“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:
- 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.
The contribution of socialist women to the instigation of International Women’s Day seems to have been virtually written out of the history of the Day. So here’s my small effort to put them back into the picture, and also recall a number of radical and revolutionary women over the past century.
On 5th March 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, including many immigrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.
The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. In her article on the origins of International Women’s Day Alicia Williamson writes: “Turning out a few thousand celebrants, meetings around the city featured addresses by prominent suffragists such as the Women Trade Union League’s Leonora O’Reilly and the Political Equality League’s Priscilla Hackstaff in addition to socialists like Anita Block, Meta Stern, Meyer London, and Algernon Lee. Besides chanting the slogan that O’Reilly had recently coined at a protest in Albany (‘We do not want the ballot, we need it’), speakers lambasted elite conservative opponents. London in particular derided the privileged, male politician who would sermonize about the ‘sanctity of the home’ while sending ‘our children to the shop,’ or who would ‘meet a lady in a car, tip his hat, and offer a seat, but refuse to make a law that [would] provide a seat for a woman who works for ten hours a day in a factory.'”
In November 1909 Clara Lemlich led thousands of women workers in New York, mostly Jewish, out on strike after she declared at a meeting: “ I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike”. After a three months strike they won better working conditions and improved pay.
On 26 and 27 August 1910, the second International Women’s Socialist Conference took place in Copenhagen. (The first meeting had taken place in 1907 at the suggestion of German Socialist women). German Socialists Luise Zietz, Kate Duncker, Clara Zetkin and others successfully proposed the following motion:
“In order to forward political enfranchisement of women it is the duty of the Socialist women of all countries to agitate..indefatigably amongst the labouring masses; enlighten them by discourses and literature about the social necessity and importance of the female sex and use therefore every opportunity of doing so…if the women have no vote, or a limited one, the socialist women must unite and guide them into the struggle for their right; …On the occasion of the annual May day demonstration…the request of full political equality of the sexes must be proclaimed and substantiated. In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organise a special Women’s Day which in the first line has to promote Women’s Suffrage propaganda. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole women’s organisation according to the socialist conception of social things.”
This is part of a report on the conference written by the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai. “The conference agenda included, in addition to the organisational question of establishing closer links between organised socialist women from different countries, two major issues: 1) ways and means of achieving in practice universal suffrage for women and 2) social security and protection for mother and child. Despite these seemingly specifically female topics, the conference in Copenhagen was free of that sickly-sweet ‘feminine flavour’ which provokes such irrepressible boredom in the practical politician who is used to the ‘cut and thrust’ of real political battle… The questions discussed at the conference were examined not only from the point of view of the common tasks of proletarian class policy, but were also, and inevitably, supplemented with more general demands. The fate of Finland, a country with an extremely democratic system of popular representation, the question of war, peace and the fight against militarism, the struggle against domestic manufacture and night work, compelled those taking part in the congress to move beyond the narrow framework of feminine issues and, having become more familiar with wide-ranging, urgent issues, to join in the active struggle being waged by the many millions who compose the army of the organised working class… (International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers )
Clara Zetkin was the leading campaigner within the German Socialists on the issue of women’s rights. This is a link to a speech she made at the Party Congress of the German Social Democratic Party on 16th October 1896, “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious”. Between 1892 and 1917 she edited Die Gleichheit (Freedom), a bi-montly journal for women workers with a circulation of tens of thousands. Her writings were translated in English and read abroad. In April 1909 she visited London at the invitation of Dora Montefiore, speaking at a number of meetings, including the annual May Day rally in Hyde Park. In December 1913 the British Labour party journal Labour Woman published an article by Clara which you can read here. Clara was a close friend of Rosa Luxembourg who, after moving to Germany from Poland, became one of the most pro speakers and propagandists in the German Socialist party.
On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Looking back, Alexandra Kollonta wrote in 1920: “Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”
In 1913 the Day was fixed on 8 March. One of the earliest marches in Britain took place in London on 8 March 1914, when there was a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage. The women were marching to join a meeting organised by the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The Manchester Guardian reported:
“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”. Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.
At the end of February 1917 Russian women went on strike and poured onto the streets of St Petersburg, calling for “Bread and Peace: they demanded an end of World War I, an end to food shortages, and and an end to rule by the Tsar. Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.”
In January 1919 Rosa Luxembourg was murdered and her body thrown into a canal in Berlin after a failed rising by the Spartacist League, a Communist group she had helped found. In her last editorial before her death, “Order Prevails in Berlin” in her newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Banner) she wrote:
“The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this ‘defeat’ they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this ‘defeat.’ ‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!” You can read the whole article here.
Between the wars International Women’s Day continued to be celebrated in different countries. There was also other women’s activity connected with the labour and socialist movement. In June 1925 women in the Labour Party held a Women’s Week with meetings and rallies in many parts of the country at which the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson, Mary Carlin, Jane Hooper, Margaret Bondfield, Clare Annesley, Helen Crawfurd and many others. In Kirkmuirhall on 6 June the Women’s Section organised a Children’s Gala. Labour Woman reported that : “Over 500 children met at the ILP Hall and marched to a field, headed by the Coalbrun and District Pipe Band , which refused a paid engagement that day in order to lead the children. Tea was served by memener sof the section, and after tea Sports were held at which £8 worth of prizes were given to the children. Every child received something.” In Lincoln, despite the stormy weather the women held a successful rally. “A procession headed by bands and banners marched to Boultham Hall Park and included a decorated char-a-banc and waggons representative of various planks in albour’s programme. A novel feature was decorated lorry which represented Englan’s , and especailly Lincolm’s, need of trade with Russia.”
In Spain when the Army, led by Franco and other generals, staged a coup on 17 July 1936 which led to a three year Civil War, they were fought and defeated in many towns by local workers’ militia. Many women joined the militia and fought who were known as “milicianas. Once the initial phase of the Civil War was over, though, they were sent home. The photograph to the left shows 17 year old Marina Ginestà on the rooftop of the Hotel Colon in Barcelona on 21 July 1936. She was a member of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia and was reporting on the war, assisting Mikhail Koltsov from Pravda. Later in the war she was evacuated to France after she was wounded. She died in Paris in January 2014 , aged 94. When she was shown the photograph Marina said “It reflects the feeling we had at that moment. Socialism had arrived, the customers of the hotel had left. There was euphoria. We temporarily set ourselves up at the Colón, we ate well, as if the bourgeois life were ours and we had moved up in category very quickly.”
The second wave of feminism began in 1967 in the USA, developing out of the radical and anti-Vietnam movement. The first major Women’s Liberation Movement demonstration took place on 7 September 1968 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, outside the Miss America About 400 women were drawn together from across the United States to a protest outside the event. You can watch a short clip of this here.
The movement crossed the Atlantic and struck a chord amongst women involved in the radical left, many of them Marxists. In their history of the movement, Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Bea Campbell wrote that: ” Contrary to popular belief, the new feminists were not foot loose and fancy-free; most were married and freshly acquainted with motherhood…Many were members of the left-wing intelligentsia –a staunchly masculine society in which women were active and committed, yet felt themselves confined to the periphery.”
Women’s rights were already in the air after women workers at Fords in Dagenham and Halewood went on strike for three weeks for equal pay in August 1968. Janet Blackman commented in an article in Trade Union Register that:
“The strike of nearly 400 Ford women machinists at Dagenham and Halewood last summer lifted the old boring subject of the unequal treatment of women on to a different plane. Yes, boring, because of the rut into which the campaign had stuck…The Ford women machinists swung the debate about women’s rights away from the concerns – albeit very real problems – of the middle class and professional women to those of the woman worker, successfully perhaps for the first time since the match girls’ strike of 1888. By September, 1968 the TUC was passing a resolution supporting industrial action as a possible means of obtaining equal pay.”
In January 1969 the New Left journal The Black Dwarf proclaimed that 1969 would be “The Year of the Militant Women.” Sheila Rowbotham edited this issue and in her own contribution, “The Struggle for Freedom,” she wrote:
Oh so you’ve heard it all before
Ok so you’re bored
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 want 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 you all the time, every day
Wherever you go, all your life.
Sheila then wrote a lengthy pamphlet called Women’s Liberation and the New Politics, published by the May Day Manifesto group in 1969, and went on to write many influential books on feminism and on women’s history. The first Women’s Liberation newsletter came out in May 1969, produced by the London Women’s Liberation Workshop. It was originally called Harpie’s Bizarre, and after issue 3, Shrew.
In February 1970 the first Women’s Liberation conference took place over a weekend at Ruskin College, Oxford, with hundreds of women attending, whilst the men ran the creche. Catherine Hall went, who was involved with a women’s group in Birmingham and had come to feminist consciousness after having her first child. She later described it as a “utopian moment . . . It’s hard to convey now the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman, and to have a language to talk about that, and not conceiving of it as an individual issue, but a collective and social issue. ” Michelene Wandor also went and recalled:
“For me the Ruskin weekend was an exhilarating and confusing revelation. It was, I think, the first time I had been away from children and husband, away from my secure home structure. Here I was surrounded by about six hundred women, all far more politically sophisticated than I was, all seemingly articulate and knowledgeable about the role of women in history, the position of women in today’s world: who could formulate profound questions about the relationship between class, gender and race, who could simultaneously quote and criticise Marx (whom I had not read) and who seemed hell-bent on changing the world our self-image as women.”
In November 1970 the movement gained national attention when a group disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall, hurling flour and smoke bombs during Bob Hope’s act. Sarah Wilson was chosen to start the protest. “When Bob Hope was going on and on with terrible, grotesque stuff, I got up and swung my football rattle. It seemed ages before anybody responded – people were lighting their cigarettes to ignite the smoke bombs – but then I saw stuff beginning to cascade down.” You can watch the protest here.
The next key event in spreading the movement was the first Women’s Liberation march which took place on 6 March 1971 in London. This was planned imaginatively with banners, a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in cage wearing a tiara, as well as co-ordinated dancing and music. There were a good few children on the march. You can watch videos of the march here and here. Jill Tweedie reported on the march for The Guardian. She wrote:
“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.”
You can read the whole report here.
This is a short television report on Women’s Liberation from 1971 with a number of interviews, including one with May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s Liberation activists. May spoke at the march in 1971 mentioned above. You can watch the report here.
The Socialist-Feminist current within Women’s Liberation was very strong until the end of the 1970s with numerous groups and networks, some connected to socialist political organisations, some not. The publications they produced included Bristol Women’s Charter, IS Women’s Newsletter, Red Rag, Scarlet Women, Socialist Woman, Women In Action, Women’s Struggle Notes and Women’s Voice. There were many women involved: a national Socialist-Feminist conference in Manchester in 1978 attracting over 1,000 women, for instance. In their first issue the collective producing Red Rag wrote:
“We stand for a revolutionary change in society, for ending capitalism and establishing socialism. We challenge whatever and whoever denies the right of women to be free – from economic inequality and from the tyranny of the role forced upon them in our society. Our aim is to help build an alliance between women liberators and the working class movement.”
At the end of the 1970s the movement went in many different directions, and this seems a good place therefore to end this brief survey. My thanks to Alicia Williamson for allowing me to quote from her article.
Anna Coote and Bea Campbell, Sweet Freedom: the struggle for women’s liberation (1982)
Elzbieta Etinger, Rosa Luxembourg: a Life (1986)
Shulamith Firestone, The Women’s Rights Movement in the USA (1968)
Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political” and other writings
Bernadette Hyland, Northern ReSisters; conversations with radical women (2015)
Feminist Anthology Collective (editors), No Turning Back: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1975-1980 (1981)
May Hobbs, Born to Struggle (1973)
Sarah Maitland, Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (1988)
Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution”, New Left Review, December 1966,
Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (1971)
Robin Morgan, Sisterhood Is Powerful, an anthology of writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970)
Angela Neustatter, Hyenas in Petticoats, a look at twenty years of feminism (1989)
Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973)
Shelia Rowbotham, Dream and Dilemmas: collected writings (1983)
Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000)
Marsha Rowe (editor), Spare Rib Reader: 100 issues of Women’s Liberation (1982)
See Red Women’s Workshop archive site
Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (2007)
Sisterhood and After : an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement. A series of interviews on the British Library website
Michelene Wandor, The Body Politic (1972)
Michelene Wandor, Once a Feminist, Stories of a Generation (1990)
Clara Zetkin, Selected Writings, edited by Philp S Foner.