Britain’s first feminists emerged out of the Owenite Co-operative movement. They demanded equal rights and argued for a new relationship between men and women. For the first time women gave public lectures on Socialism and feminism.
The members of the radical Co-operative Movement of the 1830s, inspired by the ideas and writings of Robert Owen, wanted to create a world based on mutual co-operation and not capitalist competition. They challenged not just the social and economic structure of society but also the conventional morality of the age on issues such as marriage and relationships between men and women. For the first time women not only discussed ideas of social change but also appeared as speakers and proselytisers for a new society.
Women had been active in radical politics in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Women set up Female Reform Societies in the prelude to Peterloo, holding meetings and published addresses. Susanne Saxton was secretary of the Manchester Female Reform Society, for instance. Many women were present at the Peterloo massacre, and a number even fought the soldiers. However, their political efforts were still focused on supporting their husbands and brothers, and they did not demand political and social rights for themselves. By long standing tradition women did not speak at political meetings, which were often held outdoors or in rowdy public houses. Indeed it was seen as a radical departure when at a meeting at Lydgate, Saddleworth one of the speakers, Samuel Bamford, successfully moved that women be allowed to vote on the resolutions.
In this period women had even less rights than most men. They could not vote and were often denied an education. On marriage their separate legal existence was ended, their money passed to their husband. To all intents and purposes they became the property of their husbands. They could be legally beaten. Women who did not marry and had no inherited wealth often lived a precarious existence. Those with some education usually became governesses or teachers
In 1792, inspired by the political earthquake of the French Revolution and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the Vindication of the Rights of Women. She was viciously attacked but the ideas in her book now entered the radical underworld and political discourse, including that of the Owenite co-operators.
Many of the Owenites called themselves Socialists, using the word for the first time. The women lecturers of the movement included Anna Wheeler, Emma Martin, Eliza Macauley, Margaret Chappelsmith and Frances Morrison.
Frances was born in Surrey, the illegitimate daughter of a farm labourer and was brought up by her grand-mother. Aged just 16 she ran off with James Morrison , a house-painter who was tramping the country looking for work. They lived together until she became pregnant, whereupon they got married. They had many children and lived in Birmingham where Frances ran a newspaper shop and began reading Robert Owen’s work. She later write to him “Long ‘ere I began to think, my reason warred with the absurd forms of society, but from an ill-cultivated and wrong direction given to my mind, I could never get a solid idea until the perusal of your Essays’
In 1833 James, who was active reformer and trade unionist, became editor of The Pioneer. France wrote for the paper under the pseudonym “A Bondswoman”, addressing issues such as equal pay and the marriage system.
In February 1834 the following letter appeared in The Pioneer, signed “A Bondswoman”.
“It is time the working females began to demand their long-suppressed rights. Let us in the first place, endeavour to throw off the trammels that have so long enshackled our minds, and get knowledge, when all are making their way to the temple of truth and justice. Let not woman –patient, suffering, long neglected woman – stay behind on the road to improvement. Not but I know the time will come, ere long, when men will see the necessity of educating their wives., in all matters that concern themselves, equally as all men see the necessity of their knowing who our government act as regards them. May be the time is not be tine is not distant when the superiority of educated women will be acknowledges over those who are kept in blind and stupid ignorance. …Sisters, let us submit to it no longer; let us once get to the knowledge of our wrongs, and our cause is won; once entered on the path to improvement, the flowers that are strewn on the road will invite us to travel on.”
After her husband’s death in 1835 Frances became a paid Owenite lecturer, speaking across the north. She moved to Salford in the late 1830s where there was a vigorous Owenite movement , based at the Salford Institute, and later the Hall of Science.
In July 1839 she spoke at a meeting in New George Street, Shudehill and the following report appeared in the New Moral World.
“…the place was crowded to suffocation. She commenced her lecture with astonishing firmness and composure., and seemed throughout to evince a spirit of devotedness to the cause she advocated which rose superior to the strange position which she , for ths first time, occupied. The subject of her lecture was confine principally to the feeling and principal should guide or actuate these who call-themselves Socialist. Her manner was peculiarly energetic, her arguments well-arranged , and her remarks judiciously adapted to the occasion, and characterised by remarkable simplicity and delicacy. She was listened to with respectful attention and seemed to give general satisfaction. She is first female in Manchester who had had the nerve to come forward in practical advocacy of our views, and it is hoped that her example will operate as stimulus to others to lend their exertions in promoting the great cause of socialism, whose interests are so completely identified with their own. An animated discussion followed, which was opened by Mr Johnson, lately a Baptist minister, who was replied to Mr Southall; we then had a female opponent who occupied the next ten minutes, and was then answered, apparently to the satisfaction of all, by Mr Shepherd.”
In a published lecture Frances wrote about a new form of marriage. “But in community, money will not be known, neither will the want of it be dreaded, for all that can minister to the comforts of life will be had in abundance. There will be no marrying for convenience merely (a very cold word), but real affection inspired by real and known worth on both sides.”
With the help of Robert Owen, Frances became a teacher in Hulme and seems to have given up lecturing for the Co-operative Movement. She enjoyed a long life and died in 1898.
Article by Michael Herbert