fields and said it  now up to women to take up the fight. Future generations would thank them for doing so,  exclaiming  “our mothers, our revered mothers, cultivated the soil in which this universal blessing grew”.  Ethelinda   left Manchester for London  where  she attended meetings touting a loaded pistol  wrapped in handkerchief.




“Pawky comments” in Downing Street: the March of the Women on 11th March 1928

In March 1928  working-class women marched   in  Scotland and London, organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain.  This  is a forgotten event. I only know of  it because the Working Class Movement Library has a copy of the pamphlet The March of the Women which I came across  in the course of research for my course at the library on Radical Women.

In the introduction Beth Turner, the Communist Party’s  National Women’s Organiser,  writes:

“International Womens Day, 1928, stands out as a landmark in the history of British working women.

For the first time in their lives, many women  broke away from the traditions that in the past had chained them in silent submissive slavery to the factory or the drudgery  of poverty-stricken homes, and came out in the streets to protest against the infamous conditions inflicted on them and their children by British capitalism.

Three hundred of them travelled from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Notts, Durham and South Wales under conditions of extreme discomfort, and at the cost of tremendous sacrifice  in order to register that protest in London – the heart of the Empire and the seat of the capitalist government.

Real working-class unity and a living spirit of comradeship were exhibited by the London women, who had worked for three weeks beforehand, preparing a welcome for women they had never seen before, raising money for food and to assist with fares, opening their homes and their hearts to strange women for the simple reason  that they were fellow working women, engaged in the same grim struggle as themselves against the capitalist class.

This  was comradeship made real,   and unity of the working-class no longer a mere slogan but a living, warm and human thing.

No  wonder that the women from the provinces were overcome by the welcome they received. Some of them had been waging a bitter struggle almost alone in stark mining villages among the black hills, or in the hard life of the textile areas. In London they found themselves surrounded by a circle of friends, admired and encouraged, marching with light hearts to the music  of bands – no longer individuals battling alone, but honourable members of the great army of workers marching towards the emancipation of the toilers of the earth.

It is fitting that a souvenir of such an event should be in existence, and this is one of the reasons why this little booklet is published. It is also necessary  that an event of such historical importance as International Women’s Day, 1928, and the details of its organisation should be placed on record as a guide.

It was a genuine movement of the rank women members of the Labour Party, Co-operative Guilds, and even unorganised women towards class unity under the leadership of the Communist Party.  Leaders of the official Labour movement tried to sabotage  the demonstration , either by ignoring it, or, as was done by the “Daily Herald,”  definitely attempting to prevent knowledge of it reaching the masses of women by refusing paid advertisements of conferences called for the purpose of organising  the demonstration.

In spite of sabotage, the demonstration was an enormous success, and this little booklet, with its pictures, will help to fasten in the minds of the women  who took part in it, the memory of that wonderful  day.

In Scotland, too,  although a regular blizzard was blowing and the snow lay a foot deep on the roads, while in Glasgow the magistrates   had banned the demonstration, the women  turned up in amazing large numbers – marching or coming up by ‘bus from all the outlying villages into Glasgow, Bothwell, Lochgelly, Stirling and Camelon where the meetings were held.

Speakers from every quarter testify to the enthusiasm, determination and fighting spirit which characterised the day’s proceedings both in England and Scotland.

It is a tribute to the sagacity and clear-sightedness of the Communist Party and to its organising ability that it is the first party in Britain to give organised expression to the desire of working women for class-conscious participation in the battles of their class, testifying to its declaration that only under the banner of the Communist Party can working class emancipation be achieved.”

So this Is London

“On Sunday morning, March 11th, 1928, a party of women were walking along Whitehall. They spoke with a Yorkshire accent, and passed pawky comments  on the things they saw.

One young woman broke away from the party at Downing Street, and gave a resounding knock on the door of Mr Baldwin at No .10. She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘It was just to let him know we’re here,’ she explained.

Soon all London knew ‘they were here.’  They had been pouring  into the grey stations of the metropolis from four and  six o’clock in the morning.  At six London’s quiet squares were startled by the sound of laughter and singing and the clatter of clogs on the pavement. …Bonny young girls in clogs and shawls…From the factory, from the wash-tub, from the little homes in smoky towns, kept clean only with the most persistent labour, these women invaded London, determined to let Baldwin and the class he represents ‘know they were here’.”

5000 people rallied in Trafalgar Square, despite the bad weather.

“Red, red, red, wherever the eye rested – banners, posters, slogans, kerchiefs, rosettes, streamers, tableaux. Millgirls from Lancashire, chatted with miners’ wives from South Wales; Mansfield women warned Durham representatives what non-political unionism means in practice; Bradford textile workers talked to engineers’ wives from the Midlands.”

The meeting was opened by Kath Duncan in the name of the Communist Party.  Other speakers were Mrs. Hargreaves (a textile workers from Burnley), Mrs. Maddox (Co-operative Guild), Mrs. Toombs (a Co-operator from Bradford), Mrs. Lawther (a miner’s wife from Durham),  Mrs. Armer (a miner’s wife from Nottingham), Elsie Wright  (Young Communist League) Mrs. Campbell (Labour League of Ex-Servicemen),  Mr. A J Cook (Miners Federation), Mrs. Nally (a miner’s wife from Nottingham), Marjorie Pollitt,  Mr. J R Campbell and Beth Turner.

A tremendous welcome was given to Hanna Ludewig who brought greetings from the women of Germany.  The meeting finished by singing the “Internationale.”

Afterwards the women from the north   were entertained by the London Committee in Bethnal Green Town Hall with food,  and singing from Ruby Boughton.


Documents from British Feminism 2 : The Socialist-Feminist current

A Short History of the Socialist Current Within The British Women’s Liberation Movement,  Scarlet Women, July 1977

Note : we were asked to write this paper at short notice. It is based upon a combination of the papers we have collected over the years plus memories of conferences we attended. Inevitably, therefore, it is by no means a complete history. We do think, however, that the events and conflicts which we outline here do reflect in general, the development of the Socialist-feminist current within the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The late 60s saw the emergence of the Women’s Movement in Britain. In 1969 in London the Women’s Liberation Workshop established itself, developing consciousness raising groups and attempting to articulate and understand the ways in which women felt themselves to be oppressed and exploited. In the same year, a group of socialist women active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign started producing a journal called “Socialist Woman”, whose aims were both to impress on the left the importance of the “Woman Question” – to publicise the struggles of women in Britain and internationally and to try to develop a socialist analysis of women’s oppression it was to be distributed through the newly formed Socialist Woman Groups.

The first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford in 1970. It was felt that the movement had already grown sufficiently to need a national structure in order to co-ordinate the increasingly diverse activities of women’s groups around the country. Women in left groups saw this as an opportunity to influence the political development of the Women’s Liberation Movement and managed to dominate the National Committee. This Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee formulated four demands which were adopted by the Women’s Liberation Movement –   equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and 24  hour nurseries for all under 5’s. However the Women’s National Co-ordinating Committee degenerated into sectarian squabbling between the different left factions represented and was disbanded by the Skegness Women’s Liberation Conference in 1971. It left behind  a great deal of hostility among feminists towards socialist women and a deep distrust of structures and methods of structures and methods of organising which were associated with the male left.  Instead the small, relatively unstructured consciousness-raising group was taken to the model for structure and organisation in the Women’s Liberation Movement.

A series of Women’s Liberation and Socialism Conferences were planned. Four conferences took place: London, September 1973 on Autonomy or Separatism?; Oxford, March 1974 on the four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement; Birmingham, September 1974 on Women in the Family; and London, March 1975 on “Perspectives on the Women’s Movement”. There was also at least one day conference organised – on the Working Women’s Charter, Leeds, November 1974 – and probably others. “Red Flag” a journal for socialist feminist women was also started in 1972.


Manchester Socialist Feminist Conference, composited workshop report  Scarlet Women, April 1978

Dear Sisters, hereby enclosed the promised report. On second reading it still seems to have many rough edges, but I thought it preferable to send it as read, rather than to take it on myself to edit and modify. However, do feel free to polish up where you feel it necessary. Incidentally, I don’t know if it’s worth mentioning that this report got written under circumstances reflecting all too accurately the “tyranny of structurelessness”. (I didn’t mention because of injunctions against being “negative”). Of the women delegates to report on their workshops most did in fact turn up to the Reporters’ Meeting, but were rapidly driven away by cold, hunger, fatigue and impatience. This left a small nucleus of 6 women, self-selected, not delegated, to discuss the final report, of whom two actually drafted a report, purporting to represent 700 off women! Hopefully it turned out OK and not too skewed by our personal recollections and opinions – but even so the problem of who “takes responsibility” – and why – remain unsolved, as does that of accountability.

Yours in sisterhood, Ruth Butler.

Report on Day 1 , Socialist Feminist Conference, January 28th 1978.

With the proviso that summary report tend to gloss over those very nuances and dynamics of discussion which make or break the experience of participating in a workshop, we hope that the following  will convey some idea of the themes raised and the feelings and ideas expressed.

Composition of the workshop

The encouragingly  large numbers of women who participated in the workshops – about 1000 – represented a broad spectrum of groups and activities, including the following:

Women  from socialist feminist groups, Women’s Aid, NAC, WARF, WWC, Women in Ireland, and various collectives such as Scarlet Women and Newsreel; women from CR groups, Lesbian Left, Women’s Voice, Women’s Action groups; women involved in community politics, trade unions and manual trades;  women new to the movement, women who have been out of touch for a couple of years and women who presently active; women aligned in left groups – CP, IMG, SWP, Big Flame, RCG, ICL, Workers’ Power, CPB (ML).

There was a sprinkling of international representatives, including groups of Latin American and Iranian women.

And probably lots more besides, whom we have unwittingly left out.


We shall try to summarise the discussions held in workshops held in the workshops according to the general headings suggested by the organisers.

  1. Common concerns in socialist feminist action.

Since there is not yet a coherent and cohesive socialist feminist network, many women who identify themselves as socialist feminist and who came to the conference are active in various campaigns and/or left groups. In discussing our participation in such activities several common themes and issues seemed to emerge.

Several women raised problems flowing from conflicts between self-definitions as socialist feminist and the need to work within the system, when, for example, applying for grants. Women’s Aid was cited in this respect, with women expressing the conflict between making clear statements of principle and intent, or playing these down in order to obtain badly needed women’s refuges. In the same context  women discussed the implications of parliamentary lobbying, an issue of especial relevance to NAC women.

Another theme evolved from discussion pertaining to working on campaigns jointly with other groups. There was a feeling that women’s groups could contribute to the development of more varied  and flexible tactics for political action. For example, in several groups women from WARF talked about the need to develop further alternatives to direct physical confrontation both as means of reaching more people and as an expression of wariness of what were seen as male tactics of violence as a major form of expression. However, it seems to have been generally accepted    that in some situations direct confrontations are necessary, and that greater emphasis    on self defence for women would equip us to cope better with such confrontations as Grunwick and Lewisham.

During discussions about the need to develop a socialist feminist strategy for action,  several groups talked about the need to broaden the age, class and race bases of involved women. Particularly emphasis was placed on the potential of working within local community issues such as nurseries, schools, hospitals, tenants’ associations and so on.

From their perspective of working in various campaigns, several women voiced the need to formulate guidelines for actions compatible with a socialist feminist perspective. One knotty example discussed was the rape issue, where a common feminist demand for stiffer sentencing is not an easy one for socialist feminists to support unambiguously. A parallel issue with Women’s Aid was expressed as the need to develop alternatives to the nuclear family rather than merely providing short term solutions for immediate problems. Another issue to emerge from discussion on Rape was the problem of, for example, having Reclaim the Night marches through predominantly black areas. During such discussions it was suggested that socialist feminists could make a creative contribution by conceptualising additional levels of linkage between superficially disparate campaigns.

Finally, many women seemed to suffer from chronic over-extension. Socialist feminists have been defined as women who go to twice as many meetings as anyone else. Whether true or not, all groups seemed to touch on the thorny questions of how and where to channel energy so as to be the most effective as socialist feminists.

Obviously, such a sparse summary cannot but fail to do justice to the depth and texture of the thoughts, doubts and aims that emerged in discussing these issues. However, two general conclusions did emerge. On the level of practice, the vital need for more communication and mutual support among socialist feminists was repeatedly voiced – indeed many women cited this as their main reason for coming to the conference. The lack of such  close communications was felt specifically at a geographical  level   – for example by Scottish women from NAC who felt that their specific needs had been largely ignored  by the national campaign , and by Irish women feeling inadequate solidarity  with them in their struggles. In general, many women felt the need for more contact between socialist feminist women working in different campaigns.  While no resolutions on the matter were suggested, the general desire for a co-ordinating network which, despite, our fears of organisations, would function to provide contact and support for socialist feminists was clear. Some specific suggestions in this direction included the publication of a separate newsletter and/or magazine devoted to the socialist feminist tendency.

Secondly, there were repeated calls for a long-term socialist  strategy  and theory which would provide us with an overall perspective; and a framework with which to organise, initiate and co-ordinated socialist feminist activities. This could help us not only to clarify our ideas and stands, but also to address ourselves in a more forceful  and effective way to immediate issues ranging from Northern Ireland to the Cuts.

 2. Socialist feminist and the Women’s Liberation Movement.

The second main topic on the agenda was the relationship of socialist feminists to the WLM. Interestingly enough, this question seemed to have received scant attention in most groups. We discussed the growing need to define ourselves  as an independent tendency within the women’s movements without encouraging sectarianism or splits. While there was some discussion around this issue, the general feeling seemed to be that spits in the movement should be avoided if possible, though not at the expense of glossing over theoretical and tactical differences. It was suggested that maybe the women’s movement as a whole needs to work further on the dilemma of combining different tendencies  while still presenting some kind of united outward front. It was felt to be particularly important for socialist feminists to work on coming over clear and intelligible to other feminists. Thus we should work to bring  an awareness of socialism into the WLM without fostering distrust. At the same time we should not fall into the trap of denying the solid contributions to be made by other groups within the WLM. The problems of overcoming what was felt to be the essentially elitist nature of the WLM was also raised in this context.

Finally, many women reiterated the personal satisfaction they derived from participating in the WLM.

  1. Socialist feminists and the organised left.

In contrast,  most women reported a high level of interest and involvement on our relationship to the Left. Our difficulties in relating to the Left seem to be three-fold. Most women criticized Left groups for their failure to integrate an inadequate understanding of the implications of analysis of patriarchy for developing a revolutionary perspective. Much resentment was expressed at being point 5, or sometimes 6, in most revolutionary programmes. Such an attitude seemed to many women to relegate the theoretical importance of subjects raised by the Women’s Movement  – such as the role of the family in perpetuating patriarchal and capitalist structures – to a mere question of “women’s issues”.

In addition, many women voiced anger at having so often to encounter sexist attitudes and behaviour among men who consider themselves socialists. The analogy was drawn with racism – it is hard to imagine  a man with overtly racist attitudes being tolerated in any Left group, whereas sexist men are.  Thus much of our work within Left groups on the levels of both theory and practice is reduced to a harrowing struggle with fellow members. It was mentioned that men on the Left are at least  “no worse”  than other men; but the expectation that they should rather be considerably better seems most valid. Linked with this problem is our awareness that the power structures against which we struggle as women tend to be replicated within many Left groups.

Finally, women expressed much anger at the often opportunistic attitude of Left groups to feminist issues and campaigns.

There were definite differences in the strength with which different women voiced criticism of this nature, and in the conclusions drawn from them. Some women, mainly those present in the aligned Left, felt that activity meaningful from a socialist feminist  perspective was possible, and indeed occurring, within Left groups. While aware of the need for further development, they were appreciative of the changes already wrought by feminists within the Left. On the other hand, some women felt the attitudes of many members of the aligned Left to be so alienating that they could not work productively within these frameworks. Some criticism of the women members of the aligned Left were also voiced. Some women felt that many of these women tended to internalise what they saw as the false dichotomy of the organised Left between feminism and socialism. Such dichotomy was seen to differentiate between the “real, gut” problems of socialism and the “secondary” ones of socialism. In addition, some women felt that the presence of aligned women with clearly articulated programmes may sometimes stifle attempts to formulate an independent socialist feminist perspective.

While such differences exist and need to be analysed further, most groups resorted a strong tendency to reaffirm the need for socialist feminists to work  on developing  a theoretical perspective  which will reflect our own particular position  with relation  to socialism and feminism. The feeling was that such a perspective must primarily provide common ground where it is both necessary and legitimate to discuss all issues as relevant to socialist feminists. In other word, we socialist feminists must articulate our own identity through a growing and flexible set of ideas rather than a dogmatic “line”. Women seemed to feel that such an analysis should concentrate on the relations between patriarchy and capitalism, together with the relevance of each separately and both together for revolutionary theory and practice.

Secondly, the feminist realisation that the personal is political should be integrated into socialist discussion  of the nature and role of revolutionary consciousness and the forms of political practice.

Finally, the issue of structure was widely discussed. We felt that Left groups are often organised on an over-rigid hierarchical basis which could be  identified with patterns of male dominance. The WLM has always maintained a certain structurelessness as an essential part of its identity. Some women felt that this detrimental to effective work and its own way  can become tyrannical. Must we equate structure with hierarchy? Is it possible to develop  the kind of structure which fill facilitate  organisation with falling into those power and leadership patterns which we as feminists reject in Left groups.

To summarise, out of all this discussion emerged definite strategy and theory which will create and serve a socialist feminist identity in theory practice.


This conference was also reported in Spare Rib, 68, March 1978

Miles from Miles End by Ruthie Petrie

 Women still shudder at the last Women and Socialism National Conference  at Mile End, London 1976. So the Socialist Feminist Conference in Manchester loomed up with many of us feeling a mixture of guarded anticipation and anxiety. We knew it wouldn’t be a repeat performance of disunity and domination of left-wing groups, of huge open sessions in which we were engulfed by papers declaring fixed positions with no discussion. But nor did anyone feel certain that the resurgence of socialist- feminism, expressing itself through local action and/or study groups, regional meetings and educational, would allow us a wider optimism.

Overall, the concern seemed to be concerned with questions of structure and organisation at the expense of much that was new in theory and strategy. And there was no Eurekas for a new way forward. So why did most of us come away feeling optimistic and reinforced? Well, there were 1000 women and that was impressive. In Saturday’s conference we talked about what it means to define ourselves socialists and feminists, what our place within the Women’s Liberation Movement, and our relationship to the left as well as whether we wanted a national structure, and if so, what sort. On Sunday, the workshops dealt with more concrete themes and campaigns. Exchanges about hospital closures, rape, Women’s Aid, reproduction, Ireland – and much more – were amicable and constructive. Then, too, a decision was taken to hold a conference next spring, and Scarlet Women will shift away from being a socialist-feminist bulletin to becoming a discussion journal. It’ll have an enlarged contributing network through regional correspondents, a more regular schedule and be circulated through feminist outlets and shops rather than just by subscription.

Concrete activities are emerging from it too. New groups to discuss future strategy, and new socialist-feminist groups  have begun meeting. So it seemed a confirming and consolidating weekend.


Socialist Feminism by Anne Torode

Spare Rib, May 1979

When I was asked to write this article about how I saw socialist  feminism  for a discussion on tendencies in the women’s liberation movement (WLM) I  must admit to feeling a bit wary.  One reason why our movement is so vital is because we are talking and thinking about our lives, and our feminist understanding is developing as we struggle  – often painfully – with our personal circumstances. The theory and practice that is emerging that is emerging from this struggle is for real – we have never postured nor adopted ‘positions’ on finer points of theory to bolster our revolutionary self-image. Our movement will continue to grow only if we remain flexible to women’s experience. I think it would be really bad if the labels we give ourselves stop us from identifying against a common female oppression. (The labels, of course, do not refer to class differences with the WLM. As a movement we must be very clear about how class affects women’s experience of their oppression as women.)

I am aware that many sisters identify socialist feminism with traditional left politics, seeing as a liberal tendency, a watering down of feminist consciousness, an attempt by the left to define the terms of our struggle, and that the typical socialist feminist is assumed to be ‘into men’  or at the least  ‘putting her energies into men.’

For me, socialist feminism  is a redefinition  of socialist aspiration; I see it as a synthesis incorporating the feminist perspective into a socialist analysis. Socialist feminism is about the using the Marxist method of analysis to look at the how and why of female oppression, and to see how our oppression relates to class oppression. And from this, how the struggles of women relate to the struggles of the working class and to those all of the oppressed.

I do not think of socialist feminism as a liberal accommodation to male powered – ‘socialist’ is not another word for liberal. The ‘socialist’ bit does not qualify or limit feminism in any way, rather feminism informs and enriches socialism. It is certainly not another way of saying that men are oppressed too! Men are not oppressed as a sex .

The working class is oppressed, yet.  But ‘working class’ and ‘men’ are not interchangeable concepts. Men may be oppressed because they are gas, black and/or working class, but women experience these forms of oppression as well. Men have power over women and though the male sex role (again, not a term  interchangeable with ‘worker’) may distort  and cramp a man’s potential, I would not call this oppression, but merely the price they have to pay for male power.

When I first got involved with feminism in 1968, my husband and other left men used to ask how a white middle class woman who didn’t even have to work (I had two small children at the time!) could say she was oppressed – what about the Vietnamese /blacks/coalminers. But I read feminist publications, in particular the journals of the Boston women’s group, and what they were saying related directly to my experience. They were asking my own questions – why did I feel so lousy considering I was really ‘happy’, why was  my housework overlooked, why were people who produced people so undervalued compared to people  who produced things,  why was sex seen in terms of men’s needs, why did I have so little control over the birth of my baby??  These were non-questions to the left.  The men I know got so indignant at my new-found feminism that I sometimes felt that they were themselves Vietnamese, blacks or coal-miners.  All the weight of socialist authority was behind their anger. These white middle class men were presuming to define what was socialist and what was not!

But I had spent years on the left too and i was heartily sick of its dogmatic approach to revolutionary practice.  The left’s ‘class analysis’  identified the working class as those  men  working at the point of production and the class struggle  as their  struggle for higher wages. Until the Vietnamese was brought masses of people onto the streets in support of a foreign revolution, this limited view of class struggle was taken to be the be-all and end-all of the revolutionary process.

Much of the feminist stuff I read was critical of the traditional left to the extent of rejecting Marxism, but I felt why leave the definition of socialism to these left men. Marxism belongs to the oppressed – to women, the working class, the black movement. We could use it to help us understand the causes of our oppression and the nature of the system we were up against. In this way, Marxism would again become a living theory, a revolutionary guide to action.

I began thinking about oppression.  The black  power movement said that blacks were colonised by whites  in that they had internalised white racism…And weren’t we colonised by men insofar as we internalised their view of us existing to serve their needs. ? Oppressed people are reduced to object status because we are useful to  our oppressors. This was clear  in the case of blacks and the working class, but what about women? It is true that we service men in the home, but why do we  service men in the home – why were we oppressed in the first place?

As a marxist this seem to me to be a key question. I didn’t  think it was enough to describe  how we felt oppressed or even to identify how our oppression served the interests of the capitalist class. Female oppression and class oppression predate the development of the capitalist system. We had been living in a patriarchal class-divided society for thousands of years before the advent of capitalist class rule. If we restricted our analysis to the position of women today we could miss the basic horror of our situation and end up talking about sex roles instead of oppression.

The idea that men and women were both unable to express their potential because of their sex roles always worried me – it was a way of glossing over the problem. It was our job to go beyond the appearance of things, to their essence, as Marx did in analysis of the working of capital. But although he devoted books to explaining how capitalists exploited by paying them less in wages for the use of their labour power than they produced in value-profit for their employers, marxism as a method is more than a description of capitalism. It is historical method which goes right back to uncover the cause of class oppression. This was, and is, often overlooked by marxists and non-marxists alike and there was, and is, a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class oppression to a question of the economic exploitation of workers in capitalism.

I felt that the feminist understanding of oppression tied in with Marx’s conception and that this would enrich the limited perspective of the left. Socialist feminists  could challenge the notion that the system we were fighting was the capitalist production process, by talking about class society. It was only by going back into our history that we could uncover the root cause of our oppression and see how female oppression inter-related  with class oppression over time.

So why were we oppressed? The most illuminating book i read at this time was Briffault’s The Mothers.  According to him, what men needed from women was paternity rights in women’s children. In earliest times women and their children lived in matriarchal clans with their maternal uncles and brothers. They didn’t live in family units headed by husband/father. They were autonomous and their bodies were their own. They came under male authority only when men began to accumulate property. The creation of the father family gave men control over women’s capacity to reproduce and thus ‘legitimate’ heirs to their wealth. It was from this family system, which allowed for the private accumulation of property over generations, that class society developed. When men alienated our reproductive power, they gained control of our lives, our bodies and sexuality and our productivity. I remember fantasising about life in a matriarchal clan, imagining a system where mothers had high status and didn’t have to keep the peace with men  for the sake of the children, a system where our sexuality did not belong to men…

It was clear then that class oppression rests on our oppression and that the family, long ignored by the left as peripheral to the class structure, is in fact the basic institution of the whole system.

However, whereas I think that female oppression underpins class society, I wouldn’t agree with those feminists who explain the functioning  of the system  in terms of male power alone – nor do I think you can talk about dual systems  of oppression with economic class exploitation  running parallel  to sex class exploitation. I know that revolutionary feminists will say that we are oppressed as class, but I find this notion confusing and unnecessary. I prefer the term female oppression because it seems more powerful to me than the idea of sex class.

Female and class oppression are integrated and historically related  – the one developed out of the other for very real material reasons, not because, as I have heard argued on occasions, men developed a taste for power after they had taken control of our lives. Because our oppression is so fundamental to the system, there might be seem to be a case for suggesting that women alone can overthrow existing social relations, that all we need is a feminist revolution. To me that is not just on.

But I think people who counterpose socialism and feminism, and then say all we need is a socialist revolution, are wide off the mark too. I don’t see how socialism and  feminism can be counterposed, because I don’t think you can have a socialism which doesn’t  include the feminist perspective (though naturally, I can see why some feminists reject socialism, given the history of left attitudes to the WLM). The socialist struggle is to the struggle of all oppressed people to take back control of their lives from patriarchal class society.

Feminism is the specific interest of women of women within that struggle – an interest that ought to inform at a very basic level the way all oppressed people organise and the kind of demands they put forward. Ought to…but in practice women have to fight on two fronts – whatever else we’re involved in, we also have battle for our specific interest to be recognised. We’d all agree that the working class can’t free women, hence the autonomous women’s movement – but the class needs the power of women to free itself. We can’t free the class for we couldn’t possibly dismantle the class structure on our own, but we do need the power of the class behind our fight for liberation. Class power is the lynchpin of the revolutionary process, but not its sole element.

To be successful these struggles have to be interdependent. The depth of understanding that would be generated in the course of such a total challenge to the system would mean that we’d bring about a real socialist society where children would no longer be seen as either as the property of their family or as a potential  labour power for the bosses; where women would control their reproductive power (ie capacity to reproduce) , their bodies and their sexuality…Meanwhile back to grim reality. We have responsibility for children but little control over the conditions in which we bring them up or in which they will have to live…Campaigns which challenge male and/or maternal role are central to our struggle.

It may seem strange that anyone could possibly think that control over the conditions in which women live as mothers was a central issue for feminism. Because patriarchal class society defines and contains us as mothers and puts us down for our reproductive function, it’s easy to react by saying we should define ourselves as anything but mothers. I reckon we should say that as a sex we do have the capacity  to reproduce, that it belongs to us, not patriarchy, and we intend to fight over control , whether we as individuals have children or not.

Even thinking about mothers losing their children to men or to the state makes my blood boil. I spent two years fighting over the custody of my boys and now I only have them for the weekend. I live alone and I sometime wonder if I’d be ‘happily’ married if it wasn’t for feminism. What I do know is that I’d be lost without my sisters and the struggle. Which brings me back to the beginning. If we want to feel the power of women coming out for themselves, then our movement must be a’ home’ for women. For our own survival we need a real alternative to all the shit we’re offered now. Sisterhood is more than a revolutionary consciousness, it is our collective strength against the system, our lifeline and that’s why factionalism must never be allowed to tear us apart.















Documents from British Feminism 1. “Women: the struggle for freedom” by Sheila Rowbotham, Black Dwarf, 10 January 1969

“Women: the struggle for freedom” by Sheila Rowbotham

 This  was published in Black Dwarf,  on 10th January 1969 in an issue whose front page proclaimed 1969: The Year of the Militant Woman. (Sheila hated the cover, by the way)

Sheila was asked to join the editorial board of Black Dwarf in late 1968. As she recalls in her autobiography Promise of a Dream,  she  wrote furiously, sitting  on her stool by the gas fire  in the basement of her house in Hackney.

Our came all the  concentrated thoughts  and  impressions  which had been  unconsciously accumulating. It was the kind of article I would later recognise as one that builds up inside. In the spirit of ’68, I knew I must write not from received authorities on “women” but from my own observations and  feelings..Now all those scattered experiences could take a new shape. As the words splattered out in to pages  it felt as if I had reached a clearing. 


Surprisingly, for such an important  article in the history of British feminism, it  has never  been been published in full  in any  collection on the 1960s, So I  have typed it up.

Ok so you’ve heard it all before

Ok so you’re bored

But meanwhile

We still get less pay for the same work as you

We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful

In which we have any responsibility

We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised.

The present setup of the family puts great strains on us


Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained.

The area of taboo on our sexuality is much more extensive and the double standard still pervasive.

Some women still never experience orgasm.


So what are we complaining about?

All this and something else besides

A much less tangible something – a smouldering, bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction  – which  suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.


We went to drive buses, play football, use beer mugs not glasses. We want men to take the pill. We do not want to be brought with bottles or invited as wives. We do not want to be wrapped in cellophane or sent off to make the tea or shuffled onto the social committee.


But these are only little things

Revolutions are made about little things

Little things which happen to all the time, every day

Wherever you go, all your life.


Here the subordinated relates to dominator

Here the discontent focuses and here the experience is felt, expressed and articulated, resisted – through the particular.

The particular pummels you gently into passivity.


So we don’t know how to find each other or ourselves

We are perhaps the most divided of all oppressed groups. Divided in our real situations and in our understanding and consciousness of our condition.


We are all in different classes.


Thus we devour and use one another

Our “emancipation” has often been the struggle of the privileged to improve and consolidate its superiority – The women of the working class remain the exploited , oppressed as workers and oppressed as women.


We are with families and without them.

Hence we distrust one another.

The woman with a home and children is suspicious of the woman with no ties, seeing her as a potential threat to her territorial security.

The single woman feels the married woman is subtly critical because she is not fulfilling her “role” as homemaker,

She feels she is accused of being unable to be a woman.


They tell us what we should be.

As we grow up, especially from puberty, we are under intensive pressure to be “acceptable”  – not to put ourselves outside the safety net of marriage.

From small girls we are taught that failure means not being  selected by men  – the same of being a wallflower. The sign of intelligence and sublety is a contractual bargain as we hand over our virginity for a marriage document, a ring and the obligation of financial support. Orgasm is a matter of merchandise. And remember THEY don’t like us to be too clever. Well might she go to university but men want someone who can cook.


The emphasis in our education tends to be much more on integration, the encouragement of active criticism, of intellectual aggression is rare. The cautious virtues predominate. We are in an intellectual double bind. We are assumed to have nothing to say, find it difficult to assert that we want to say something, are observed to say nothing, are assumed to have nothing to say.


To stray from the definition of what “they “ want is to risk  being rejected in a double sense. There is a “moral” force behind this urge to conform. The girl who is critical of the stereotype presented to her can be condemned not simply like a boy as a rebel but as a slut as well. The latter is much more difficult to cope with. There is still the whole dirty, frightened, patronising world behind slut, tart, old slag, nymphomaniac, dolly, bird, chick, bit of stuff, bit of crumpet, old bag, silly cow, blue stocking. These words have no male equivalents.


The girl who for some reason breaks away intellectually  is in a peculiarly isolated position. She finds herself straddled across a great gulf, which grows wider, while she is pulled both ways. A most perilous and lonely condition, comparable to that of a black or working class militant. In the process of becoming interested in ideas she finds herself to some extent cut off from other girls and inclines naturally  towards boys as friends. They do more interesting things, discuss wider topics. She really defines herself as a boy. Other girls appear curious and rather boring, passive and accepting. She has little to say to most of them. The social contempt in which women are led confirms this. She is constantly being told she is “quite good for a girl”. Femininity becomes synonymous with frivolity, stupidity and narrowness. It seems obviously better to be a man. Doesn’t she feel like a man, do their things, talk their talk. It is natural for her to define her situation in terms of a kind of sub-maness.


They tell us what we are.


The image is constantly reaffirmed. The book she reads and the films she sees are almost invariably by men. The women characters created by them, however sympathetically and with whatever intuit understanding, must of necessity be the projection of their response towards women. One is simply not conscious of men writers or men film makers. They are just writers, just film makers. The reflected image for women they create will be taken straight by women themselves. These characters “are” women.


Throughout this process the educated girl probably takes her “emancipation” as being beyond question, not worth even starting discussing. The suffragettes  happened a long time ago. Men will readily accept her as different, an exception, an interesting diversion. She lives in fact as a man. There might be a hint of strain over her virginity, a flicker of doubt, the discovery of a strange duplicity lurking still in men. But no connection is obvious. She cannot see a condition of women.


It is not until she becomes older, grows less decorative, has babies. That the rather deep cracks in the gloss of “emancipation” appears. She has the rest of her life to explore the limits and ambiguities of her “freedom”.


And what a spurious freedom.


We walk and we talk and think as living contradictions. Most of us find the process too painful and not surprisingly settle for limited liberated areas. We give up struggling on every front and ease into a niche of acceptance.


We become the educated housewife desperately  searching for dignity and fulfilment through ever more elaborate  cooking recipes or constant redecorate schemes, suspicious  and defensive about women who are unmarried women or women who work.


Or the occupational variant of this Proopism doing a womanly womaness to a very male style. They are of course simply avoiding the issue in a peculiarly complicit and  false way.


Obversely we become the popular (distorted)  image of the suffragette. A tweedy sensibly shod battle axe  with a severe hair style and a deep voice, advancing aggressively on the male world and the board room. The sexual corollary of this the retreat into lesbianism.


Both share a profound distaste for the male. Emancipation is doing without men.


Our other retreat is into sexuality. Because women have traditionally been deprived of the power to make “free” choice, our bodies have been part of somebody else’s belongings., we prove that we have control, that we are liberated simply by fucking.  But if the definition of our constraint is not extended beyond sexuality we are only entrammelled in a greater bondage. We may not be choosing but reacting, ironically under the compulsion of our real subordination. We could be expressing in our sexual life the very essence of our secondariness and the destructive contradictions in our consciousness, through the inability to meet and  communicate and love with a man at every level. The same “free” woman could still expect men to pay for her, buy her expensive presents. She must of course be excessively preoccupied with her appearance and regard other women’s men as fair game.  After all she needs constantly the reassurance  that she is  wanted and beautiful  because only through these is she capable of defining her freedom. We shelter as well as retreat.  We take refuge behind the privilege  of class and education, using the manner and accent of the rulers to secure  respect and serious consideration, a protected dignity at the expense of the working class, and  a protected liberation based on the underpaid labour of an au pair.


Most of us  live a particular combination of these or run the whole gamut knowing them for subterfuge  – at certain moments struggling through and beyond them all. But it seems that capitalism condemns all people to live deceitfully. How can we be expected to live otherwise?


They have nothing to say to you if you’re earning £8 a week, or if you’re poor and  working class and in a VD clinic.If you’re economically exploited and socially despised you exist outside the bounds of  these emancipations. They forget that we are oppressed within the class system.


Moreover they never go beyond confirmation or denial of what men say we are. We never tell them what we are. We never take hold of our definitions. We consequently admit our failure to be whole.


Marxists have quite rightly always stressed that the subordination of women is part of the total mutual devouring process called capitalism.  No one group can be liberated except through  a transformation of the whole structure of social relationships.


But this has been twisted into a rather glib justification for inactivity and quietism.

  1. Wait until the revolution, we’ll dole out your equality then. (Oh no you won’t, power never concedes remember).
  2. Of course we know the bourgeois family exercises a conservative constraining force and through its structure subordinates the woman especially. But people won’t give up their families. They like them therefore the whole liberation of women is a dead issue. (What about a bit of praxis comrade to break down the sexual division of labour – washing up floors, scrubbing.)

OK so the revolution will sort everything out. But what about releasing a whole lot of people to work for it? What about showing thousands of women  the revolution is something to do with them?  True we won’t get far without really radical change. True there is  the whole rigidity  of job structure, unequal pay,  deep cultural, presuppositions  – in fact  capitalism.  Meanwhile what’s wrong with finding out really what people resent, what’s wrong with presenting them with alternatives  which spring from  an understanding  of their discontent. Don’t ask women if they regard themselves  as victims of   as victims of an exploitative  capitalist society, don’t ask them  if they think  their relations within the family  are unauthentic.  Ask them how they feel about their pay and being pushed around  at work, about being patronised as fluffy  little things, about always baby sitting.  Why is marriage a matter for dirty jokes or the very mention of the wife enough to get a laugh. Why  those strange stag rituals, the psychosomatic  illnesses, the mysterious fatigue, the desolateness of so many women.


There are infinite practical possibilities, which could be made to happen under capitalism but would be more feasible under socialism and would help illustrate what it’s about. For example, the campaign for equal pay and economic independence is crucial. As for the family, why  simply nursery schools, why not crèches at the workplace of both the father and mother  with time off from work  to play with the children, who would get to know both parents too. Or numerous street and flat co-operatives for looking after children, for baby sitting and visiting the old. If adolescents, whether young workers or people at school, didn’t want to live at home why couldn’t they go in flats which they ran themselves.  These would provide another means of looking after old people.


Certainly these would mean a real liberation for many women. But subordination is not an affair of economics or institutions only. Nor is it only to do with contraception , abortion, orgasm and sexual equality, important  as these are.


It is an assumed secondariness which dwells in a whole complex of inarticulate  attitudes, in smirks, in offsides, in insecurities, in desperate status  differentiation. Secondariness happens in people’s  heads and is expressed every time they do not speak, every time they they assume no-one would listen. It is located in a structure in which sexes are tragically trapped. The man as much as the woman, for each time he tries to break through, he meets the hostility of other men or the conflicting demands of those women who prefer the traditional sex game. It is only women who can dissolve the assumption. It is only women who can say what they feel because the experience is unique to them.


Only women can define themselves.  To define yourself you have to explore yourself, you have to find yourself as a group before you can say how you regard yourself as a group. It is only by understanding your situation as a group that can relate  it to the system  through which you are dominated.


This means a certain withdrawal into the group  and a realisation on the part of  the elite of a common identity… the privileged woman  has to extend beyond her elite consciousness to learn the extent of her common condition with the unprivileged woman. Only then can women really challenge the external definition imposed on them, become sufficiently conscious to act and thus be recognised as being there. The enemy is not identified as man. This is as futile as as a black white student conflict. The ally is not the woman who supports and benefits from capitalism. It is all people who are being crushed and twisted, who want space and air and time to sit in the sun.

But the oppressed have to discover their own dignity, their own freedom, they have to make themselves equal. They have to decolonise themselves. Then they can liberate the colonisers.