Uncontrollable Women by Nan Sloane is set in the period between the French Revolution in 1789 and the Great Reform Act in Britain in 1832. It tells the stories of women who challenged injustice at a time when protest could lead to revolution or to imprisonment, deportation and even death.
One strength of the book is how Sloane has chosen examples of women whose heroism in the face of brutal state repression is inspiring.
The opening chapters look at three radical middle class women who lived through the revolutionary times of the 1790s—Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.
Among British politicians, there was a terror that the revolution in France would spread across the English Channel. Sloane is particularly interested in exploring their political writing. Wollstonecraft wrote in support of the French Revolution. Williams was an eye-witness to the revolution and a prominent abolitionist at the height of the slave trade.
Barbauld attacked the British government for persecuting dissenting religious groups and for their war-mongering. She suggested that “when it came to setting the army and navy budgets, Parliament should be more honest about what it was doing”.
Barbauld said it should “set down: so much for killing, so much for maiming, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine”. “We shall know by this means whether we have made a good bargain,” she wrote.
All three women shared the same radical publisher, Joseph Johnson, and left a considerable written record of their ideas and experiences.
However, most working class women at this time could not read and write and most of their stories were not recorded.
Sloane’s detailed research is therefore refreshing. She has used many primary sources, newspapers, court records of trials and sentencing, prison records, letters and eye-witness accounts. They bring to life the working class women who participated in protest. Sloane uses powerful and evocative imagery which leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
The early 1800s in the northern weaving towns of England saw an increasingly hostile economic and political climate.
Sloane illustrates this with two starkly contrasting examples. Mill owner William Horsfall of Huddersfield had a cannon mounted on the roof of his mill. Many women, unable to feed their families, took part in food riots.
During one riot, 54 year-old Hannah Smith ran off with an apron full of potatoes. She was charged with Highway Robbery, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hanged for being hungry.
Dissatisfaction with the government also led to a growth in the parliamentary reform movement, culminating in the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819. Some 18 people were killed and 654 injured, including 168 women.
It was widely reported that soldiers targeted women disproportionately. Their stories are both moving and shocking.
Despite this, women continued to play a key role in the struggle to give more people the vote and for social justice. The author highlights the case of Susannah Wright, a lace mender from Nottingham who was persecuted by the state for selling radical Tom Paine’s “seditious writings”. She took on the Lord Chief Justice in court and emerged triumphant after telling him that he was paid to listen to her.
Also highlighted in the book is Anna Wheeler, a socialist feminist who linked women’s oppression to emerging socialist ideas.
Uncontrollable Women ends with the failure of the 1832 Reform Act to deliver anything for working class people or for women. This marks the end of the book, but it is not the end of the story.
As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky noted, the extension of the franchise to propertied men in Britain “was carried out with the specific intention of separating the bourgeoisie from the workers”. This was to progress capitalist interests, which had relied on working class people in the fight for reform.
Women continued to play a key role in the Chartist movement and in the Chartist revolts that shook the British state.
I enjoyed reading this book and found in it a rich source on the involvement of working class women in the struggles of 200 years ago.
Uncontrollable Women by Nan Sloane, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2022. Available from Bookmarks—the socialist bookshop