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In my research, I am constantly coming across ‘forgotten’ female figures in history. Since my interests are in issues of class and gender in the mid- to late-Victorian period, many of these are female writers and political activists, speaking out on matters of particular relevance to women, which tended to fall by the wayside in the male-dominated political discourse of the day. Thus, it is easy to assume that the only reason we have not heard of these women now, is that nobody took them particularly seriously at the time. However, there is plenty of evidence to show that this is not the case: Margaret Harkness was close personal friends with Eleanor Marx and very active in her political circle; Annie Besant’s reputation preceded her and caused many to recognise her on sight when she attended her first meeting of the Social Democratic Federation; Clementina Black was a well-known author writing popular reviews on canonical authors such as Hardy, but she was also an active and successful trade unionist and her pamphlets were widely read. Is there, then, a reason why Harkness’s name only rings a bell to those who have read Engels’s correspondence; why George Bernard Shaw is still on all school curricula whilst Besant features predominantly as one of his lovers; why Black’s novels are impossible to come by?

Annie Besant

There is a strong suggestion that the historical and literary canon filters its women according to a sense of ‘suitability’ to the image of their period – one which, fortunately, seems to be gradually breaking down with increasing critical and popular awareness of, for example, New Woman fiction by Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner and Ella Hepworth Dixon, and accounts of slum life by female activists such as Harkness. However, it seems that there is still little room for successful female political activists – at any rate, not for those who were better-known as activists than as women.

Despite her consistent focus on the Contagious Diseases Acts as a violation of the constitutional human rights of prostitutes, commentators then and now still fit Josephine Butler neatly into the mould of the mid-Victorian middle-class lady philanthropist: as W.T. Stead states in her first biography, ‘Mrs Butler always wanted to save DAUGHTERS’, explaining this as a direct result of her grief over the loss of her own daughter. Margaret Harkness remains an obscure personality, but, besides her novels, we have evidence of her wavering political sympathies to go on – thus, she becomes unthreatening as a ‘capricious’ woman. Annie Besant, of course – separated from her husband and, temporarily, from her children as she pursued her political work and campaigned, amongst other things, in favour of birth control – cannot be discussed without being sexualised.

This sexualisation and objectification of women in the public sphere remains a problem to this day. We are very used to modern-day campaigners against pornography being dismissed as frigid kill-joys, and ugly besides. Feminists engaging in online activism today are sadly more than familiar with the barrage of sexual threats and judgments on their personal appearance which, apparently, for many people stands in for well-reasoned counterarguments. The fantastic No More Page 3 campaign has not failed to make us aware of the first attempt to end Page 3 by Labour MP Clare Short in 1986, and of the insults flung at her for being sex-hating, fat, ugly and jealous.

However, I would argue that this intimidation through objectification spans more tactics, and one of them is the silencing of women’s voices by focusing predominantly on their beauty. Many female activists of the nineteenth century have been allowed to live on in the popular imagination partly because they were beautiful young women – thus conforming to patriarchal demands on femininity, and consequently less threatening and more acceptable as public figures. Roger Manvell, in The Trial of Annie Besant, implies an interesting but marginalising dimension by describing the court procedures against Besant and Charles Bradlaugh for reprinting a pamphlet on family planning as ‘one of the most celebrated trials of the nineteenth century, with a young and beautiful woman, notorious as a “freethinker”, defending the cause of population control and contraceptive checks in open court before an all-male jury’ (1976: vii). Thus, Besant the activist is here cast as a public source of male titillation. It doesn’t help that Manvell refers to her as ‘Annie’ throughout the book whereas Charles Bradlaugh is consistently indicated by his surname, and that there is a strong suggestion that Besant’s promotion of birth control was linked to her own relationship with Bradlaugh, who became a widower around this time. Besant acknowledges a desire for sexual gratification in both men and women, and argues on solid economic grounds that, as people are clearly going to have sex anyway, it makes sense not to oblige them to suffer the physical and financial disadvantages of an overly large family. Whether or not this had anything to do with her separation from her husband, inability to divorce him, and probable romantic love for Bradlaugh is completely irrelevant here.

Anna Wheeler

It is tempting to dismiss Manvell’s analysis, published in 1976, as a product of its time and not to be taken seriously nowadays. However, the same problem arises in a 1994 edition of the 1825 pamphlet Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretentions of the Other Half, Men. Edited by Marie Mulvey Roberts, well-known for her sourcebooks of nineteenth-century feminist texts, it includes an introduction written jointly by her and Michael Foot, former deputy leader of the Labour party. The edition gets off to a promising start by presenting this forgotten text as the most important (proto-)feminist publication to appear between the Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and The Subjection of Women (1869). It goes on to point out that it seems strange that the pamphlet was first published with only William Thompson credited as its author, not acknowledging the co-authorship of Anna Wheeler, a feminist pamphleteer in her own right. The introduction provides some background as to how Thompson and Wheeler met and came to collaborate. And then I came across the following passage:

‘Anna Wheeler came from the same Irish background as William and she seems to have deduced the same sense of injustice of most of what she saw all around her but her fury was much more compressed and broke out more violently and uncontrollably. Indeed, part of her complaint was that the women of her time were given no orderly education and her protest was forced to find expression in more savage outbreaks. She was ten years younger than he but when they met in Bentham’s house she was already a raging rebel – and a raging beauty, as so many of the women leaders were, from Wollstonecraft to the Pankhursts. It is hard to believe than the passion unloosed in the Appeal did not come principally from her.’ (1993: vii; emphasis mine)

Again, Wheeler is objectified and hystericised, and, like Besant with Bradlaugh, her relationship with her co-author is cast in terms of an older man mentoring an attractive younger woman. Note, also, the immediate assumption that, in a text which does not clearly state the authorship of particular passages, the rational arguments are ascribed to the man and the ‘passion’ to the woman. Her predecessor in the feminist canon, Mary Wollstonecraft, is also objectified and sexualised – and many anecdotes of her focus on her sexual life as inseparable from her career. Thank goodness that sensible man Mr Mill saw fit to write a bit on the topic as well – only imagine if we had been stuck with only Harriet Taylor’s Enfranchisement of Women to bring the feminist canon into the Victorian period.

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