How to Treat the Female Chartists. Wood engraving. Punch, the London Charivari. Vol. 15 (1848): 3. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]
London is threatened with an army of female Chartists, and every man of experience is naturally alarmed, for he knows that the vox fæminæ is the vox diaboli when it is once set going. We confess we are much more alarmed about the threatened rising of the ladies than we should be by the revolt of half the scamps in the metropolis, The women must be put down, as any unfortunate victim to female dominion can testify. How, then, are we to deal with the female Chartists? The police will never be got to act against them; for that gallant force knows how much the kitchens are in the hands of the gentler sex, and there is no member of the force who would willingly make himself an outcast from the hearth of the British basement. We have, however, something to propose that will easily meet the emergency. A heroine who would never run from a man, would fly in dismay before an industrious flea or a burly black-beetle. We have only to collect together a good supply of cockroaches, with a fair sprinkling of rats, and a muster of mice, in order to disperse the largest and most ferocious crowd of females that ever was collected. We respectfully submit our proposition to SIR GEORGE GREY, as a certain specific for allaying female turbulence.
This is a particularly interesting cartoon, which came out at a key point in women's involvement in politics during the early Victorian period. There were indeed female activists in the Chartist movement, just as there had been in other recent reform movements. By participating in protests against "laissez-faire economics and the punitive operation of the New Poor Law," women had, argues Helen Rogers, already begun to redefine "the meanings of masculinity and femininity and the rights and duties that women and men could expect of each other" (589). It was the less surprising, then, that numerous local Female Chartists Associations were founded in the late 1830s, especially among the textile workers of the north (see Schwarzkopf 199 ff.). In this, they had the support of some prominent male Chartists: William Lovatt and John Collins, for example, proposed including women on an equal footing with men in their planned National Association — although admittedly they presented women's involvement in the new order as a means of promoting their "important duties" in the family (Lovatt and Collins 62-63).
However, the number of women's local Chartist organisations dwindled in the 1840s, the very period in which, says Rogers, "working-class movements increasingly sought to improve the condition of the working-class family by promoting the male breadwinner and the domestic wife, thus militating against the full and equal participation of women in the workplace and in political organizations...." As Rogers goes on to point out, "the last major wave of Chartist agitation in 1848 saw only a small scattering of female societies, in comparison with the wave of female organization a decade earlier" (589).
One of Roger's sources here is Jutta Schwarzkopf's very informative study of women in the Chartist movement, and Schwarzkopf herself comes to the conclusion that, in fact, this involvement proved damaging for their wider cause:
Though an immediate failure, the campaign for the Charter had bolstered male working-class stamina, enabling men to come to terms with industrial capitalism and to fight for improvements from within. By the same token, the definite defeat of Chartism left women doubly disempowered. Not only had their Chartist aspirations been foiled, but in the course of campaigning for them, women had also lost out with regard to their scope of action and their ability to bring pressure to bear in public. The class that came into its own in Chartism was one in which women’s needs and requirements were submerged in those of men and in which unquestioned male authority and female subservience, its counterpart, became the proclaimed hallmarks of working-class masculinity and femininity respectively. [Schwarzkopf 4]
The cartoon and comment above appeared just at this juncture. The element of condescension here is not particularly remarkable. It is typical of Punch's usual brand of humour. By its very nature, Punch poked fun at everything and everyone. Women were not exempt from mockery, but they were not especially targeted, either. In general, the magazine was apt to exercise a degree of chivalry towards them, and it showed sympathy too for those who were markedly oppressed: this was, after all, the periodical that published Thomas Hood's "Song of the Shirt" at Christmas 1843, to draw attention to the plight of poor seamstresses. The poem was lauded as "the most noble contribution that ever appeared in the pages of Punch" (Graves 11). Yet Punch, no doubt like many of its readers at this time, clearly felt that women were better suited to the home front than to the political one. We can see now that this contribution of 1848 was very much a sign of the times, when opinion was hardening against female participation in politics.
In the long run, of course, the feminist impulse suggested by the placard in the cartoon, "Vive George Sand," would not be so easily thwarted.
Link to Related Material
Graves, Charles L. Mr Punch's Hisotry of Modern England. Vol. I (1841-47). London: Cassell, 1921. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 6 October 2023.
"How to treat the Female Chartists." Punch, the London Charivari. Vol. 15 (1848): 3. Internet Archive, originally from a copy in the Detroit Public Library. Web. 6 October 2023.
Lovatt, William, and John Collins. Chartism: A New Organisation of the People. Facsimile reprint of 1st ed. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1969.
Rogers, Helen. “‘The Good Are Not Always Powerful, nor the Powerful Always Good’: The Politics of Women’s Needlework in Mid-Victorian London.” Victorian Studies 40, no. 4 (1997): 589–623. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828748.
Schwarzkopf, Jutta. Women in the Chartist Movement. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1991 (an excellent source of information here).