Pioneering feminist Anna Wheeler and “The Rights of Women” (1830)

Anna Doyle Wheeler 1785-1848

Anna Doyle  was born in Limerick where her father was Protestant archbishop. She was married at the age of 15, to a neighbour, Francis Massey Wheeler,  and had 6 children.  It was not a good marriage,   but Anna did  find time to  pursue her  self-education,  sending off for to London for bundles of  novels  and books on philosophy. She received Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft  in one bundle and it was a  revelation.

In 1812 she left her husband and went to live with her uncle in Guernsey, and then on to France where she became involved with the followers of  Henri Saint Simon, a early proponent of Socialism.  Whilst in France she  also became friendly with  Flora Tristan, an artist,  writer and feminist,  and  Charles Fourier, another early Socialist, whose works she translated into English.

Returning to England she got to know Jeremy Bentham, Robert Owen and William Thompson, the Irish  political economist. Moving regularly between England and France , she was an important conduit for ideas between these emerging groups of Socialists, a discussions to which she contributed in her own right.

In 1825 she co-wrote with Thompson  The Appeal of One half of the Human Race, Woman, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men. To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery; In Reply to a Parargraph of Mr. Mill’s Celebrated “Article On Government“.  In his essay the philosopher James Mill  had  justified the exclusion of women from the suffrage.

It begins in rousing fashion:

 Women of England! women, in whatever country ye breathe–wherever ye breathe, degraded–awake! Awake to the contemplation of the happiness that awaits you when all your faculties of mind and body shall be fully cultivated and developed;

The authors go on to state

To obtain equal rights, the basis of equal happiness with men, you must be respected by them; not merely desired, like rare meats, to pamper their selfish appetites. To be respected by them, you must be respectable in your own eyes; you must exert more power, you must be more useful. You must regard yourselves as having equal capabilities of contributing to the general happiness with men, and as therefore equally entitled with them to every enjoyment. You must excercise these capabilites, nor cease to remonstrate till no more than equal duties are exacted from you, till no more than equal punishments are inflicted upon you, till equal enjoyments and equal means of seeking happiness are permitted to you as to men.

They advocate “Mutual Co-operation” as the only remedy for the position of women

This scheme of social arrangements is the only one which will complete and for ever insure the perfect equality and entire reciprocity of happiness between women and men… Large numbers of men and women co-operating together for mutual happiness, all their possessions and means of enjoyment being the equal property of all–individual property and competition for ever excluded…

Anna  became an Owenite lecturer,  speaking on “The Rights of Women” at venues such as  South Place  Chapel, Finsbury. One of  lecture she gave there was published in the British Co-operator in 1830.  She also wrote articles for the Owenite newspaper The Crisis under  the pen-name “Concordia”.  In the 1830s she helped found the French feminist journal, Tribune des Femmes.

William Thompson died on   20 March 1833 in Ireland, while  Anne died on 7 May 1848 in London. Her great-grand-daughter, incidentally, was the suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton.

This  is her speech on “The Rights of Women” as printed in the British Co-operator.

 In conceding to the solicitations of the managers of this Institution, to deliver a Lecture on the : “Social Condition of Women,” I have had to struggle against a two-fold obstacle, that of depressed health, and a mind robbed of much of its energy and elasticity by a deep domestic sorrow. And while I feel the difficulty of employing a moderate language, in speaking  of the degraded position of my sex, I am on the other hand but too well aware, that the remarks I am about to make, will draw upon me the hate of most men, together with that of the greater portion of the very sex whose rights (at the present stage of my existence) I attempt to advocate, with a dis interestedness which finds no rall ing point in Self.  But what appears to me the most cheerless part of my task — I would almost say the “forlorn hope of my enterprise,” is that I am doubtful, whether any material good can be effected by this and similar lectures, seeing as I do, the rottenness of our institutions, and those especially which smell of  rank injustice, in the disabilities set up against half the human race : Woman !  

Nevertheless I shall attempt this task, stimulated by hope, which  some friends entertain, that by so doing I contribute to the support of a truly liberal institution (as I understand this to be) besides,  offering an example, which might produce the most beneficial results, if followed up, on similar principles, and acted upon by a competent  number of Women.  Should I however fail to awaken attention, in that portion of my audience, most immediately interested in my remarks, (if indeed what concerns all can be said to relate particularly to some,) I shall  at least have discharged a debt to society, which its own increasing liberality enables me to pay, by permitting this public appeal !  For myself I confess, that ” to die and make no sign” expressive of my horror, indignation and bitter contempt, for that state of society called civilized, which in fact  nothing more than barbarism masked, playing off its brute absurdities under wisdom’s guise, (through which however the cloven foot never fails to appear, and more particularly so in the destiny it has assigned to women,) would, I feel, complete the measure of my regret for having lived only to serve and suffer, in my capacity of slave and woman ; but the opportunity afforded me now, to leave one parting admonition to Society, will greatly mitigate those regrets which I feel, in common with every good mind, when denied the power of being more actively useful.  

After this introduction to a question, that may indeed be called a Pivot, on which all our social interests turn — it would manifest little respect for the intelligence of my hearers, were I to offer any apology for the remarks I am about to make — Men and Women, must be prepared, to find me laying aside that cheat courtesy, speaking to facts, and holding the mirror up — Not indeed to nature, (for man’s cruel social code has stultified, if not stifled nature in him,) but to some mockery of himself, some distorted image of a goodly nature, warped in all its fair proportions by the evil genius vanity, who condemns him to be his own tormentor, in being the enemy and oppressor of Woman !

 Before I proceed further, it may be necessary to say, that I have no antipathy to men but only to institutions ; no leaning to the interests of one sex above the other ; my object is to deprecate that narrow, stupid policy which divides their interests, and in so doing, makes a pandemonium of our earth, by forcing its inhabitants to be in constant opposition to each other !  Whatever then may be the force of the terms I employ, to decry the monstrous, degraded condition of my sex, I beg to be understood, as speaking, more in sorrow than in anger ; more with regret, for the loss of happiness to both sexes, than to either in particular. It is not in the nature of Woman (when she has strength of character sufficient to preserve original feelings, and reject those which are forced upon her adoption) to wish to mete out undue proportions of good, for one sex above the other — her destiny is to be the mother of both, and nature, whose laws are general and not partial, makes no distinction in a mother’s love !  

When I advocate the Rights of Women then, I do it under the most perfect conviction, that I am also pleading the cause of men by showing the mighty influence Women hold over the happiness or misery of men themselves, according as they are instructed or ignorant, as they are fettered or free, as they act on principles^ not teamed by rote, but acquired through the full development of their own faculties, not put into movement like machines, or led like beasts of burden, at the capricious will of a master, or in  stupid routine, by that many headed despot custom ! So true it is that, “though men make the law, it it women who mould the manners and morals of society ; and according as they are enlightened or ignorant, do they spin the web of human destiny.  It may be difficult for those, who have not studied the complexity of social movement, to conceive how beings, apparently deprived of all power, can possess so much, particularly as all the ingenuity of short sighted cunning legislators, has been exhausted, not only to make, but keep them passive instruments of man’s will ; well knowing, that the most effectual means of perpetuating the ignorance, and consequent slavery of men themselves, was to close the door effectually to all progressive improvement in woman, by assigning to her the lowest position in the scale of being, that which connects itself solely with man’s mere animal wants !  

But how does nature avenge her wrongs, and those of eternal justice, in refusing to cultivate women’s intellectual faculties. Men are caught in their own snares ; and the ignorance, that they would exclusively confine to women, soon becomes general, and works itself into a very solid chain of fallacies and errors, which ultimately leads opinion ; and opinion, whatever be the direction given to it, is always sure to be triumphant !  Woman it is, who by a stupid servile submission to man’s arbitrary will, gives stability to all his selfish propensities, and which encountering no judgment in their passage to her mind, leaves it the recipient of every foul and monstrous error ; thus, like the fabled Pandora, she spreads the contents of the fatal box through all society  

 Oh ! how contagious is error ! Prejudice becomes fixed principle,  omnipotent always, in proportion as its tendency is mischievous. Thus man, by his narrow views of mere personal interest, his jealous monopoly of rights and privileges, his absurd system of  sexual morality (as if indeed this can be a virtue and that a vice, which is not distinctly vice or virtue in everybody) ; his setting up individual as opposed to general interests has plunged him in perpetual warfare with his species ! Hence the results we read of, and witness : vice, crime, and dissocial anarchy abound, misery, privation and suffering, in every degree that our nature is susceptible of; happiness is lost to all, because security is unknown to any.  This alas ! must ever be the case, whilst our social system is based on principles of discord, while unity of action is sacrificed, in all our arrangements, and the most striking  lessons that experience can offer, are neither attended to nor under-stood !  But I must not lose time in vain declamations against the vicious tendency of our institutions which have been termed by hireling advocates, ” the perfection of human reason.”

What a satire this, on human reason ! As well indeed might we discover perfection in the first rude attempts at sculpture, as in that mass of inconsistency and folly which our laws presents, and which is as much the caricature of reason, as the other is of the human face and form.  If reason means anything, it means a generalizing faculty of the human mind, which finds, ’tis true, its source in instinct but its limits only in experience. When left uncultivated we lose all the advantages  which should distinguish the human from the brute animal, and thus, by screwing up human reason to the sticking point perfection, all clue has been lost  to social happiness.  In the abstract we are willing to admit, that nothing can be good which produces permanently evil effects : the social history of man abundantly shows that nothing’ is \\XOXt perfectly imperfect and irrational, than laws and institutions which do not recognise the general interest of all mankind.  But let us examine the grounds of disabilities set up by men, to disfranchise half the human race, Women ; the effects of this treatment on us and on themselves ; and whether indeed there is any essential difference between the sexes, which can authorise the superiority men claim over women ?

What are the causes of, and who are accountable, for the seeming difference which makes the sum of their plea ?  It will,I think appear, that man’s own tyranny has created the distinction which he ungenerously sets up as a just cause for its exercise.  FIRST : Deficiency  of muscular strength has been deemed a sufficient reason for reducing them to vassalage, not to mention the grosser barbarities, which we know to be the daily practice of men towards beings whose happiness is so inseparably linked with their own, and which the law, the written law that stupendous monu- ment of man’s disgrace, not only sanctions but dictates to every known extent, save but the murderous blow, which ends the sufferings of the victim ; and for this show of mercy, man’s own life is forfeited. All experience proves how little reason men have to triumph, in the base possession of an authority which unnatural violence and usurpation first put into their hands, and which has not, as is presumed, found its excuse in the physical or moral organization of Women. As to to the first charge of bodily weak-ness, strange enough.

Monsieur de Chateaubriand, in his book of martyrs (an appropriate place to find a chapter on Women,) brings a host of evidence, from travellers and naturalists, to prove that this deficiency of strength in Woman,  is nothing but a civilized disease, imposed no doubt, on women, to shorten the duration of life, and to provide men with a rapid succession of youthful slaves ; in short a  civil or civilized way of getting rid of a superfluous number; less shocking though not less cruel, than that resorted to, by other nations which cannot boast the high degree of civilization of our own. So that this supposed organic weakness, which condemns women to be slaves, is by no means borne out by fact. Savage tribes acknowledge it not, and men everywhere choosing their occupation compel women to drudgery, while they themselves engage in the most pleasurable and profitable pursuits of life.  

 

 

 

 

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