Female Reform Union

Samuel Bamford, the author of Passage in the Life of a Radical, claims that women first became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage in the summer of 1818. Bamford describes a meeting at Lydgate in Saddleworth where women were allowed to vote for and against resolutions. Bamford points out that: "This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it."

Women reformers in 1819
Women reformers in 1819

In June 1819 the first Female Union was formed by Alice Kitchen in Blackburn. Later that year there were Female Reform Groups in Manchester, Oldham and Royton. The leader of the Manchester Female Reform Group was Mary Fildes. A passionate radical she named her two sons after John Cartwright and Henry Hunt. Fildes was also involved in the campaign for birth control and when she attempted to sell books on the subject she was accused in the local press of distributing pornography. Fildes was one of the speakers at the St. Peter's Field meeting on 16th August, 1819. Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration.

George Cruikshank, The Female Reformers of Blackburn (1819)
George Cruikshank, The Female Reformers of Blackburn (1819)

Susanna Saxton, was the secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers. Susanna wrote several pamphlets on universal suffrage. The most popular was The Manchester Female Reformers Address to the Wives, Mothers, Sisters and Daughters of the Higher and Middling Classes of Society. Although Saxton addressed women as "Sisters of the Earth", she argued that women's main role was to support their husbands in their struggle for universal male suffrage. They were also urged "to install into the minds of our children, a deep and rooted hatred of our corrupt and tyrannical rulers." Of the pamphlets published during this period that have survived, none suggest that women should be given the vote.

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Bamford wrote about the involvement of women in the struggle for universal suffrage in his book Passage in the Life of a Radical.

At one of these meetings, which took place at Lydgate, in Saddleworth, and at which Bagguley, Drummond, Fitton, Haigh, and others were the principal speakers, I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages voting by a show of hands for or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it. When the resolution was put the women held up their hands amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at the Radical meetings.

(2) The British Volunteer newspaper (10th July, 1819)

Among the many schemes which now endanger the peace of our society, are some for the forming female political associations, to inculcate in the minds of mothers and of the rising generation a disrespect for parliament. One of these, it is alleged, has been formed in Blackburn, in this county!!!

(3) In his account in The Times published on 19th August, 1819, John Tyas described the female reformers at St. Peter's Field.

A club of Female Reformers, amounting in numbers, according to our calculations, 150 came from Oldham; and another, not quite so numerous, from Royton. The first bore a white silk banner, by far the most elegant displayed during the day, inscribed 'Major Cartwright's Bill, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot'. The females of Royton bore two red flags, the one inscribed 'Let us die like men, and not sold like slaves'; the other 'Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage'.

A group of women of Manchester, attracted by the crowd, came to the corner of the street where we had taken our post. They viewed the Oldham Female Reformers for some time with a look in which compassion and disgust was equally blended, and at last burst out into an indignant exclamation - "Go home to your families, and leave sike-like as these to your husbands and sons, who better understand them." The women who addressed them were of the lower order of life.