Daily Archives: April 3, 2018

‘The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement 1831-51’ by Kathryn Gleadle


1995, 189 p & notes

In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Sixty years later in the 1850s and 1860s the Langham Place circle emerged in London, described as “the first organized feminist movement in England”. But what happened in the years between 1792 and the 1850s? Was Wollstonecraft an outlier, or did the whole ‘woman’ question just fall into abeyance in the intervening 60 years?

In this book, Kathryn Gleadle argues that there was no wasteland in these intervening years. Instead, a network of writers and reformers existed during the 1830s and 1840s, particularly centred on an off-shoot of the Unitarian church at South Place in Finsbury. When the Langham Place circle launched into what we now see as first-wave feminism in the 1850s there was a strong representation of Unitarian women – or at least, women with strong Unitarian family connections, most particularly Bessie Raynor Parkes and Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon). Gleadle argues that these 1850s women were the direct heirs -the daughters and granddaughters-  of an earlier, less recognized network of Unitarian women who, although they may not have taken a visible, audible part in radical politics, formed a bridge between Wollstonecraft and the 1850s.  This group is the focus of the book.

The mainstream Unitarian church of the early 19th century was influenced by two main intellectual streams.  The first was the longstanding rejection of the theological idea that Jesus was God, and the concept of the Trinity.  The second was the influence of John Locke, whose theories introduced a new intellectual and philosophical element into Unitarianism, making it a religion for intellectuals but increasingly concerned with social responsibility.  According to this two-strand world view in the mainstream Unitarian church, the universe was governed by laws laid down by God, which could be discovered through science, invention and inquiry. This was a time when the Industrial Revolution was changing the social and economic landscape of Britain. Many Unitarians  became industrialists and manufacturers, and in this they were similar to the other non-conformists and evangelicals described in Davidoff and Hall’s influential text Family Fortunes (my review here). They prized self-help and self-advancement, and were strongly influenced by Utilitarianism (I’ve always found it distracting that Unitarianism and Utilitarianism are such similar words.)  Although the Unitarian church had been criticized for its early support of the French Revolution in a spirit of fraternity, Unitarians were legally accepted by the 1830s under municipal and corporations reform, and indeed several Unitarian ‘captains of industry’ became mayors.

There was also a strong literary culture within the mainstream Unitarian church, with Wordsworth, Carlyle and Coleridge and German culture and Romanticism holding sway. There was the influence of  American transcendentalism (Emerson, Channing), and contact with left wing movements esp. Owenism in Manchester.

However, socially the mainstream Unitarian church was quite conservative, with strict rules of propriety, particularly for women, that were very similar to the mores in the Evangelical families described by Davidoff and Hall. Perhaps this is because Unitarians had come under fire for their political views during the French Revolution and were keen to prove their personal and familial respectability.  But as can be seen from the correspondence between many Unitarian women, the women in such families were often frustrated by  the socially straitened domestic life that was imposed on them.

Gleadle differentiates between this mainstream Unitarianism and what she calls ‘radical unitarianism’ (with no capital letters). This offshoot was centred on South Place Chapel in Finsbury, and its minister William Johnson Fox.  You can see a photograph of the interior of the Chapel here, with its exhortation ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ clearly visible on the walls. Fox purchased the Monthly Repository Unitarian Journal in 1831 and  transformed it from a sectarian journal into a radical, non-denominational forum for literary and current affairs.  Mainstream Unitarians distanced themselves from this group. There were rumours about Fox’s marriage and he seemed inordinately fond of his ward Eliza Flower, with whom he set up after leaving his wife.  However, the congregation of South Place urged him to stay, and the chapel was officially detached from the denomination.

None of this will surprise modern day Unitarians.  The tension between radicalism and spirituality plays out again and again in Unitarian congregations- including those in Australia.

The  South Place coterie had at its heart a “vibrant, stimulating caucus of talented writers, artists and musicians” p. 37. In particular, they used literature as a way of urging change, particularly the works of Mary Leman Grimstone.  Edward Bulwer Lytton and Charles Dickens, Harriet Taylor and John Stewart Mill were closely involved with the South Place circle during the 1830s, and during the 1840s Anna Jameson and Mary and William Howitt  were attracted to its ideas.  It is this group, Gleadle argues, who formed the stepping stone between Wollstonecraft (who was also a Unitarian) and Langham Place.  “This vibrant group of intellectuals and reformers enjoyed both radical contacts and benefitted from a Unitarian influence that led them to formulate their own distinctive, reforming creed” p. 189.

Their feminism was not necessarily voiced in public meetings, but it permeated their writing and ideas. They argued that marriage was a form of domestic slavery, in that they were dependent on their husbands and confined within the walls of the home, and that from this position of bondage, they could not be expected to agitate for their own liberation. They did not wish to overthrow marriage, or the family, but they wanted to improve it. They argued for housing associations, where tasks could be shared, while maintaining the family unit.  Gleadle argues there are no ‘overlooked’ women leaders lurking offstage, but that historians need to look at the actions of radical unitarian men, and there you will find the women, utilizing their pens and their networks to promulgate their ideas.

I found myself floundering a little with this book, because many of the names that I expect would be recognizable to a historian of Victorian Britain were unfamiliar to me. There were occasional flashes of recognition-  ah! Mrs Jameson from my studies of Upper Canada! ah! The Howitts who ended up in Port Phillip!

What does come through clearly, however, is the networked nature of these connections between women, drawing on their correspondence and family trees, and the power of writing both publicly (albeit sometimes anonymously) and privately between family and friends. These women played a vital role in shaping public opinion of the ‘woman question’ and laid the foundation stones for the organized women’s rights campaigns of the following decades. It makes sense to me that these mid-century feminist activists did not emerge fully-formed, but were instead shaped by familial, social and cultural influences, just as activists often are today.  It also makes sense to me that 19th century British Unitarianism, especially with its tension between its ‘respectable’ and ‘radical’ wings should form such an influence.

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because: I’m interested in the historical connections between Unitarianism and feminism

And by the way: there’s an interesting podcast on BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ on Harriet Martineau, which fits in well with this book.