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Seen but not heard? Women's platforms, respectability, and female publics in the mid-nineteenth century.

This article explores the role of the press in defining the boundaries of respectable feminine activity in the public sphere in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Through an examination of the reporting of women's meetings and appeals to female opinion, it demonstrates that although women who engaged in public controversy risked ridicule and condemnation, it was possible for women's engagement in the public sphere to be portrayed as respectable and even desirable by developing the notion of a virtuous female public opinion based solely on consensus rather than controversy. This was achieved by selective reporting of women's meetings, usually excluding any reference to debates and individual speeches, and concentrating only on the outcome. The article proceeds to consider the broadening opportunities for women to address mixed audiences on topics such as female education and social reform. It concludes that the stifling of public debate between women in order to uphold an ideal of female moral purity was a price that women had to pay in order to have an influence on public opinion, and that such ideals of feminine respectability continued to shape women's access to platforms long after the hypocrisy of moral arguments against women's involvement in political debate had been exposed and the existence of a unified "female opinion" thrown into doubt.


Researching the public activities of nineteenth-century women can be a frustrating business, especially when it comes to searching for evidence of women's occupying platforms and addressing public audiences. This is especially the case when one is interested in the respectable middle-classes who lacked the freedom brought alike by landed wealth or relative poverty. Nonetheless, the local press reveals that in the period from 1830 to 1860 a small number of women were able to make public addresses, while a larger but more shadowy number could increasingly be found occupying platforms at public debates, remaining silent but fulfilling an important symbolic role. That they were allowed and often encouraged to do so can be explained by the belief that developed in the existence of a specifically female public opinion that could be appealed to on issues of great moment or that had a bearing on the moral improvement of the nation and its people.

This article examines different ways in which the platform was used to reach and shape female opinion, and it explores the extent to which women themselves could address audiences without fear of compromising their feminine respectability. It will be argued that the press played an important part in policing the boundaries of what was acceptable and unacceptable for women to discourse upon in public, and that it often imposed an unofficial censorship by excluding the speeches of women from its reports. This was not simply a case of removing women entirely from the 'public' domain of rational debate, but a means by which women's agency in the public sphere could be harnessed for particular political or civic projects without exposing them to allegations of becoming "unsexed" by open involvement in political controversy. The dangers of such allegations are apparent in the hostile press reports of radical women's meetings, generally attended by lower-class women, which concentrated on casting aspersions on the participants' feminine respectability rather than on a rational engagement with the issues raised.

As a result of recent critiques of the work of Jurgen Habermas, we are well aware of the existence of multiple and even overlapping 'publics'. (1) As the examples below demonstrate, by the middle of the nineteenth century it was perfectly possible for women to hold public meetings on their own account and to address gatherings of women in a variety of settings; but this was quite a different thing from broadcasting their words to the wider public addressed by the mainstream press. However, even this definition of the public had its limits. In the West Riding of Yorkshire, from which most of the examples in this essay are taken, the major newspapers increasingly defined their public as the respectable middle classes, who were popularly supposed to be the center of "public opinion" after the debates over the Great Reform Act of 1832. (2) Although this public was usually assumed to be masculine, women were not entirely excluded from it. All kinds of female activities found their way into print, especially those connected with philanthropic and improving activities of the sort that lay at the heart of middle-class identity. (3) Indeed, newspaper editors and the advocates of urban improvement (and they were frequently the same people) could appeal to female public opinion on a wide variety of issues, as long as the conventions that excluded women from party-political questions were observed.

For an elite riven by the divisions of sect and party, the supposed existence of a female public motivated solely by higher moral concerns and elevated above the political fray was extremely useful when it came to promoting ideals of civic consensus and cooperation. (4) From the late eighteenth century the support of female public opinion was solicited for a range of improving initiatives and campaigns, from the abolition of slavery to the support of local cultural and philanthropic associations. Such appeals reflected both an appreciation of the material benefit to be gained from female support, and also the great moral force wielded by women, who could not be accused of acting for personal gain or political advancement.

However, women entering the public domain in this way risked exposing themselves to ridicule from those who saw it as their duty to police the boundaries of feminine respectability. This meant that great care had to be taken in the way their actions were represented, both by themselves and others. Commonly, women's public activities were portrayed as being the natural extension of their domestic responsibilities and virtues, with the emphasis on selflessness and care for others. According to Sarah Stickney Ellis, one of the most influential writers on the subject, "the perfection of the female character is a combination of private and public virtues,--of domestic charity, and zeal for the temporal and eternal happiness of the whole human race". (5) Women's public and private virtue were therefore inextricably linked, and Ellis only considered female public activity as dangerous if the temptations of public praise and vanity lured women away from their domestic duties. (6)

Ellis' logic meant that respectable women could not be seen to enter the public arena in search of worldly praise and personal aggrandisement, but only for higher moral or patriotic purposes. Hence appeals to the female public often borrowed the evangelical language of "Woman's Mission," or were addressed in patriotic terms to the "Women of England." It is no coincidence that both of these phrases were used in the titles of two of the most influential contemporary conduct books. (7) However, this myth of a single, indivisible female constituency, unerringly casting its powerful though intangible influence on the side of truth and justice, required a great effort to maintain--especially as the number of causes identified as "women's questions" continued to multiply. Yet it had to be maintained if women were to preserve their respectability and act as social cement for the divided urban elite.

Herein lies the paradox that explains the virtual absence of women's public speeches from printed sources. As historians well know, consensus is usually achieved only on the back of a great deal of debate and disagreement. Yet for women to maintain their moral authority, which depended to a great extent on not competing with men for public attention and reward, they had to avoid precisely the kinds of public disputes and controversies which were the foundation of men's political careers. Even when women became involved in issues as divisive as the Corn Laws, their male supporters went out of their way to portray their actions as founded upon a straightforward moral decision, even while they launched appeals to feminine sympathy based on personal or class interest. (8) The cost of doing so was the suppression of female voices.

When Basil Woodd was asked to undertake a tour through the West Riding on behalf of the Church Missionary Society in 1813, he replied "I do not see the expediency of sending ministers from London to Yorkshire ... it has an aspect of publicity which I do not like. I am willing to succour the cause in my own little sphere, but do not ask me to take long journeys." (9) Woodd's fears speak eloquently about the perceived dangers of public exposure at the time. During the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with fluctuating fears of foreign invasion and revolutionary anarchy at home, public meetings and associations of all kinds were suppressed or severely curtailed. In Leeds a discussion society attended by the journalist Edward Baines and the Anglican surgeon William Hey during the 1790s had to conduct its proceedings in the presence of magistrates to ensure that seditious topics were not discussed. (10) Even without such pressures, a tour to the north to address unfamiliar audiences outside one's "own little sphere" was a daunting prospect, even for a man. In this context, "publicity" itself was new and unfamiliar territory with pejorative overtones.

Woodd eventually agreed to undertake the tour and was well received. Over subsequent decades, largely through the efforts of missionary societies and other voluntary associations, the public sphere regained much of its vigor and respectability particularly after the passage of the Great Reform Act seemed to banish the immediate prospect of a revolutionary insurrection. Women played an important part in these developments, quickly becoming the mainstay of missionary societies and providing the largest proportion of the audience at the annual May meetings at Exeter Hall. (11) However, contemporaries were more comfortable with female endorsement than with the spectacle of women broadcasting their own views in public. The lurid descriptions of women's involvement in the French Revolution by the likes of Burke and Carlyle constantly reinforced the perception of female politicians as an unnatural and dangerous phenomenon. (12) As Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna put it in the Christian Ladies' Magazine, "of all the monsters in creation, a female demagogue is, next after a female infidel, the greatest outrage on the divine author." (13) Consequently, women were more or less excluded from the public platform, with the notable exception of radical reformers and freethinkers. However, due to their political views and often unconventional lifestyles these women were usually on the boundaries of respectability themselves, so their activities often served to reinforce popular prejudices against women speakers.

Helen Rogers has recently explored the evolving relationships between radical women and their publics, emphasizing for example the inability of the freethinker Eliza Sharpies to develop an effective personality cult on the lines of prominent male radicals, and examining the more conventional efforts of Chartist women to mobilize public sympathy through appeals to common experiences of motherhood. (14) In contrast to the mainstream press, radical publications were more likely to print the speeches made by meetings of female reformers, but the appearance of their words in print left them open to attack and manipulation by their loyalist opponents--attacks made all the easier by the fact that such women usually had little or no standing in polite society. Examination of the reports of one such meeting allows an analysis of the participants' attempts to portray themselves as respectable wives and mothers wronged by an indifferent government. More significantly, it also demonstrates the fragility of such representations, and women's vulnerability to willful misrepresentation by a hostile press. As such, it stands as a stark reminder of the difficulties facing women from respectable families who wished to contribute to social or political reform without compromising their position in society.

In 1838, a number of prominent female radicals held a meeting at the village of Elland in the West Riding. The meeting was to demonstrate the strength of local feeling against the extension of the Poor Law Amendment Act to the industrial districts, and to organize a petition to the Queen on the subject, a respectable and acceptable alternative to petitioning Parliament. The fullest account of the meeting is to be found in the Chartist Northern Star, which printed excerpts of the speeches made by the main speakers--Susan Fearnly, Mrs Grassby, and Elizabeth Hanson--who portrayed their actions as those of wronged women trying to protect themselves and their families against a tyrannical and uncaring legislature. In particular, the law was castigated as an assault on family life that would separate women from their children and wives from husbands, thereby preventing them from performing their natural duties to either. (15) Criticism was also levelled at the assault on feminine dignity that the law represented, as women were expected to submit to having their hair cut off and to wearing "grogram gowns of shoddy and paste." (16) The tone of the speeches is reminiscent of the appeals by women to women used by the anti-slavery and temperance movements, in that they were designed to identify the campaign as a woman's issue and to win the sympathy of middle-class audiences. (17)

Apart from the Northern Star, accounts of the meeting also appeared in two other papers published in Leeds, the Whig/Liberal Leeds Mercury and the radical Leeds Times. Whereas the account in the Northern Star was restrained and allowed the women to put across their own message, the Leeds Times was far more sensationalist. Brief summaries were given of the women's speeches, but the dominant voice was that of the correspondent, whose impressionistic account emphasized the emotional and even violent nature of the audience's reaction. Thus, while Grassby was rather patronizingly praised for describing the effect of the new Poor Law "in a manner which would have done honour to a great senator," the emphasis was on the way her speech 'made tears flow so that there was scarcely a dry cheek in the meeting', while Hanson's speech
 melted the hearts and drew forth floods of tears; and [...] the
 meeting seemed ready to act upon a pledge which their eloquence had
 elicited, viz--to take vengeance upon all who support this
 oppressive law; many names were mentioned, and many suggestions
 thrown out, such as tarring and feathering &c. (18)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was this more sensationalist account of the meeting that provided the ammunition for a correspondent of the Leeds Mercury to attack the Elland petition. The comparatively moderate account in the Northern Star was not mentioned, possibly because the author was not aware of it, but it is difficult to see how it could have been construed as being so offensive to female dignity. In particular, the Mercury seized on a passage in the petition pertaining to the so-called "bastardy clauses" of the New Poor Law. (19) The petition, while appearing in full in the Leeds limes, had not been reproduced in the Northern Star This would seem to have been an astute omission, as its wording was seized upon by the Mercury correspondent in a vicious personal attack on the Elland women which implied that only those with low moral characters had anything to fear from the new law. There was no attempt to engage with the arguments put forward by the women in their speeches, let alone any admission that they had genuine, if misplaced, fears that could be dispelled by the light of reason. The letter, signed "Johannis," so well illustrates the tactics that could be employed to denigrate the characters of female agitators that it is worth quoting at length:
 I am not aware whether or not you have noticed a late meeting of
 the Ladies of Elland, got up under the auspices of Messrs.
 Pitkethley and Co., (20) to petition her Majesty on the subject of
 the New Poor Law, but I am sure you will agree with me that that
 petition may serve as an example for the ladies of Great Britain,
 and a model of purity of diction and sentiment. The Ladies ... were
 so affected and worked up at the extreme wickedness of the New Poor
 Law, that "their tears flowed until there was scarcely a dry cheek
 in the meeting."--It must, indeed, have been a sight most piteous
 to behold--melting hearts and flowing tears! No wonder that
 "tarring and feathering" filled their minds and fired their gentle
 souls! The Ladies, in their anxious wish to secure the rights and
 privileges of their hopeful offspring, informed her Majesty that
 the law in question "is monstrously unjust to our daughters,
 particularly in the bastardy clauses; for it will of necessity,
 drive them to commit suicide and child murder!'"
 Now is this not a
 dainty dish To set before a Queen!

 A virgin Queen too! O, rare Elland! What a land of purity it must
 be. It would indeed be lamentable if these virtuous daughters
 should have any restraint placed upon their wantonness by a wicked
 and heartless Act of Parliament. (21)

Johannis' ironic ascription of the title "Ladies" to the Elland women seems to have been a deliberate reference to the kinds of contemporary appeals to elite women noted above. In fact, the accounts in the Leeds Times and Northern Star never used the word, preferring the more socially inclusive term "females" instead. (22) By describing the women in this way, Joahnnis was able to lend greater force to his assault on their respectability and to draw a firm distinction in the public mind between the actions of these women and those of true "Ladies." (23) The implication was that the Elland petitioners lacked the purity of real "Ladies," personified by the virgin Queen, and so had something to fear from the Act that virtuous women did not. In part this was achieved by ignoring the conventional use of collective pronouns in such petitions to refer to all women rather than specific individuals or groups. Instead he construed the phrase "our daughters" as a specific reference to the daughters of the petitioners, and proceeded to use the implication to question the morality of women who would prefer not to have their daughters' sexuality shackled by law. Finally, aspersions were cast on the moral purity of the village of Elland itself for having played host to such a movement, no doubt as a way of mobilizing peer pressure from other inhabitants against further meetings. With some of the women being forced to defend themselves in print, it is little wonder that many others refused to take the risk of exposing themselves to such attacks. (24)

The experiences of these radical women should be compared and contrasted with the ability of the middle-class dominated campaigns against slavery to mobilize large numbers of respectable women in comparative safety, despite the fact that the anti-slavery movement had pioneered some of the methods and much of the rhetoric used by radical women in the 1830s and 1840s. (25) This difference was largely due to the emergence of a moral consensus against slavery, the fact that by the 1830s the problem was primarily a colonial one, and the fact that antislavery agitation in itself did not threaten the domestic social and political order. The latter points are underlined by the criticism levelled against middle-class antislavery campaigners by women radicals, who pointed out their willingness to oppose exploitation overseas while ignoring poverty and want in their own towns. (26) However, the middle-class anti-slavery campaigners also tended to be more circumspect about how they presented themselves in public. While Midgley emphasizes the significance of independent women's organizations, which pushed the boundaries of female political involvement through the direct petitioning of parliament and the extensive use of public buildings for their meetings, she also points out that their use of the local press for propaganda purposes was more intermittent than male societies, and that women were never reported in the press as giving speeches. Instead, as with the missionary societies, public meetings consisting largely of women were lectured at length by male speakers. (27)

The anti-slavery movement played a key role in the emergence of an idealized and politically neutral female public opinion that could be called upon to support a wide variety of causes, so long as it could be proved that those causes transcended party politics and were for the benefit of the whole community. The classic example of this, and one of the most strikingly successful uses of the platform to enlist the support of middle-class women, was the agitation against the corn laws led by the Anti-Corn Law League.

During the course of its existence, the Anti-Corn Law League mobilized thousands of women to sign addresses to the Queen, organize tea parties and contribute to bazaars to raise funds for the unfeminine purposes of registering voters and waging election campaigns. After an unsteady start, which involved sending lecturers on unsuccessful tours of the agricultural districts to stir up the feelings of tenants and laborers against their landlords and employers, the League evolved into a consummate propaganda machine. It kept supporters in touch with the national campaign through its own newssheet, which combined with frenetic lecture tours by its leading speakers, notably Richard Cobden and John Bright, to keep interest alive in what turned out to be a protracted campaign. (28)

The League's success in mobilizing women was all the more significant because its claims to the moral and political high ground were by no means clear-cut. Female support therefore had a high propaganda value, as it could be used to demonstrate that the League was motivated by selfless regard for the national interest, rather than by a wish on the part of a few northern manufacturers to lower the price of labor. To this end, League propagandists employed the rhetoric of "Woman's Mission" to the poor and helpless to show that the enterprise of cheapening the people's bread was in fact charity of the highest order, even if the reality of the political controversies raging around the issue meant that addresses to women in the League press often took the more prosaic form of appeals to class and self-interest. (29) Anxious to appropriate the moral mantle of the anti-slavery movement, the League persuaded George Thompson, the veteran anti-slavery lecturer, to lecture female audiences on free trade. Thompson was renowned for his influence with women, having a keen appreciation of the need to enlist their sympathy through appeals to sisterly concern for their own sex, and his antislavery lectures focused on the mistreatment and suffering of female slaves. (30) During his time with the League he engaged in whistle-stop tours of the manufacturing districts, attending tea parties, giving lectures and helping to organize female bazaar committees.

As well as their principal lecturer, the methods that the League used to facilitate their involvement were also familiar to female audiences. Charity bazaars and tea parties of different kinds had already become platforms from which women could work publicly for social and cultural improvement, raising awareness and funds for missionary work, disaster relief, and the support of local and national institutions from hospitals to Mechanics' Institutes. (31) The League took this one step further and turned them into political platforms. However, these were platforms on which women played only a symbolic role by officiating at tea tables and running bazaar stalls. The free trade message was put across by suitably-worded flags and banners, and more forcefully by the lectures and speeches of male free traders. (32) To hear a woman declaim openly on the contentious subject of free trade was more than contemporary sensibility could bear, although interestingly the League made great use of the writings of women on the issue. These included the fictionalized political economy stories of Harriet Martineau, and the more erudite work of Margratia Loudon. (33) The League even reprinted the sections of Loudon's work that related to the corn laws, although they sensibly divorced them from her calls for radical constitutional reforms such as annual parliaments, which would have alienated many moderate League supporters while sapping her credibility as an authority.

This distinction between the spoken and written word is interesting and problematic. To some extent it can be explained by the presentation of Loudon's writings, and those of male political economists such as Bentham, Mill, and Ricardo, as the result of scientific enquiry. They were therefore statements of fact, less open to political influence than opinions based on mere personal observation. Moreover, the subject of political economy was already established in the public mind as one interesting to women through the earlier work of Jane Marcet. (34) At bottom, however, it was the sheer public exposure involved in standing up and making a speech on an issue such as the corn laws which made it impossible for any respectable woman to contemplate. Moreover, had they done so, it would have been disastrous for the League. Its involvement of women was just part of its attempts to portray itself as the vehicle of respectable middle-class opinion. Women's appearances were stage-managed to reinforce the impression that they represented a collective female consciousness that had identified the corn law campaign as one worthy of their charitable endeavours. This was exemplified by the 1852 history of the League by Archibald Prentice, which attempted to neutralise the radical symbolism of women's involvement in the campaign and disguise the fact that women were capable of holding a range of opinions on the corn laws. For example, in his account of the Town Hall meeting of the Ladies Committee of the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association on 4 November 1841, Prentice is careful to stress the charitable nature of their cause, while the only reference to a debate is over the date for the 1842 Manchester bazaar. (35) The rare accounts of Ladies' Committee meetings in Prentice's newspaper, the Manchester Times, are Similarly uncontroversial. (36)

Any discussions that might have taken place on more overtly political matters are ignored in order to safeguard the idea of consensus. In reality, women held a range of views on the subject, and there are hints in the League's publications and archives that female opinion was not as united on the issue as it liked people to think. For example, when soliciting for patronesses for the Manchester Bazaar of 1842, the League's chairman George Wilson received a number of letters declining to support the initiative, including one from Mrs Staunton who declared: "my opinions, tho' friendly to an alteration of the Corn Laws, would not be satisfactory to the committee." (37) Similarly, in 1844 the League printed a letter from "Some of the Women of England," claiming that many women who agreed with the object of the agitation held aloof because of the language of class hatred it frequently employed. (38) The selective reporting of female meetings may be contrasted with the reports of masculine public meetings, where speeches were recorded and reproduced verbatim by the newspapers. Ostensibly this allowed the reader to form his own opinion of the matter under debate, although the sympathy of the newspapers often shone through in their reporting of the reception given to speeches and the tone of their commentary. Individual female speeches were not reported, although petitions and addresses that expressed the collective female will were more likely to appear in print. This distinction and the tensions it generated are exemplified by the Christian Ladies' Magazine, which frequently inveighed against female politicians, arguing that "controversy is too rude a weapon for female hands," while encouraging women to exert their private individual and public collective influence for political purposes. (39) To this end the magazine included a regular column on "Politics," but in practice Tonna so frequently transgressed her own boundaries that she was forced to tone down its content after repeated complaints. (40)

The avoidance of open controversy was necessary even when women were the primary advocates of a cause. In December 1852, a meeting was held in Leeds to discuss the so-called "Stafford House Address," produced under the aegis of the Duchess of Sutherland as an appeal from the women of England to those of the United States, urging them to oppose the fugitive slave laws. The address was timed to harness the public sensation caused by the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, the matter was complicated by the fact that two alternative amendments had been proposed to the address: one, by Lord Shaftesbury, calling for gradual abolition of slavery; the other calling for immediate emancipation. (41) This situation persuaded the Leeds women, led by the American anti-slavery campaigner Sarah Pugh and her hostess, Harriet Lupton, to take the rather unusual step of calling a female public meeting to debate the amendments and to organize the subsequent petition. From Pugh's letters to her friend Mary Estlin in Bristol, we know that speeches were made at the meeting by several prominent local women, and by Pugh herself. (42) Despite her experience and the relatively advanced attitude of American anti-slavery campaigners toward women, this was obviously something of a novel experience even for Pugh: "I actually made a speech--it is said of ten minutes in length--which was listened to with 'profound attention'!!" The details of these speeches were not mentioned by the Leeds Mercury, which merely recorded that Shaftesbury's amendment had been rejected "almost unanimously." (43) The wording of this phrase emphasizes consensus, in a bid to swing public opinion behind the movement, without totally obscuring the existence of dissenting voices. Significantly, there was no recorded attempt to set up an anti-slavery society at the meeting; something which was only accomplished through a number of convoluted (and contentious) meetings in less formal settings. (44) It is unlikely that a newspaper correspondent was even invited to the Leeds meeting, although this was standard practice at most public meetings and special accommodation for the press was even beginning to make an appearance on the hustings during parliamentary elections. The fragility of women's reputations made them very conscious of the way in which they were presented in public, and the presence of reporters would have taken control over that presentation out of their hands, as the case of the Elland women graphically illustrated. The need for such careful manoeuvres meant that women's opportunities to engage openly in politics or even to debate in public were clearly limited.

However, it must be pointed out that there were some platforms that were increasingly open to women, especially those keen to lecture other women on issues such as female education and social reform. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the growing influence of the northern industrial towns was matched by a desire on the part of their principal inhabitants to prove their cultural and intellectual taste, as well as a need to find ways of breaking down the divisions of sect and party that plagued the urban elite. (45) The result was a plethora of intellectual societies aimed either at the elite, such as the Philosophical Societies, or at the respectable working classes, such as the Mechanics' Institutes. These institutions became important platforms for itinerant lecturers, especially when the advent of rail travel made tours such as Basil Woodd's less unusual and traumatic. These lectures were very popular and provided entertainment as well as (some claimed instead of) enlightenment.

Mechanics' Institutes in particular played an important role in shaping the notion of a female "public." By the 1840s, many had begun to open their doors to women, offering reduced rates to the dependants of male members and introducing classes in art and languages designed to appeal to women who wanted to teach, or simply to acquire accomplishments. (46) For example, the Leeds Mechanics' Institute was far in advance of the more elite Philosophical and Literary Society in its treatment of women. In March 1836 it experimented with a series of lectures by Mrs Macauley that drew favourable reviews in the Leeds Mercury. (47) It was with genuine sorrow that the Mercury reported her sudden death at York early in 1837. (48) For a while afterward the experiment was not repeated; however the admission of women to the Institute from 1845 encouraged the committee to accommodate their program to suit the new members. (49) In January 1847 the lecture program was monopolized by Clara Balfour, who discoursed on the "Influence of Women," "The Female Characters of Shakespeare," and "The Female Characters of Sir Walter Scott." In October, she was back with two lectures "On the most distinguished female Sovereigns of Europe, (50) During this and subsequent visits to Leeds, Balfour drew great praise from the Leeds Mercury, not least for her ability to talk without notes. On one occasion it was said that "at no very distant date, it was difficult to convince some persons that it is not an improper thing for a lady to lecture" but Balfour had proved "that there is as much delight and entertainment derived from a lady lecturer as from a lady vocalist, and with the invaluable addition of intellectual and moral instruction." (51)

In common with other women lecturers, Balfour started out as a temperance campaigner, possibly helped by the emergence of teetotalism and the subsequent exodus of middle-class worthies from support of the movement in the northern industrial districts. (52) This removed one potential source of opposition to female lecturers while making female support vital to the survival of the movement as a whole. At the same time, temperance was being identified as an issue that peculiarly concerned women. Balfour could appeal to a female audience who were at once identified as the greatest victims of the domestic misery brought by intemperance, and as one of the key agents in the development of the problem, through neglecting their duties as household managers and thus driving men to the comforts of the public house. In addition, she appealed to women who wanted to take an active part in social reform.

The growing interest of Mechanics' Institutes in female education, spurred by the evidence of the important roles women played in the urban industrial economy, gave women like Balfour a new and powerful platform. Reaching a wider audience, including women of the respectable middle-class, Balfour extended her range of subject matter to encompass female education, and she offered biographical accounts of female reformers, Sovereigns, and analyses of fictional female characters as a way of exploring the possibilities open to women for participating in social reform. That she did so in no way compromised her respectability, one reviewer observing that "she asserts the 'rights of Woman' in a manner free from cant." (53)

By mid-century it was therefore respectable for women to lecture to other women on their household duties and wider social responsibilities, augmenting the already vast literature on the subject. Other institutions remained closed to them, however--notably the more overtly masculine and status-ridden Philosophical Societies. Nonetheless, Balfour and her contemporaries did a great deal to expand the list of subjects women could publicly discourse upon. Their efforts, together with the practical work of philanthropy undertaken by women in countless towns and villages, reinforced the idea of a female public who could be called upon to support charitable endeavour in all its forms. In 1857 the general recognition of women's contribution manifested itself in the foundation of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, which aimed to coordinate philanthropic activity and place it on a sound scientific basis. The Society had mixed male and female committees, encouraged papers written by women's committees, and took up causes such as female education. (54)

However, progress in this area can be overstated, and attitudes toward the propriety of women addressing mixed audiences were slow to change--not least among women themselves. When Harriet Beecher Stowe toured the British Isles at the height of the interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin, she remained famously silent in front of the male-dominated crowds of local worthies who gathered to greet and honor her. (55) Her thanks for testimonials of respect were conveyed by her brother, although she did often address her female "public" behind closed doors. This was the case during her visit to Leeds in 1853 at the instigation of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association, a legacy of Sarah Pugh's visit to the town, which was unique in its possession of a mixed committee of men and women. (56) Even in the relatively tolerant atmosphere of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science opinion was divided over the proper etiquette. Hence, while Louisa Twining lectured the society numerous times on Workhouse reform, the equally prominent and even more prolific Mary Carpenter insisted on having her papers read out by a male proxy. (57) It has also been argued by a number of writers that women's access to radical platforms had been drastically curtailed by the late 1840s. Rogers gives the example of Eliza Sharpies, briefly a popular freethinking lecturer in the early 1830s, who was effectively marginalized by her fellow reformers by 1850. (58) Dorothy Thompson has noted the disengagement of working-class women from politics by the late 1840s, which Anna Clark has interpreted as symptomatic of the failure of working-class radicals to put gender equality at the strategic heart of their platform, while being content to call on female support for tactical advantage. (59) Arguably, middle-class movements followed a similar pattern, until the emergence of an organized feminist movement with its own press. Certainly, in the third quarter of the century there were few attempts to mobilize women for mainstream radical objectives on the scale achieved by the anti-slavery and anti-corn law movements, partly because middle-class reformers were themselves divided over the future of reform politics. This lack of consensus amongst male reformers made attempts to mobilize "female opinion" more difficult. Hence, while women did support campaigns such as Cobden's peace movement, and the various pro- and anti-Voluntary education factions, that support was more low-key and less widespread. (60)

Such views support James Vernon's thesis that by mid-century the official public sphere was increasingly identified as the preserve of the independent propertied male. (61) However, Vernon is too quick to lump middle-class women in with the lower classes generally in their increasing exclusion from political participation. While admitting that middle-class women continued to gain access to indoor public meetings, he tends to ignore the increased opportunities for participation in extra-parliamentary politics. (62) The apparatus of soirees, tea parties, addresses and petitions pioneered by anti-slavery groups and the Anti-Corn Law League may not have been organized on such a scale again, but they continued to be used for a host of issues from the "Papal Aggression" episode of 1851, to campaigns for laws on seduction, the reform of the marriage laws, and eventually for female suffrage. (63) This suggests that the "official public sphere" referred to by Vernon is too narrow a definition, and that it is necessary to consider the broader political culture. The case of Harriet Beecher Stowe highlights the difficulties of having too restricted a notion of the public sphere. Although she allowed her addresses of thanks to be read for her to mixed audiences, she did give addresses to women behind closed doors. These addresses can be seen as "private," and therefore quintessentially feminine in their implied intimacy and anonymity but they were also public in the sense that Stowe was addressing audiences outside her "own little sphere" as Basil Woodd put it, and that also consisted of women drawn from influential and opinion forming families. (64) This is before one considers the vast reading public Stowe had already reached through her book.

The identities created for and by women campaigners that were centered around family roles could be powerful vehicles for giving them a say in political campaigns but they were also fragile, as the converse symbol of the bad mother or wanton daughter could be invoked where necessary to put women in their place. In this respect, the constraints faced by middle- and lower-class women were similar, as radical movements such as Chartism shared many of these patriarchal ideals of respectability. (65) However, some middle-class women were able to make use of their social position, with its attendant ideology of mission to and maternal responsibility for the poor, in order to develop a public voice. A few used this voice for political purposes, while many more used it to encourage social reform. This maternalism can clearly be seen in Anne Carlyle's temperance lectures to children in Leeds, which were instrumental in the foundation of the Band of Hope movement. (66) In the complex class and gender hierarchy of the mid-nineteenth century, respectable women had to develop a keen appreciation of their place on the scale.

By accepting their role within a gendered public sphere, such women were able to expand the scope of their accepted expertise and competence to the extent that the formulation of their experience as essentially "private" loses much of its meaning. However, such gains came at a price, including the inability of women to proclaim their views openly or to engage on equal terms in rational debate over the political issues of the day without fear of censure from the arbiters of respectability. To be respectable, female agency in the public sphere had to be collective agency. Individual endeavour was acceptable within certain bounds, as long as it avoided political controversy. Female opinion could not be seen to be divided by factionalism as masculine public opinion undoubtedly was, and editors could enforce this by refusing to print addresses dealing with the internal politics of movements. (67) As we have seen, the complex negotiations behind the founding of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association can be traced only through private correspondence. Appeals to women were made in the name of universalised constituencies such as "The Women of England" or the "Ladies of Leeds," while the opinions of individual women had to be expressed in private or to small groups of women in a private setting. Where women did appear at public political events such as election meetings or even elections themselves, their presence became part of a chivalric narrative in which they oversaw fair play. For example, in Leeds by the early 1840s women had come to occupy a symbolically neutral position at the centre of the hustings, between the supporters of the two main political groups. (68)

That the much vaunted female moral consensus rarely existed in reality or was rarely the product of any kind of debate, was seldom acknowledged. To have done so would have challenged deeply held beliefs about the place of women in society and would have exposed as fictional their role as impartial guardians of public morality. However, there were women prepared to do just that. For example, Kathryn Gleadle has charted the existence of radical Unitarian groups willing to expose the hypocrisy behind the notions of chivalry held so dear by the likes of Sarah Ellis. (69) In the next half century, the foundation of the chivalric myth would be undermined by numerous campaigns over female employment, education, reform of the marriage laws, women's suffrage, and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. The debates over suffrage in particular saw a clear division of female opinion, with women setting aside their inhibitions and taking to the platform on both sides of the debate. (70) Middle-class women were increasingly likely to find themselves being publicly lectured and exhorted by other women, and increasingly the answer to their ills seemed to lie in political rights that would curb the arbitrary abuse of male power. However, women still remained vulnerable to slander and had to be careful about the way they presented themselves on the platform. (71) There was also a continuity in appeals to women which emphasized their moral influence on public life. Ironically, one of the most debated issues was whether women would lose their moral authority through participation in the political process, or whether that authority would enhance the quality of politics itself. (72) Such ideals had been elaborated in the early part of the century as contemporaries sought to use the platform and the press to facilitate female engagement with the public sphere, while maintaining firm boundaries beyond which respectable women could not stray. By the last quarter of the century, although many of the assumptions that underlay those restrictions had been shaken, women were still struggling to find ways of articulating independent opinions while maintaining their feminine respectability.

University of York


(1) Amongst others, the essays by Geoff Eley and Mary Ryan in Craig Calhoun, eds., Habermas and the Public Sphere (MIT Press, 1992).

(2) Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, c. 1780-1840 (Cambridge UP, 1995).

(3) See S.J. Morgan, "Middle-Class Women, Civic Virtue and Identity: Leeds and the West Riding of Yorkshire, c. 1830--c. 1860" (unpublished DPhil thesis, University of York, 2000).

(4) S.J. Morgan, "'A sort of land debatable': Female Influence, Civic Virtue and Middle-Class Identity, c. 1830--c. 1860", unpublished paper.

(5) Sarah Stickney Ellis, The Women of England, Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (London: Fisher, Son and Co., 1839), 41.

(6) Ellis, 40.

(7) Sarah Lewis, Woman's Mission (London: Parker, 1839).

(8) Alex Tyrrell, "'Woman's Mission' and Pressure Group Politics (1825-1860)," Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 63, 1 (1980), 194-230; S.J. Morgan, "Domestic Economy and Political Agitation: Women and the Anti-Corn Law League," in Kathryn Gleadle and Sarah Richardson eds., Women in British Politics, 1760-1860: The Power of the Petticoat (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 115-33.

(9) Quoted in Eugene Stock, The History of the Church Missionary Society: Its Environment, its Men and its Work, 2 vols. (London: Church Missionary Society, 1899), i, 132. The decision of the British and Foreign Bible Society to extend its operations to the provinces was criticised for similar reasons: Leslie Howsam, Cheap Bibles: Nineteenth Century Publishing and the British and Foreign Bible Society (Cambridge UP, 1991), 44.

(10) Leeds Mercury, 12 August 1848.

(11) See F.K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford UP, 1980). For the importance of missionary identities see Alison Twells, "The Heathen at Home and Overseas: The Middle Class and the 'Civilising Mission,' Sheffield 1790-1843" (unpublished DPhil thesis, University of York, 1997).

(12) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), 165; Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (London: James Fraser, 1837), Part I, Book VII.

(13) The Christian Ladies' Magazine 1 (January-June 1834), 160. For more on this publication see Monica Fryckstedt, "Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and the Christian Ladies' Magazine", Victorian Periodicals Review XIV, 2 (1981), 43-51.

(14) Helen Rogers, Women and the People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 200O).

(15) For the use of discourses of domesticity by Chartist women, see Michelle De Larrabeiti, "Conspicuous before the World: the Political Rhetoric of the Chartist Women," in Eileen Yeo, ed., Radical Femininity: Women's Self-representation in the Public Sphere (Manchester UP, 1998), 106-26.

(16) Northern Star, 17 February 1838.

(17) For analysis of the significance of women's involvement in the anti-poor

law campaign see Anna Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (U of California P, 1995), 187-95.

(18) Leeds Times, 17 February 1838.

(19) See U.R.Q. Henriques, "Bastardy and the New Poor Law," Past and Present 37 (1967), 103-29.

(20) Lawrence Pitkethley, radical woollen draper of Huddersfield. See Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists (London: Temple Smith, 1984), 163-64.

(21) Leeds Mercury, 3 March 1838.

(22) In fact the Elland women appear to have been the wives and relations of lower middle-class artisans and tradesmen. For example, Elizabeth Hanson was married to the radical shoemaker Abram Hanson. Thompson, The Chartists, 182-84.

(23) Leeds Times, 17 February 1838, original emphasis.

(24) M. Thomis and J. Grimmet, Women in Protest 1800-1850 (London etc.: Croom Helm, 1982), 14; Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches, p.192.

(25) Clare Midgley, Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870 (London: Routledge, 1992).

(26) Rogers, Women and the People, 91.

(27) Midgley, Women Against Slavery, esp. 59-60.

(28) The standard narrative history of the League is Norman McCord, The Anti-Corn Law League, 1838-1846 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958). See also Archibald Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League (1853: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd., 1968), 2 vols. For the League's social and cultural significance see Alex Tyrrell and Paul Picketing, The People's Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League (Leicester UP, 2000).

(29) Tyrrell, "Woman's Mission"; Morgan, "Domestic Economy and Political Agitation."

(30) For the importance of woman's mission to the female slave see Midgley, Women Against Slavery, 93-103.

(31) Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy.

(32) Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League, Vol. I, 194-230.

(33) Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, 9 vols. (London: C. Fox, 1834); Margratia Loudon, Philanthropic Economy; or, The Philosophy of Happiness, Practically Applied to the Social, Political, and Commercial Relations of Great Britain (London: E. Churton, 1835). The impact of Martineau's work on a middle-class seeking assurance about future stability in the face of economic and social dislocation is discussed in Elaine Freedgood, "Banishing Panic: Harriet Martineau and the Popularisation of Political Economy," Victorian Studies 39, 1 (1995), 33-53.

(34) Jane Marcet, Conversations on Political Economy (London: Longman, 1815).

(35) Prentice, History of the Anti-Corn Law League, I, 296-98.

(36) Manchester limes, 4 and 31 December 1841.

(37) Mrs Staunton to George Wilson, 20 October 1841. Wilson Papers, Manchester Central Library, M20.

(38) The League, 21 December 1844. See also Morgan, "Domestic Economy and Political Agitation," 124-26.

(39) Christian Ladies' Magazine 1 (January-June 1834), 478. See, for example, Tonna's calls for women to petition the Queen on Sabbath Observance, ibid, 249-56.

(40) See Morgan, "Middle-Class Women," 191.

(41) Midgley, Women Against Slavery, 145-49.

(42) Sarah Pugh to Mary Estlin, 24 December 1852. Estlin Papers, Dr William's Library, London.

(43) Leeds Mercury, 1 January 1853.

(44) Sarah Pugh to Mary Estlin, 26 January, 9 February and 22 February 1853. Estlin Papers.

(45) R.J. Morris, "Voluntary Societies and British Urban Elites 1780-1850," Historical Journal 26 (1983), 95-118; and Class Sect and Party: The Making of the British Middle Class, 1830-1850 (Manchester UP, 1990).

(46) Mabel Tylecote, The Mechanics' Institutes of Lancashire and Yorkshire Before 1851 (Manchester UP, 1957); June Purvis, Hard Lessons: The Lives and Education of Working-class Women in Nineteenth-century England (Oxford: Polity Press, 1989).

(47) See the Leeds Mercury, 24 September; 1, 8, and 15 October; 17 and 24 December 1836; 7 January 1837.

(48) Leeds Mercury, 28 January 1837.

(49) Leeds Institute, Annual Reports; also Morgan, "Middle-Class Women," 78-86.

(50) Balfour also lectured in 1852, "On the English Female Poets of this Century," and in 1854, "On the Youthful Poets of this Century," and "On Home Influences and Early Impressions." In 1848, Miss G. Bennet lectured on "The Female Poets of Great Britain."

(51) Leeds Mercury, 29 August 1846.

(52) Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), esp. 137; Lilian Lewis Shiman, "Temperance and Class in Bradford, 1830-1860," Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 58 (1986), 173-78; Morgan, "Middle-Class Women," 132-35.

(53) Leeds Mercury, 27 January 1853.

(54) Kathleen McCrone, "The National Association for the Advancement of Social Science and the Advancement of Victorian Women," Atlantis, 8, 1 (1982), 44-66. See also the annual proceedings of the Association.

(55) Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Life (Oxford UP, 1994) 238.

(56) Midgley, Women Against Slavery, 168.

(57) McCrone, "The National Association for the Advancement of Social Science," 47.

(58) Rogers, Women and the People, 68-70.

(59) Dorothy Thompson, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (London: Verso, 1993), chapter 3; Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches, Conclusion.

(60) For the disruptive effect of Voluntaryism on the local liberal caucus, see Derek Fraser, "Voluntaryism and West Riding Politics in the Mid-Nineteenth Century," Northern History 13 (1977), 199-231.

(61) James Vernon, Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815-1867 (Cambridge UP, 1993).

(62) Vernon, 225-29.

(63) For examples of female petitions in the period covered by this paper, see the Leeds Mercury, 3 March 1838; 5 February 1842; 16 May 1846; 21 September and 7, December 1850; 4, 7 and 18 May 1853.

(64) In Leeds, Stowe's reception took place at the house of Edward Baines, editor of the Leeds Mercury. His wife was on the committee of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association. Leeds Mercury, 5 March 1853; Anti-Slavery Reporter, 3rd Series, 1 October 1853; First Annual Report of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association, 7-8.

(65) Clark, The Struggle for the Breeches; Rogers, Women and the People, chapter 3.

(66) Ronald Harker, 'Beware the Demon Drink', Yorkshire Riding's Magazine 24, (1987), 59; Lilian Lewis Shiman, "The Band of Hope Movement: Respectable Recreation for Working-Class Children," Victorian Studies 17 (September 1973), 49-74.

(67) Rogers, Women and the People, 109.

(68) Leeds Mercury, 3 July 1841.

(69) Kathryn Gleadle, The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarianism and the Emergence of the Women's Rights Movements, 1831-51 (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997).

(70) Martin Pugh, The March of Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women's Suffrage 1866-1914 (Oxford UP, 2000), 146-49.

(71) See for example the comments about Jane Taylour's suffrage lectures in Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause: The Women's Suffrage Movement in Scotland, revised edition (Edinburgh: Mercat Press, 1995), 19-22.

(72) See Pugh, The March of Women, 43-44.
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