Historian and activist to lead a course on the Radical Women of 1790-1918

Greater Manchester and the surrounding area has been a hotbed of radical action and revolution for centuries – and from the Peterloo Massacre to Suffrage, women have been at...

Greater Manchester and the surrounding area has been a hotbed of radical action and revolution for centuries – and from the Peterloo Massacre to Suffrage, women have been at the frontline of change.

This autumn the lives, actions and legacies of some of these women will be explored during a 10 week course on Radical Women, 1790-1918. Led by Michael Herbert, a Labour movement activist and historian, the classes will look at some of the key movements, events and personalities of this period.

The course is taking place over 10 weeks (plus half term) at Aquinas College in Stockport (Mondays 6.30-8.30pm from 12 September) and will also be taught at Salford’s Working Class Movement Library (Tuesdays 11am-1pm from 27 September). A second course, covering 1918-1980, is scheduled for January in both locations.

The content will include the contribution of women from Manchester and Salford, says Mr Herbert, adding that no prior knowledge is needed to attend.

“We begin with Mary Wollstonecraft’s  book Vindication of the Rights of Women (1791) and then go on to the  radical movement of the 1790s, the risings of the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, the Owenite Feminists, Chartism, Socialism, trade unions and the long campaign for Votes for Women which started in 1866 and ended in 1918,” he says.

“I am delighted to be using the Working Class Movement Library as one of the venues for this course as it has a wealth of archives on these events. At a time when we see a resurgence of  inequality,  poverty, low wages  and sheer desperation we should take heart from the example of women of the past who fought for a better society for all.”

Michael Herbert will lead the 10-week course on radical women
Michael Herbert will lead the 10-week course on radical women

Mr Herbert has been researching and writing about the history of radical Manchester and Salford for many years, and published “Up Then Brave Women”: Manchester’s radical women 1819-1918  in 2012. Here, he talks to Co-op News about the importance of radical women, and introduces us to some of the characters students will meet on the course …

Rebecca Harvey: What started your interest in radical women?

Michael Herbert: I was inspired by the example set by Ruth and Eddie Frow, the founders of the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, who were good friends. I started doing a number of history walks in Manchester in the 1990s, including one on women. It seemed natural to include one on women – partly because Manchester played a major role in the suffragist and suffragette movements, and partly because as a young man in the 1970s I was  influenced by  the Women’s Liberation Movement and the importance of freedom and equality for women. I did a lot of research for the walk and this  eventually led to my writing a book and teaching courses on the subject.

RH: Can you tell us a little about the importance of Owenite Feminists? 

MH: Robert Owen was not a revolutionary, but he did believe that society needed a radical change, moving away from capitalist competition towards mutual co-operation – a society run on rational and scientific lines in small communities of several thousand people. As part of those beliefs he rejected organised religion and the traditional model of marriage in which the man ruled the woman. His ideas sparked a lot of debate and the support of a number of women active in the emerging co-operative movement in the 1830s such as Frances Morrison.

RH: How do they fit into the context of radical women?

MH: I think you can see in this early feminist movement an emerging debate about how society should be run, and some of the practical problems and possible solutions around how women could be emancipated. At the  third Co-operative Congress, held In London on 23 April 1832, delegates discussed and approved “Articles of Agreement for the formation of a Community on the principles of Mutual Cooperation.” Article IX  was as follows:

Co-operation  of Women: To secure for the Community the efficient co-operation of one half of its adult members, women; to give  them an opportunity of acquiring equal respect and sympathy, by means of equal usefulness, with men: and give them equal facilities with men, of social intercourse and acquiring knowledge; we guarantee to them freedom from the domestic  drudgery of cooking, washing, and of heating apartments, which will be performed on scientific principles on a large economical scale, for the whole community.

RH: Can you tell us a little more about Frances Morrison? 

MH: Frances Morrison ran away at the age of 16 with a house painter, James Morrison who became editor of the Pioneer, the Owenite trade union newspaper. Francs wrote the Women’s page under the pen name ‘A Bondwoman’.

“It is time the working females began to demand their long-suppressed rights,” she wrote. “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.”

Letter from Owenite feminist Frances Morrison to Robert Owen, 18 May 1839 (Part of the National Co-operative Archive's Robert Owen Collection)
Letter from Owenite feminist Frances Morrison to Robert Owen, 18 May 1839 (Part of the National Co-operative Archive’s Robert Owen Collection)

After her husband died she moved to Salford where there was a very active co-operative society which has its own meeting rooms, the Social Institute. She became an Owenite lecturer speaking about the principles of Co-operation and the position of women. She said:

…woman has been made a mere commodity of trade, and the fountain of love has either been choked, or its course directed into the channel of worldly ambition. 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, therefore, be no need of this “deadly foe to human weal”.  If two individuals entertain an affection for each other, there will be no necessity to conceal those pleasing emotions which draw them naturally together, as there will be no distinction in rank, so there will be neither condescension on the one side nor obligation on the other, which ever has, and ever will, constitute a serious drawback on the conjugal felicity of the old immoral world…   There will be no marrying for convenience merely (a very cold word), but real affection inspired by real and known worth on both sides. And what surer guarantees can we have for its durability?

RH: What other co-operative women or organisations will be covered? 

MH: We will be looking at the Women’s Co-operative Guild which started in 1883. Margaret Llewellyn Davies became secretary in 1889 and under her leadership it grew to one of the largest organisations for working class women in the country. It encouraged women to become active in the co-operative movement, which was very male dominated. It also encouraged women to take an interest in the wider world and educate themselves on political matters. The Guild campaigned for better maternity services for expectant mothers and controversially for easier divorce as its consultation amongst its members revealed many women trapped in loveless, and sometimes violent relationships.

RH: Many of the women mentioned in the course are from Greater Manchester – why was the radical contribution from women in this region so great?

MH: Manchester was the world’s first great industrial city with a new class – the working class – who had nothing to offer but their labour; “the hands”, they were known as. Many women in Lancashire worked as weavers, who were paid the same as men. This gave them a lot of confidence and independence, leading some to become active in radical political movements such as the early co-operative movement, Chartism, trade unions and also the suffragist and suffragette movements.

RH: The full course covers Radical Women 1790 – 1980 – what happened after 1980? What can women today learn from radical women of the past?

MH: In the 1980s you had movements such as the women-led campaign against cruise missiles at Greenham Common, and the Miners’ Strike 1984-1985 in which women played a very significant role.

The past isn’t a blueprint for the future, each generations makes history in the circumstances of their own era – but what we can learn is that if you want to change things for the better, you have to do something about it. You have to form organisations, you have to work very hard, you have to campaign in all sorts of ways… The lesson is that you cannot change the world sitting at a computer, you actually have go out, meet other people and work with them.

  • The course costs £60 (Salford) and £105 or £50 concessions (Stockport). For more information, please contact Michael Herbert at [email protected] (Salford) or [email protected] / 0161 419 9163 (Stockport)
  • The course coincides with a one day conference on 17 September, on Radical Women 1880-1914, which will feature keynote speakers including Professor Sheila Rowbotham, one of the leading figures behind the Women’s Liberation Movement during the Seventies, and Professor Karen Hunt, of Keele University, an expert in the gendering of politics.
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