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date: 27 February 2020

British Feminist Thought

Abstract and Keywords

The fact that the term ‘feminism’ was only coined at the end of the 19th century and that there was no generally recognized founding figure in the battle for women’s rights makes it hard to delineate any widely accepted feminist tradition. Extensive interest in the ‘woman question’ across the century, however, led to widespread debate about sexual difference, gender hierarchy and the rights and duties of women. What would now be considered feminist ideas covered a wide range of issues including the meaning of sexual difference, the intellectual and practical capacities of women, the oppressive nature of marital and family life as well as the entitlement of women to education and to legal and political rights. Feminist ideas were articulated in many different forms: in literature, periodical essays, and increasingly in the second half of the century in polemical pamphlets and journals. These ideas underwent considerable change across the century as the radicalism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries gave way to a more moderate approach in the mid 19th century - and then to a reassertion of sexual radicalism as part of feminism in the later 19th century. The figure of Mary Wollstonecraft — first as a source of inspiration, then as a pariah figure and finally as one anticipating the ‘new woman’ of the 19th century is seen here as encapsulating the pattern of feminist ideas across the century.

Keywords: ‘woman question’, sexual difference, double standard, liberalism, marriage, prostitution, slavery

Determining the full extent of nineteenth-century feminist thought and the range of ideas and beliefs that should be included within it is a difficult task. The word ‘feminist’ only entered the language in the course of the 1890s, hence few of those nineteenth-century individuals now commonly described as ‘feminist’ used the term to describe themselves or their views. As a result of this, there is no functioning feminist tradition or universally accepted group of people that one can turn to in order to explore or analyse nineteenth-century feminist thought.

The difficulties in establishing such a tradition can be seen if one looks at Mary Wollstonecraft. Commonly seen as a founding figure of British feminism today, she did not occupy this place throughout the nineteenth century. Her name and the natural rights position articulated in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman were very important in the early nineteenth century, particularly to the radical Owenite feminists and to William Thompson and Anna Wheeler, but few mid-Victorian feminists acknowledged her significance. In part, as Rosalind Delmar (1986) has argued, this reflects differences in intellectual approach as prominent figures like Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1884) rejected any appeal to natural rights, arguing that their concern was centred on particular legal rights often connected to property. There was much more to it than that, as one can see from the ways in which mid-century feminists refrained from any public reference to Wollstonecraft, while often mentioning her in private correspondence. It is important to recognize the extent to which in dealing with Wollstonecraft, Victorian feminists were dealing rather more with a scandalous life than with a text. As Caine (1997) and Spongberg (2008) have argued, Wollstonecraft’s Vindication might not have been so difficult to encompass had it not come to be read through the story of her life, as depicted in William Godwin’s Memoir of the Vindication of the Rights of Women. Godwin’s discussion of Wollstonecraft’s intimate life had made known her passionate relationship with the American adventurer Gilbert Imlay, with whom she had an illegitimate child, her suicide attempts when this relationship came to an end, and the unorthodox nature of his marriage to Wollstonecraft in which they each kept up a separate home. His revelations about her life served to illustrate very clearly the connection, insisted on by opponents of women’s rights, between feminist beliefs and sexual and emotional irregularity and excess. She was, in the eyes of Harriet Martineau, a ‘poor victim of passion’, and not someone who could be regarded as ‘a safe example, nor (p. 384) as a successful champion for Woman and her Rights’ (Martineau 1983: i. 401). But as this comment suggests, Wollstonecraft could not quite be ignored. Indeed, for Martineau as for many mid-nineteenth-century feminists, Wollstonecraft was a ghostly figure, haunting those seeking to stress the propriety and moderation of their cause. She was finally rehabilitated in the 1890s when ‘new women’ who rejected many aspects of respectable bourgeois ideals of femininity could again view her personal life and sexual rebellion sympathetically.

There was no alternate figure to whom a significant number of feminists sought to claim a connection. John Stuart Mill was very important for some women in the second half of the century. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, for example, compared him to a great artist as ‘a master who forms a school and influences his successors for generations’ (Fawcett 1884: 4). In support of this view, Laura Mayhall (2001) has argued recently that the ideas of Mill, especially when read alongside those of Mazzini, were of immense importance not only to mid-century but also to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminists. But many of those most significant in the development of mid-Victorian feminism disputed this view, seeing Mill as a latecomer to what was already an ongoing discussion of women’s rights—and moreover as one who, while important, was very narrow in his focus on married women and his lack of interest in single women or in women’s work (Caine 1992).

While there was no agreed body of feminist writing in the nineteenth century, there was a broadly defined ‘woman question’ that was debated and discussed throughout the century. Although always couched in singular terms, the ‘woman question’ encompassed a range of issues including the intellectual and physical capacities, the moral characteristics, the maternal and familial duties, and the proper social role of women (Caine 1992). Underlying these specific issues was a general sense of unease about the meanings and implications of sexual difference, the nature and stability of the gender order, and the place of women in an industrializing world. Some of the formulations of this question, like some responses to it, would now be seen as distinctly feminist in their emphasis on the irrationality of prevailing ideas about women, on the injustices they faced in both private and public, and in their suggestions or demands for change. Many others would not, including as they did emphatic statements about the natural or the divine basis of women’s subordination. Even these defences of the status quo, however, emanating sometimes from pulpits or from authoritative journals, were often expressed with a vehemence that suggested anxiety rather than calm assurance—and ultimately served rather to raise more questions about the position of women than to bring an end to discussion of it. But the significant point that needs to be recognized here is that there is no readily identifiable body of nineteenth-century feminist thought—and that it needs to be sought in a range of different kinds of writing, including essays, fiction, pamphlets, instruction manuals, and moral and philosophical treatises.

Fiction is particularly significant here, and particularly that of women writers. It is in novels that one finds the most extensive and nuanced discussions of the ‘woman question’. This is the case from the first decades of the century when the novels of Jane Austen and Susan Ferrier explored some of the difficulties faced by women needing employment and contrasted rational and educated women with their uneducated and irrational mothers, sisters, and aunts in ways that left no doubt as to which were the more desirable. The discussion of the ‘woman question’ in novels continued into the mid-nineteenth century, in the work of Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, all of whom extended beyond the early nineteenth-century novels both in their exploration of sexual double standards and in their insistence on women’s intellectual and spiritual yearning for knowledge and for (p. 385) the freedom to follow their own wishes and desires. The intellectual, spiritual, and emotional hunger of characters like Jane Eyre, or Maggie Tulliver or Dorothea Brooke, point very clearly to the new conception of womanhood that mid-nineteenth-century feminists endorsed, while other figures, like Mrs Transome in Eliot’s Felix Holt, or both Gwendolen and Mrs Glasher in Daniel Deronda, illustrate the ways in which male sexual and financial power and female ignorance and lack of education or of worldly knowledge compound the sufferings of women. Later in the century, writers like Mona Caird, George Egerton, and Sarah Grand continued this discussion, introducing a new note of bitterness and anger into their criticism of marriage and their vision of the prison of family life. Literary discussion of the ‘woman question’ was not confined to women. Women’s education was debated in detail in Tennyson’s The Princess, for example, while marriage and the difficulties an intelligent and independent woman faced in having to meet the demands of wifely obedience was the subject of Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?. George Gissing’s The Odd Women depicted both feminist activities and a feminist critique of marriage. This is not to suggest that all, or indeed any, of these writers could be labelled ‘feminist’, but rather to stress the importance to them of feminist issues and the ways in which their work raised questions about the difficulties and limitations that women faced.

The treatment of feminist issues within literature was both noted and used by nineteenth-century feminists. Emily Davies, a leading proponent of tertiary education for women, referred frequently to The Princess in her discussions of the need for the higher education of women, for example (Davies 1866: 10–31), while Josephine Butler drew heavily on the picture of a young, helpless ‘fallen woman’ depicted in Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth in her discussions of prostitution and the sexual double standard (Butler 1909: 31). George Eliot was a particular favourite amongst many feminists who drew on her works to illustrate their arguments. From the mid-century on, the ‘woman question’ was almost a staple in the ‘higher journals’ too, with regular articles on women’s literature, women’s work, women’s duties, appearing alongside discussions of marriage and of demands for education and political rights for women in a range of journals including the Edinburgh, Westminster, and Fortnightly Reviews, Fraser’s Magazine, and the Nineteenth Century. For all its ridicule and misogyny, the Saturday Review also helped keep the ‘woman question’ in the public eye and helped to proved a backdrop and a readership for the discussion and debate about women’s rights.

The value of this fictional discussion of the ‘woman question’ becomes all the greater because of the disparate ways in which other forms of feminist thought emerged, often in response to particular pieces of legislation or to publications of a theoretical or a very practical kind that were seen as hostile to the needs and claims of women. In some cases, it was not institutions or legislation that provoked feminist outpourings, but rather particular texts or arguments. James Mill’s ‘Essay on Government’ for example, with its claim that ‘the interest of almost all…is involved either in that of their fathers or in that of their husbands’ (Mill 1828: 21), provoked extended replies from both William Thompson and Harriet Martineau. Thompson’s Appeal of one half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the other half, Men, to retain them in political and thence in civil and domestic slaves (1825) is a lengthy response to Mill, pointing out how his view was false in regard to every possible group of women and insisting on the need for enfranchisement to end their slavery. Harriet Martineau also addressed Mill’s views in a chapter entitled ‘Political nonexistence of Women’ in her Society in America, pointing to the need for laws to protect women (p. 386) against their husbands and fathers as showing how worthless Mill’s argument was, and arguing that, in his suggestion that women could be excluded from the vote, he was an ‘advocate of despotism’ (Martineau 1837: 201). James Mill ceased to be an object of interest in the mid-nineteenth century, but his place was taken by August Comte and by his major English disciple Frederic Harrison. Their suggestion that women be compulsorily excluded from paid employment and confined to presiding over a home led to eloquent and significant essays from both Josephine Butler and Frances Power Cobbe, pointing to how iniquitous an idea this was and how deleterious the consequences for women would be if anyone took note of it. In the process, they also pointed to its denial of full humanity to women (Cobbe 1869; Butler 1870).

Inevitably the absence of a widely recognized nineteenth-century definition of the feminism allows for different interpretations and applications of it by later scholars. According to the OED, when it first began to be used, the term ‘feminist’ referred to the ‘advocacy of the rights of women (based on the theory of the equality of the sexes)’, but later historians often define the term in a rather broader way. In her study of early nineteenth-century feminism, for example, Jane Rendall uses the term ‘feminist’ to ‘describe women who claimed for themselves the right to define their own place in society’. Even when these women used the notion of equality, however, they sometimes interpreted it in terms of moral and rational worth, rather than in terms of labour or public roles (Rendall 1985: 1). There are different views amongst historians concerning how best to define the forms of feminist thought that were evident in the nineteenth century. Some stress the importance of concepts of autonomy and of legal and political rights, while others point rather to the ways in which some of those concerned about the position of women insisted on the need to view all social and political questions from a feminine perspective (Levine 1987: 19–23). These questions of definition affect the decision of which individuals one might label ‘feminist’. The term has long been applied to those women and men advocating improved education and employment opportunities, or legal equality and political rights. More recently, however, claims have been made to extend the label ‘feminist’ to some of those preoccupied with the sexual double standard, or with extending women’s philanthropic and public roles even when they did not wholeheartedly endorse political rights for women (Jeffreys 1985).

This broadening of the range of people and of ideas that might be labelled feminist has been accompanied by a growing recognition of the wide range of ideas on which feminist arguments drew. The importance of the natural rights tradition, of political and social radicalism, and of both political and economic liberalism to those who argued for women’s political rights have long been recognized. But much recent scholarship has also stressed the importance of Evangelicalism with its emphasis on ‘woman’s mission’ both within the domestic world and to transform or even to regenerate society (Rendall 1985: 73–100). While Evangelicals often accepted the subordination of women, the idea of their having a special religious and moral mission served both to empower them and to suggest that they needed greater access to the wider social world. Even the domestic ideology that accompanied the idea of separate spheres for men and women and justified women’s confinement to the domestic world has been shown to be important in some feminist discussion (Hall 1979). Towards the end of the nineteenth century too, ideas that were once seen as antithetical to feminist interests and concerns have been shown to be helpful to them: while eugenic ideas were opposed by many because of the ways in which they emphasized the importance of women as mothers and often denied them the right to education, Lucy Bland has shown (p. 387) how late nineteenth-century women drew on eugenic ideas concerning the health of the race in their critique of male sexual licence and their opposition to the sexual double standard (Bland 1987b).

Just as recent historical work has suggested a wider range of influences on nineteenth-century feminist thought, so too it has raised questions about the coherence and the logical consistency of the core arguments laid down by those most closely associated with demands for the emancipation of women. Most nineteenth-century British feminists, including John Stuart Mill, saw themselves as following logical arguments of a kind entirely ignored by their opponents who relied rather on prejudice and often irrational beliefs. By contrast, many recent historians of feminism have pointed to the contradictions and paradoxes evident within the ideas and approaches of feminists themselves, in their simultaneous insistence that what passed as ‘women’s nature’ was an artificial construction, and that many of the desirable qualities associated with femininity were innate, for example. Denise Riley (1988) and Joan Scott (1996) have both argued that these contradictions are inevitable: that there is inherently something paradoxical in feminism itself, in the ways in which at the very time that feminists are concerned to reject the limitations imposed on women and to demand that they be seen as entitled to the same rights as men and to human rights more generally, they necessarily draw on the category of women to make their claims. While the goal of feminism was to eliminate ‘“sexual difference” in politics’, Scott argued, it had nonetheless

to make its claims on behalf of ‘woman’ (who were discursively produced through ‘sexual difference’). To the extent that it acted for ‘women,’ feminism produced the ‘sexual difference’ it sought to eliminate. This paradox—the need both to accept and to refuse ‘sexual difference’—was the constitutive condition of feminism as a political movement throughout its long history.

(Scott 1996: 3–4)

One can see these paradoxes in nineteenth-century British feminist thought particularly in the ways in which feminists drew on liberal political beliefs, insisting on their application to women while ignoring both the patriarchal foundations of liberalism and their own assumptions about the specific nature of women. There is a broader issue here in relation to the whole Western philosophical tradition, in which, Genevieve Lloyd argues, ‘rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the feminine’, and ‘“the feminine” itself has been partly constituted by its occurrence within this structure’ (Lloyd 1984: 11) In a more specific way, as Carole Pateman and others have argued, since the seventeenth century, liberalism has accepted, even assumed, a sexual division of labour in which women were wives and mothers living in homes and families whose male head was the political subject whose rationality required both his autonomy and his need for freedom of action. The significance of this idea of sexed citizenship was not only historical but continuous: women were not party to the original social contract and the contractual relationships they were allowed to enter were generally ones that involved relinquishing their freedom (Pateman 1988). In the nineteenth century, this was most evident in relation to the marriage contract which deprived women of their legal identity, their property, their children, and their rights over their own bodies. Hence, as the strong opposition they faced from many prominent liberals illustrated, the theoretical framework of nineteenth-century liberalism could not automatically be applied to women.

For the most part, historians tend to see nineteenth-century feminism in terms of three consecutive phases with some overlap but with marked differences between them. The first (p. 388) of these, which came to the fore in the 1820s and 1830s, was closely connected to the radical social and political ideas associated with the followers of Robert Owen and with the radical social and religious views of the Unitarians associated with W. J. Fox and the journal he edited, the Monthly Repository. For the most part, this particular feminist discussion came to an end by the late 1830s. It was followed in the mid-nineteenth century by the emergence of a rather more moderate feminism deeply committed to liberal political and economic ideas and connected with a largely middle-class women’s movement which campaigned from the 1860s onwards for a number of specific political, legal, and social reforms, including women’s suffrage, reform of the laws that deprived married women of their property and legal identity, and the opening of new educational and professional opportunities to women. Although there were some links through the continuation of a radical Unitarian tradition and preoccupation with abolitionism, this feminism of the mid-nineteenth century came from a different social and economic milieu and had a number of concerns very different from those of the radical feminists of the earlier decades. While this form of moderate feminism linked to specific political and social goals continued into the twentieth century, it was accompanied and sometimes came into conflict with other feminist ideas in the 1880s and 1890s. A different form of socialist feminism from that of the Owenites came to the fore, connected to trade union and labour movements and concerned with the conditions of working-class women and hence more with women’s work and pay than with political rights. At much the same time there was a resurgence of radical feminist ideas, connected to the figure of a ‘new woman’ and often rejecting the propriety and stress on family duty of the mid-Victorian feminists, and demanding new forms of sexual freedom and of freedom from the restraints both of family life and of conventional feminine propriety.

There is considerable discussion about precisely when and how each of these phases of feminism thought developed, beginning with new debates about the extent to which the period of reaction and repression that followed the French Revolution and accompanied the Napoleonic Wars silenced all feminist voices. The conservative recuperation of the most acceptable of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas in the novels of Jane Austen has long been recognized. Recently, however, a number of historians and literary scholars have pointed to the ways in which the writing of other women such as Mary Hays continued to stress the issue of women’s rights in the early decades of the nineteenth century, insisting also on defending Wollstonecraft and presenting her life and her ideas in a very positive way (Spongberg 2010). The emergence of a new interest in women’s biography and the use of women’s lives as a way to recount wider historical developments has also been seen as a significant new feminist departure, bringing women’s voices and interests into the writing of history (Spongberg 2005). But there is debate also about the similarities and differences of the feminist approaches of particular periods and the extent of the continuity of feminism across the whole period.

One question in which one can see both continuity and change is that concerning women’s education, which was a matter of concern across the century. The growing sense of the importance of the home and of parents, especially mothers, in the education and moral development of their children made the inadequacy of women’s education a matter of importance to many who had no wider interest in women’s rights. Hence the late eighteenth-century insistence by both Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft on the need to provide women with the kind of broad and rigorous education that befitted rational creatures gave way in the early decades of the nineteenth to a demand that women needed a (p. 389) better education than was currently available to them to understand and fulfil their maternal and domestic duties—which included self-sacrifice and self-renunciation in the interests of husband and children. By the 1820s, however, this approach was being challenged by some women associated with radical Unitarian views, who demanded that the education of women be looked at in a slightly different way and in terms of the development of their own intellectual potential. In an article ‘On Female Education’ in 1822, Harriet Martineau insisted that women’s education must be concerned not just with teaching them their duty but also with allowing for the development of their own intellects. Martineau accepted the domestic lot of the majority of women, and the need for a ‘race of enlightened mothers’ who could also be rational companions to men. But she insisted also that, until their talents and capacity for development were given free play, it was impossible to determine the relative abilities of men and women. Properly educated mothers, in her view, needed to be schooled in history, natural philosophy, and the philosophy of mind as well as modern languages—rather than the accomplishments that dominated the education of middle- and upper-class girls (Pichanik 1980). The question of women’s education continued to be a major feminist concern throughout the century. But, as Tennyson anticipated in The Princess, it changed both form and focus in the mid-century as concerns about women’s need for paid work and their entitlement and capacity to undertake the same kind of education as men, both in secondary schools and at tertiary level, took centre stage. The benefits of educating mothers continued to be extolled, but in a more and more perfunctory way after the mid-nineteenth century as the need for women to have access to universities and to professional work came to the fore.

Debates about the intellectual differences between the sexes and about the construction and meaning of femininity itself were fundamental to any significant change in the position of women; nonetheless the demand for improved education was a modest one that could quite easily be accommodated within the existing gender order. This was not so easily done with other feminist demands focusing on marriage or sexuality—which often led to discussions of the current enslavement of women in marriage and to the need for their emancipation. The political conservatism that engulfed Britain after the French Revolution and the preoccupation with wealth that accompanied industrialization, as Barbara Taylor argues, made ideas of emancipation seem impossible. It was not until the emergence of new ideas about cooperative production, social organization, and even domestic life began to emerge in the course of the 1820s that these broader questions of the emancipation of women came again to the fore (Taylor 1983). It was amongst radical circles that this question was discussed and especially amongst the interlinked circles connected with the socialist Robert Owen and the Unitarian radical W. J. Fox. Marx and Engels labelled the ideal of universal freedom that would come through the harmonizing of all human needs, communal ownership, and the transformation of the human character which Owen advocated, ‘utopian’. By contrast, Owen and his followers saw their approach as one based on a scientific view of human nature and society. Owen’s belief in the influence of circumstances on character—and hence on the possibilities of change—led them to argue that a new social organization based on cooperation rather than competition could produce marked changes in character and behaviour. A new social order based on cooperation would not only be more equitable and just, but also allow for a richer human development—and for the emancipation of all, including both men and women, from the constraints that currently bound them. This ideal of freedom for women was not accepted or endorsed by all of those connected with Owen, (p. 390) and indeed Owen himself can hardly be described as a feminist. But it became a major issue for a number of Owen’s followers.

Although there were a number of women who wrote and went on lecture tours criticizing the ways in which women were oppressed and excluded from paid labour and civic life and expounding their views on the ways in which cooperative living and working patterns would emancipate them, the best known work associated with the Owenite movement remains Thompson’s Appeal. As has already been said, Thompson’s work was a critical response to James Mill’s ‘Essay on Government’, and especially to Mill’s belief that women did not need political rights in a representative system because ‘the interest of almost all…is involved either in that of their fathers or in that of their husbands’ (Mill 1821). Thomson rejected Mill’s views entirely, arguing that they could be seen to be false in regard to every group of women: to married women who were more likely to be oppressed than represented by their husbands, to adult daughters living in their father’s home, and to single women who had neither husbands nor fathers to protect them.

Women’s relative physical weakness and their childbearing would always condemn them to an inferior position, Thompson argued, hence their emancipation and equality were possible only with a new social arrangement. But Thompson devoted much less space to arguing about possible future freedom than he did to delineating the many forms of oppression which women suffered at present. As John Stuart Mill was later to do, he devoted his greatest attention to married women, arguing that married women lived under a contract that was similar to a slave contract as ‘the movable property and ever obedient servant to a husband who was also their master’ (Thompson 1973: 100). Thompson’s attack on marriage and on the overall situation of women echoed that of Mary Wollstonecraft in its emphasis on male sexual licence and profligacy in the degradation of women. He was scathing in his criticism of the ways in which men directed women’s lives solely in order to gratify their own sexual appetites. But he moved in a rather different direction in his condemnation of the ways in which existing marriage laws and assumptions made women sexual slaves, while denying them any entitlement to sexual desire, activity, or fulfilment within marriage. ‘The whole of what is called her education’, he argued, trained her ‘to be the obedient instrument of men’s sensual gratification, she is not permitted even to wish for any gratification for herself’.

A number of the women associated with the Owenites both shared and expressed the concerns about married women and their sexual slavery that were so important to Thompson. As Barbara Taylor has suggested, several of them had left unhappy marriages and demanded personal and sexual freedom in their own lives, in ways quite similar to Wollstonecraft. But others focused attention rather more on the question of women’s need for personal independence and its economic basis. While they generally agreed that the institution of private property was fundamental to women’s dependence—and what was needed to end it was the transformation of the current system based on private property to one based on cooperative living and working arrangements—they also pointed to the needs of women to be able to undertake paid work that was accorded reasonable wages. Owenite women were often confronted with opposition to women’s paid work and with fear of their competition from the very men most adamant in the demand for cooperation and for unionization of male workers.

It was not only those connected to socialist movements who condemned the legal and social oppression of women, but also some radical religious groups. It was amongst radical Unitarians, Kathryn Gleadle argues, especially those connected with W. J. Fox, many of (p. 391) whom published articles in the Monthly Repository, that one can find the most comprehensive understanding of the cultural basis and meaning of women’s oppression (Gleadle 1995). Anticipating the argument that J. S. Mill was later to make so forcefully, they insisted not only that the origin of the position of women was to be seen in earlier forms of slavery, but also that it was the institution that most clearly resembled their current position as well. ‘In what does the slavery of women consist?’ asked one article in The Crisis in 1834:

Does it not consist in being subjected to laws which she has been carefully excluded from all participation in forming…? Does not their slavery consist in having been systematically excluded from an education, which, however miserably defective it may be, has been an additional weapon in the hands of her tyrant?1

For the Unitarian radicals, as for William Thompson, there was a clear connection between women’s subordinate legal status and their lack of political rights. It was only by establishing equality at the heart of the legislature, they argued, that a just and rational society might be effected. It was amongst these radicals in the 1830s, Gleadle argues, and not amongst those middle-class women demanding the right to vote in the 1860s, that the connection between enfranchisement and women’s legal status was first clearly drawn. But one can see here too the disagreements over how best to analyse women’s domestic roles and responsibilities that were to be so significant in the second half of the century. While some of the radical Unitarians extolled women’s maternal role and insisted on the primacy and the importance of their contribution to familial and domestic life, others argued rather that, given educational limits and narrow cultural horizons, it was hard for them to do anything else. Drawing on the cooperative ideas and schemes that were quite prominent in the 1830s, some of the more utopian of Fox’s followers also suggested that communal living arrangements or associated housing schemes might be the best way to set women free from ceaseless domestic drudgery. Others suggested rather that women might become family income earners, while men assumed responsibility for the domestic sphere. Others took up this broad question of women in relation to family life in different ways, suggesting the possibilities of a new model family which was more egalitarian than the norm and in which fathers played a very different role in regard both to housework and to childcare. Central to the Unitarian case, Gleadle argues, was their conception of the relationship between the family and the state. Democratic principles, many of them argued, could not be confined to the state, but had to extend to the family hearth.

These debates that had been so important amongst Owenites and radical Unitarians came to an end by the early 1840s. There was little connection, in terms either of personnel or of outlook, between the ideas of these groups and those that came to the fore in the late 1850s and 1860s. With the demise of the cooperative movement and of ideas about communal living, a radical approach to family life and domestic labour disappeared. The liberal framework of the feminist discussions of the mid-nineteenth century, with its individualism and its emphasis on the particular form of nuclear family that was evident within the British middle class, put paid to these particular ideas. Feminist debate and discussion in the mid-nineteenth century was associated primarily with a women’s movement comprised of a series of specific campaigns to reform the marital laws that deprived women of their (p. 392) property and their legal identity, to extend their educational and employment opportunities, and to gain the vote. The need for political rights and for women to become full citizens was a key concern for most mid-Victorian feminists. But this focus on legal and political reform was accompanied by a shift in approach to personal life and a greater acceptance of conventional ideas about morality and marriage. Sexual questions continued to be important, and a small number of feminists continued to insist on recognition of the sexual oppression within marriage, and for the first time to raise explicitly the issue of marital rape (Kent 1987). But what was of greater moment was the sexual double standard and most particularly the acceptance of it that underlined the regulation of prostitution through the Contagious Diseases Acts.

The one person who was involved both in some of the debates of the 1820s and 1830s and those of the mid-nineteenth century was Harriet Martineau. Martineau was a critical and in some ways radical Unitarian and published in the journal edited by W. J. Fox. She served, however, rather to anticipate the changes that came in the mid-century than to bring into this later period the radical critiques of an earlier generation. Martineau had shown little interest in the broader criticism of sexual hierarchy evident amongst Unitarian and Owenite groups or in their support for personal and particularly for sexual freedom for women. On the contrary, where those like Thompson, W. J. Fox, and Eliza Flower deplored the ways that women were tied to marriage and criticized sexual double standards, Martineau demanded absolute adherence to prevailing sexual norms, refusing to associate with any women thought to have engaged in irregular sexual conduct. She never thought to make the same demands of men. Her endorsement of domesticity for women and her concern about sexual morality went along with a great determination to ensure that she was not seen as connected to anyone like Wollstonecraft. Her sense of the possibility of making feminist demands and critiques came rather through her connection with the women engaged in the campaigns for the abolition of slavery whom she met while in America in the 1830s.

Martineau is a complicated figure in nineteenth-century British feminist thought. In the course of her long writing career, she addressed almost every aspect of women’s oppression including education, social customs, marriage laws, health, clothing, paid work, and sexual exploitation both in prostitution and in marriage. But while concerned about the situation of women, she was often hesitant to advocate fundamental change or to identify herself with those demanding it. When she pointed to the limited employment opportunities available to women, for example, something which had directly affected her own life, rather than advocating for greater employment opportunities for women, Martineau contented herself with pointing to the contradictions evident between the assumption that most women were supported by their menfolk—and the vast amount of paid labour that women actually undertook. Adopting a cool and neutral stance in many of her discussions of women and the problems that they faced, she often adopted a masculine voice as well. While this stance seems to some to exclude her from the category of feminist, others have argued rather that Martineau’s approach was essentially sociological, that she deserves recognition as one of the founding figures of sociology—and as one who placed women at its centre (Hoecker-Drysdale 1992). Martineau’s approach changed quite markedly in the course of the 1860s when she came to recognize the importance of women raising their own voices and campaigning directly for legal and social change. The issue that brought this home to her was the Contagious Diseases Acts. As we will see, these Acts, which served to regulate prostitution in specified ports and garrison towns, were a source of very great anger and (p. 393) concern amongst feminists who saw them as enshrining the sexual double standard in a particularly demeaning way. Martineau too was appalled by the Contagious Diseases Acts and joined with Josephine Butler and others seeking to have them repealed. It was only when she became involved in this agitation that Martineau came to see herself as connected to the campaigns that made up the women’s movement or as an advocate of women’s rights. As Simone de Beauvoir was to do in the late twentieth century, Martineau became a feminist more or less retrospectively, in response to the enthusiasm and urgency of a younger generation of women—who in turn offered her recognition of the work on women she had done in her earlier life.

Although there were differences in the specific views and outlooks of those associated with these various feminist campaigns of the mid-nineteenth century, all of them articulated their views within the broad framework of political and economic liberalism. There were a number of different ways in which they did this, but in all the need to recognize women as individuals was paramount. This is not to suggest that nineteenth-century feminists underrated the centrality of women’s familial role and duties; nonetheless they saw women first and foremost not as mothers, wives, or daughters, but as autonomous individuals, entitled to the same rights and freedoms as men. All the various prevailing ideas about the proper end of women, whether it be maternity or some wider civilizing mission, were based, argued Frances Cobbe, on the theory of ‘Woman as an adjective’ whose being should be directed towards the happiness of someone else. What was needed instead was a theory of woman as a noun whose first end of being was one proper to herself (Cobbe 1869).

One key point stressed by many mid-Victorian feminists was the need to see the current position of women, not as natural or necessary, but rather as a throwback to an earlier age. This was one of the points made most strongly by John Stuart Mill in his Subjection of Women. The position of women at the present time, Mill argued, bore all the signs of its origin in a primitive form of slavery and bondage. The legal and political restrictions that they faced, were ‘the survivals from a state of society that has passed away’. Hence the situation of women was out of kilter with all other aspects of contemporary society. The ‘modern conviction’, Mill insisted ‘is, that things in which the individual is the person directly interested, never go right but as they are left to his own discretion; and that any regulation of them by authority, except to protect the rights of others, is sure to be mischievous’—this conviction was not applied to women. They remained ‘the one group in society (apart from royalty) whose opportunities and life pattern were determined solely by their birth’ (Mill 1970: 136).

While Mill saw women’s subordinate status as a form of slavery, others saw it in sightly different terms: as a form of legal infantilization as women were sometimes linked with children in their need of special care and protection, or worse when they were linked with criminals and idiots in their overall legal standing. Rather than being placed in these categories, feminists argued, women needed to be classified as adults with the same legal and political rights and economic opportunities as other adults. Frances Power Cobbe stated this view powerfully in an article entitled ‘Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors’.

Ought Englishwomen of full age at the present state of affairs, to be considered as having legally attained majority? Or ought they permanently to be considered, for all civil and political purposes as minors? This, we venture to think, is the real point at issue between the friends and opponents of ‘women’s rights’.

(Cobbe 1868: 778)

(p. 394) Cobbe was prepared to accept that at an earlier period the ‘pupilage’ in which women had been kept was both inevitable and sometimes even salutary. But it was no longer either necessary or viable. This point was made forcefully also by Josephine Butler and her colleagues in regard to the regulation of women’s work. They strongly opposed legislation that sought to limit women’s working hours or to prohibit them from undertaking particular kinds of work. There is no middle course, they argued,

Between a system which shall map out precise duties, not only to each sex, but to every class and to every individual constituting the State, and the system which leaves to all equal freedom to work at what they choose and what they are fit for. And the principles on which modern society is based, forbid that any system should live save that of freedom of labour, a freedom which, from its nature, must be complete and universal.

(Butler et al. 1870: 6)

In arguing for a removal of the many restrictions that women faced, Millicent Garrett Fawcett also summoned the arguments that were part of the case for free trade. The demand for removal of the barrier that excluded women from higher education and from many different forms of employment was, she insisted, only a ‘phase of the free trade argument’.

Free-traders argue that all artificial restrictions upon commerce should be removed, because that is the only way of insuring that each country and each locality will occupy itself with that industry for which it has the greatest natural advantages. In like manner, we say remove the artificial restrictions which debar women from higher education and from remunerative employment…and the play of natural forces will drive them into those occupations for which they have the greatest natural advantages as individuals.

(Fawcett 1878: 352)

This argument was of particular importance because, while insisting that women should have opportunities for employment outside marriage (and Fawcett stressed that many of the noblest and best women remained single, devoting themselves to significant public causes), it nonetheless assumed that the majority of women would be guided into marriage—the ‘occupation for which they had the greatest natural advantages’.

Although often drawing her rhetoric from a different strand of liberalism through her insistence on the ways in which organized prostitution enslaved women and hence on their need for emancipation, Josephine Butler too deployed liberal arguments in her opposition to the Contagious Diseases Acts. The Contagious Diseases Acts were first and foremost an example of the ‘over-legislation’, which was, in her view, ‘the grand evil of the day’. She was concerned about the tendency towards central government regulation in place of local and municipal control over many community matters, including public health. She disliked the growing power of the executive and the tendency of governments to usurp what she saw as the traditional role of Parliament. But more than anything else, she was fiercely opposed to any attempt to legislate in areas of personal morality, and especially in cases like that of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which extended the powers of the police to interfere in the private lives of individuals (Butler 1879).

As we have already seen, there were many very significant men engaged in articulating and developing nineteenth-century feminist thought. The lack of legal and political rights or of a recognized public voice made women depend heavily on male support and in many cases prominent feminists were the beneficiaries of supportive fathers and husbands. While women and men often worked together, the place of men in feminism did become problematic as some women came to see the importance of women organizing and agitating (p. 395) for themselves. This issue came to the fore primarily in relation to the Contagious Diseases Acts and the issue of prostitution. Within this framework, in which men were not only clients, but also police, magistrates, and doctors as well as the parliamentarians who made the laws, the question of male power and privilege was inescapable. In one of her newsletters, Josephine Butler, who led the agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts, put the case very clearly through the comments of a young prostitute she claimed to have interviewed. ‘It is men, men, only men, from first to last’, said the young woman.

To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man, men police lay hands on us. By men we are examined, handled, doctored, and messed on with. In hospital it is a man again who makes prayers and reads the bible for us. We are had up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men till we die.2

Butler’s concerns about the specifically sexual nature of women’s oppression had as a counterpoint an insistence on the importance of women campaigning themselves to end their own oppression. She became very concerned in the course of the 1870s over what she saw as a ‘tendency…among men to allow women to drop out of the first ranks in this crusade’ and to see the question of prostitution and its regulation as an international and scientific one with ‘distinguished and learned men’ as its main advocates. But men lacked the sense of urgency that she felt—and moreover, she felt that women’s direct involvement in this cause of their emancipation was vital. It was the Contagious Diseases Acts that made Butler recognize the importance of women’s suffrage ‘as a means of self preservation’. As the franchise extended to include new groups of men, the omission of women became more and more serious. Once labourers were going to be enfranchised, Butler wrote in the 1870s,

Our case becomes the worse; we shall be utterly sacrificed and lost, if we have no representation—if we become (tho’ more than half the nation) the one unrepresented section under a government which will become more and more extended, more popular, more democratic and yet wholly masculine.3

While arguing that women needed to be seen as individuals entitled to the same rights as men, for the most part, nineteenth-century feminists continued to see women as very different from men in their intellectual and emotional make-up. Even those as convinced that what was generally understood to be ‘women’s nature’ was an eminently artificial as John Stuart Mill nonetheless believed strongly that there were marked differences between the approach of men and women. Men, in his view, were far more inclined to think in terms of generalizations, for example, while women had more intuition and insight into ‘present fact’. This simultaneous rejection of much that was seen as integral to femininity in the nineteenth century with a strong belief in the very particular form of sexual difference that Mill shows here has been the subject of strong criticism from twentieth-century feminist scholars. But it was easily accepted by his own nineteenth-century female counterparts, many of whom went considerably further than him in their insistence on the extent and nature of sexual difference—and on their very high evaluation of women’s empathy, compassion, and capacity for nurture and on their sense of women’s innate capacity for managing domestic (p. 396) and familial life. When opponents of women’s rights suggested that education and work and full emancipation would bring a diminution of those admirable qualities of womanhood that were so important in both social and family life, both Josephine Butler and Frances Cobbe strongly disagreed. Cobbe, who wrote at some length about the particular duties that women owed to their parents, their wider families, and to society at large, was appalled at the very idea that rights might make women less womanly. ‘If women were to become less dutiful by being enfranchised less conscientious, less unselfish, less temperate, less chaste,’ she expostulated, ‘then I should say “For heaven’s sake, let us stay where we are! Nothing we can ever gain would be worth such a loss”’ (Cobbe 1881: 11–12). But she did not believe that this would be the case. Women, in her view, were innately temperate, chaste, and nurturant, capable of tender feelings towards family, friends, and the society at large that were completely unknown to men. These qualities were most evident in mothers, but they could clearly be seen in single women as well. Although very different from Cobbe in her general political outlook, and far more radical in her endorsement of suffrage reform and her preparedness to confront the sexual double standard, Josephine Butler was in agreement with Cobbe both in her horror at the possibility of any diminution in ‘womanliness’ and in her belief that this could not happen. ‘Every good quality, every virtue which we regard as distinctively feminine’, Butler argued,

Will, under conditions of greater freedom, develop more freely…It will always be her nature to foster, to cherish, to take the part of the weak, to train, to guide, to have a care of individuals, to discern the small seeds of a great future, to warm and cherish those seed into fullness of life. ‘I serve’ will always be one of her favourite mottos, even should the utmost freedom be accorded her in the choice of vocation.

(Butler 1868: 18)

Rather than undermining the case for political rights for women, these very differences served in the view of feminists to strengthen it because of the value of these womanly qualities to the state.

While some feminists insisted on the benefits that womanly qualities like nurturance and compassion would bestow on government and on many public institutions, others stressed rather the educative and moral benefits that women would derive from inclusion within the public and political world and in the concerns of both nation and state. John Stuart Mill was perhaps the strongest proponent of this view that women’s moral and intellectual horizons would grow and expand as enfranchisement and a sense of themselves as citizens turned their attention away from family and home and towards public concerns. Mill tended to talk about political and public concerns in general terms, but for some of his more overtly patriotic contemporaries, the important connection was not just with a generalized idea of state and nation, but rather with Britain—and in many cases also with the British Empire. Millicent Garrett Fawcett included both when she proudly described herself as a ‘worshipper at the inner shrine, the holy of holies, all that England stands for to her children, and to the world’, and she was not alone in holding these sentiments (Fawcett 1888). She and several other feminists made clear their sense, not only that the participation of women was essential to maintain national strength, but also that ‘British womanhood’ was superior to any other. This view of the superiority of British womanhood was articulated first in relation to other European women: French, German, and especially Italian. Frances Cobbe’s long article on ‘women in Italy in 1862’, for example, placed Italian women under a microscope to reveal their many failings and inadequacies: their lack of education; the impact on (p. 397) their intellectual and moral development of their rigid adherence to the Catholic Church; their frivolity and lack of capacity for reflection. But as imperial questions became more and more prominent in the later decades of the century, it was the superiority of British women to their colonial counterparts that was emphasized. For some feminists this sense of superiority went along with the idea of women as having a particular imperial mission to their ‘little sisters’. The major target of this discussion—and indeed of British feminist campaigns to provide female doctors and teachers, to bring an end to child marriage, and to regulate prostitution—was Indian women. What is noticeable in all of these cases is the way in which ‘Indian women’ are seen as an undifferentiated group of absolutely helpless people, dominated over and victimized both by their own menfolk and social norms and by imperial officials. When Josephine Butler turned her attention to the Cantonment Acts which extended to India the provisions of the Contagious Diseases Acts, she never for a moment thought that Indian women might themselves take up this issue, seeing them rather as ‘helpless, voiceless, hopeless’. Their helplessness appealed to the heart, she wrote,

In somewhat the same way in which the helplessness and suffering of a dumb animal does, under the knife of a vivisector. Somewhere, halfway between the Martyr Saints and the tortured friend of man, the noble dog, stands, it seems to me, these pitiful Indian women, girls, children, as many of them are.4

In infantilizing and dehumanizing these colonial subjects, British feminists demonstrated their preparedness to take on a special imperial burden—something which served to show yet again their own fitness for political rights.

Many of the ideas and approaches that were characteristic of mid-Victorian feminism continued at least until the outbreak of the First World War and were evident amongst members and supporters of the largest of the suffrage societies, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett. But from the late 1880s and the 1890s, these ideas and approaches, and especially the insistence on the primacy of women’s suffrage as the major feminist cause, were challenged on a couple of different fronts, by those who demanded a new approach to industrial legislation as a way of protecting working women, on the one hand, and by those who offered a much stronger and more militant critique of marriage and of prevailing ideals of femininity, on the other.

Both the emphasis on political campaigns and the liberal economic ideas that were so important to mid-Victorian feminists were rejected entirely by a number of women associated with the labour and trade union movements, who argued that their attack on sex-based industrial legislation reflected their complete ignorance of the lives and conditions of working women. Far from imposing unwarranted restrictions on them, industrial legislation protected women from economic exploitation. Women like Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Mary MacArthur, and Gertrude Tuckwell worked hard to increase the number of women belonging to trade unions and advocated legislative regulation of women’s working hours and conditions. They regarded the liberal economic ideas of an earlier generation of feminists as outmoded, insisting that it was industrial legislation rather than its absence that secured women’s freedom. ‘We cannot see’, Margaret Llewellyn Davies argued, (p. 398)

How a shop-girl, standing from 70 to 80 hours a week, often in a most unhealthy atmosphere, often only allowed odd times to bolt her food, is a ‘freer’ woman than the mill-hand, with her legal 56 hours a week, her two hours for food, her half-holiday and her ventilated and white-washed surroundings.

(Llewellyn-Davies 1897: 4)

While women connected to the labour movement and drawing on socialist and trade-union ideas provided one critique of mid-Victorian feminism, a younger generation of women who identified with the idea of a ‘new woman’ provided another. Here, as earlier in the century, literature played an important part in suggesting new ways of thinking about the ‘woman question’ and of approaching feminism. The early 1890s saw the publication of several novels dealing with a ‘new woman’. This fiction and the very idea of a ‘new woman’ was the subject of much debate, with many well-known writers and a large number of leading feminists attacking the sexual licence and freedoms apparently demanded by this figure. But it was precisely in this fictional form, as Lucy Bland has argued, that new approaches to marriage, sexuality, and women’s freedom were articulated (Bland 1987a). Unlike the writers of an earlier period, many of these novelists of the 1890s, including Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird, and Emma Brooke saw themselves as feminists and were engaged in feminist campaigns and in writing about the situation of women in non-fictional forms. They attacked prevailing ideals of womanhood, arguing both that women who were entirely dependent on their menfolk for sustenance and support were parasites and conversely that marriage and familial duties and demands destroyed not only women’s independence but also their capacity to develop as full human beings.

Like the socialist women, these women also rejected the idea that it was suffrage that was the most urgent need of women. But for them it was not work, but rather questions of marriage, sexual behaviour, and family life that were of most importance. Marriage was a particular target as some ‘new women’ eschewed it completely, while others depicted it as a source not only of constant servitude and even slavery, but also of illness and death. Venereal disease, contracted by profligate young men and then transmitted to their innocent and ignorant wives and through them to their children, was one powerful image of the suffering that marriage imposed on women—and a number of feminists argued that the profligacy of young men was so widespread that few women were ever entirely well after marriage. The sexual double standard which feminists had long attacked was shown here as something that threatened not only individual women and families but the entire well-being of the nation and the race. But even when women were not immediately infected, marriage and family life were seen as involving the complete sacrifice of a woman’s self. Both in her novel The Daughters of Danaus and in her collection of essays The Morality of Marriage, Mona Caird stressed the ways in which marriage and family life enslaved women. In her view, marriage still carried the marks of its origin involving the sale and enslavement of women and the binding of them to a man for his personal use and the procreation of his children. Women suffered not only physical abuse and humiliation, but also the loss of any capacity to engage in their own interests or to live a fulfilling life. The idea that women should devote themselves to motherhood was in her view both false and illogical: there was no more reason why women should devote their entire lives to motherhood than men should to fatherhood. But the acceptance that women should so devote themselves required nothing less than the complete sacrifice of one sex to the other (Caird 1897). The idea that women were rendered sexual slaves by marriage was not new. It was after all something that had been argued by both William Thompson and John Stuart Mill, while other early and (p. 399) mid-Victorian feminists had pointed to the many ways in which women could be ill-treated in marriage. What was new was the insistence on the physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual destruction of women that accompanied all marriage, not just those in which women were explicitly ill-treated. Caird in particular also insisted on the ways in which family life, including the demands of both parents and children, sucked the lifeblood from women and destroyed them. The antagonism to marriage expressed in some of the writing of the 1890s and the insistence on the ways in which women were literally killed by it provided the framework for a much more militant form of feminism.

Critiques of marriage and of the deleterious consequences of marital sex for women did not take for granted women’s asexuality or the idea that sex was imposed on them. In the 1890s, as for William Thompson, the point at issue was rather the lack of any recognition of women’s own sexuality and desire—and the ways in which the sexual ignorance that was required of women prevented their being in any way prepared for adult sexual relationships. For some of those writing about the ‘new woman’, what women needed was the freedom to pursue emotional and sexual relationships outside marriage, rather than being completely bound within them. It is interesting to note here the ways in which the language of feminism was slowly beginning to be used in the 1890s, and in ways that linked questions of personal freedom for women with demands for legal and political rights. Some of those who labelled themselves feminists were extremely critical of the increasing emphasis on enfranchisement and on winning the vote which was the main target of organized women’s campaigns, seeing the demand for suffrage as asking ‘for a trifling political adjustment…rather than fighting for the full humanity and the economic, social and sexual freedom of women’ (Marsden 1912: 285). As this suggests, the introduction of the turn ‘feminist’ did not bring unanimity amongst all those advocating the rights of women. On the contrary, one might argue that the term came into being just at the point when a mid-Victorian consensus was breaking down, bringing an unprecedented diversity of outlook and approach. The introduction of the language of feminism at the turn of the twentieth century was, however, accompanied by a new interest in the history of feminist thought and perhaps in a new sense of the significance of possible feminist traditions. William Thompson’s Appeal was republished along with several essays on earlier feminists like Mary Astell and ‘Sophia’. But it was Mary Wollstonecraft who was the subject of particular interest, with the appearance of several new and very sympathetic biographies as well as new editions of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The ‘new woman’, who demanded sexual freedom as well as education, work, and legal and political rights, offered an appropriate context for the re-evaluation of Wollstonecraft and a way to establish her place as a founding figure in British feminist thought.


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(1) ‘Justitia’, Letter to the Editor, The Crisis, 3/30 (Mar. 1834), 246, cited in Gleadle (1995), 63.

(2) Josephine Butler, ‘The Garrison Towns of Kent’, Third Letter from Mrs Butler, Shield, 9 May 1870.

(3) Josephine Butler, letter to Mrs C. M. Wilson, 12 Nov. 1803, Butler Papers, Women’s Library, London School of Economics.

(4) Josephine Butler, ‘Editorial’, Stormbell (June 1898), cited in Burton (1994), 62.