Published on Tuesday, 08 March 2011 05:05
English Utopian Socialist Feminism
[This is the edited transcript of a talk delivered at the School of Women's Studies, Jadavpur University]
The ideological roots of Utopian socialist feminism go back to the enlightenment and the French Revolution, while its socio-economic roots go back to the industrial revolution. Throughout history, there have been protests against women’s inequality and oppression. However, it is only from the nineteenth century that we see mass feminist movements emerging. Among these, it is necessary to make a distinction between liberal bourgeois feminism and socialist feminism. Scholars like Richard Evans are in error when they argue (R. J. Evans, The Feminists) that feminism in the nineteenth century was entirely a middle class phenomenon. It is more correct to say that the situations of middle class and working class women were different, so liberal feminism and socialist feminism did not look the same. But as it will be argued, there could be occasions when some middle class radicals would be pushed in the direction of socialist feminism.
Objective changes in conditions making possible the rise of feminism were created by the industrial revolution. Industrialization led to a transformation of production relations, and of the family. In pre-industrial societies, the family was a productive unit, and family included a large number of people – grandparents, parents and children, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. The industrial revolution changed this for all the classes. Industrialization also saw rapid urbanization. The movement of population to the towns was bringing with it a rapid growth in the number of the middle class and changing its complexion. There was a growing power and complexity of government and administration, creating a middle class bureaucracy that was quite numerous. There was also the economic growth, which offered new opportunities for a wide range of people. The expansion of education, medical services, building and engineering, and so on, provided further impetus to the growth of the middle class.
In the eighteenth century, the middle class had still been seeking to climb up into the aristocracy, as far as possible. We find a more assertive class identity in the nineteenth century, with a growing demand to play an increasingly prominent role in political and social life. Where they found an entrenched aristocracy blocking the way, they used their growing power and numbers to press for a voice in government through the creation of parliamentary institutions, ministries responsible to parliament, and equality before the law and career open to talent.
This process of a growth of a new bourgeoisie brought with it a new and rapidly expanding group of women, both married and unmarried, whose pattern of life was very different from women in the past. Professionalisation of business, teaching, nursing and law devalued the status of many female employees and pushed many women out from trade and employment. Changing patterns of marriage and family life also had an impact. The family now tended to become a nuclear family. With the growth of industrial society, bourgeois living standards were raised, so that middle class men married later, after amassing some property. Sexual gratification was satisfied by recourse to prostitutes recruited from the emergent proletariat. Middle class wives become ornamental properties. Both married and unmarried women thus faced difficult consequences. Married women found themselves with time on their hands and nothing to do. Unmarried women and widows could no longer find occupation and support within the family. They had few genteel options open – only writing, or working in the capacity of companions for propertied women or as governesses. Otherwise they would decline in status, being compelled to survive as needlewomen or other working class identities. Seeking to tackle these problems, middle class women eventually launched campaigns for jobs, education and political rights.
In certain respects, the law made all women vulnerable. In all countries, there were laws making women unequal, laws subordinating women to men in the family, and so on. But even these laws operated with different consequences for women of different classes. For example, a husband’s control over his wife’s property meant different things in the context of working class and bourgeois families.
Indeed, family had, as we will see, a different connotation for workers. In England, a ‘respectable working class wife’ was one who kept a good home, eared some money to supplement her husband’s income and was not a “burthen upon the scanty earnings of her husband” (so wrote one T Kelly, in an 1806 pamphlet entitled Thoughts on the Marriages of the Labouring Poor). Ivy Pinchbeck’s pioneering study of women workers in the English industrial revolution showed that though a considerable number of women worked in industries they were routinely paid lower wages even when doing the same work. The issue of female sexuality too was posed differently within the working class. It was this social context that gave rise to working class feminism.
To understand this social context a little more, we have to look at the developments in England. Neo-Ricardian socialist economists like William Thompson and Thomas Hodgskin were preaching a doctrine that the producer had a right to the entire produce, dismissing the claims of the capitalists. From this flowed the conclusion that the working class must work for itself, and nor for the capitalists. It was during the absence of Robert Owen in the United States, where he had launched a community, that a mass proletarian Owenite movement developed. By 1832, the narrow scope of the Reform Act infuriated radical democrats, who turned to socialist-oriented action. During the Reform Bill agitation, workers too had taken part. but the gains went exclusively to the middle classes. Finally, economic pressures led to a growth of working class militancy and the building of mass trade unions. All these culminated in 1834 in the foundation of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, a syndicalist venture that hoped to displace the bourgeois parliament. Though it collapsed under massive government and employer offensive coupled with internal differences within seven months, it was the first mass proletarian revolutionary struggle. And within it there was a widespread mobilization of women. This is partly explicable in terms of women’s large-scale employment in the early 1830s. In the 1830s, English working people felt that the structures of industrial capitalism had been only partly built, and the roof was not yet set upon the structure (E. P. Thompson) Owenism presented the vision of a quite different structure which might be built if only people were united and determined enough. The construction of industrial capitalism, even though incomplete, had wrought devastation among the working people. Competition with cheap machine made goods resulted in a deteriorating standard for skilled artisans in numerous trades. At the same time, workers were trying to resist this decline in condition, in a number of ways. There were some trades with integrated workforces, employing both male and female workers. Leather glove making, for example, saw both types of workers, though male workers did the better paying work. There had been strikes from the late eighteenth century. By 1832, a combination of silk fashions and a flood of cheap French imports had brought leather glove production in Worcester, down by two-thirds from its 1825 level. Buttonmaking, framework knitting and handloom weaving were other industries in which men and women had previously organized together. In all these trades women fought the employers and often the police. But even in such cases, women’s entry involved a separate identity – as both women and workers. And repeatedly, we see letters in journals and newspapers, as well as speeches, which stress that radical action was a necessary extension of women’s family duties. This simultaneously encouraged female militancy and limited the forms that militancy took. At the same time, the Owenite commitment to removal of all forms of inequalities within the working class resulted in the Owenite-inspired unions and cooperatives taking up the issue of women workers. Among men workers, not necessarily all of whom were Owenites, there existed an opposition to women’s employment on the ground that it deskilled craft skills and posed a threat to skilled male workers. Owenites brought the discussion out into the open.
When we turn to ideological inspirations, we are faced with a complex situation. Cora Kaplan had legitimately described Mary Wollstonecraft as a bourgeois feminist. Nonetheless, scattered here and there are comments far more radical in tone. Wollstonecraft was a consistent democrat. This brought her into contradiction with the bourgeoisie. In her unfinished novel Maria, she presented a working class woman seduced by her employer. The girl was portrayed neither as a passive victim nor as a slut, but as a proud, intelligent girl. This girl was set against the heroine, to present an idea that women of different classes were oppressed, but that class differences made a difference in the nature of the oppression.
Franco Venturi’s study of the enlightenment has shown that late eighteenth century progressivism as a whole was characterized by a dialogue between reformist premises and utopian aspirations. In Wollstonecraft this was present, as in her occasional proposal for the expropriation of all large estates in Britain and the redistribution of land across the entire population. But the utopian element was much stronger in her male comrades – the working class pamphleteer Thomas Spence, and her husband, William Godwin. Godwin was, after Tom Paine, the most influential political theorist of British Jacobinism. His Enquiry Into Political Justice has been seen as a communist or alternately an anarchist text. He argued that only through the elimination of private property and government could the liberty of the individual be ensured. Spence developed the idea of agrarian communism. In the writings of both, a theme found in earlier utopian writings was taken up -- the equality of women with men. Spence in particular had a detailed exposition, in which women were given equal political and economic rights, though domestic work still remained their responsibility. Godwin had less precise details, but he clearly argued for the abolition of the formal marriage, along with the family residential unit, since communal arrangements would do away with the domestic work that made the family so important.
A Vindication had been published in 1792. Within a year, the French had proclaimed the Republic and executed a king. Bourgeoisie and aristocracy joined hands in England against this radical threat. Most middle class radicals soon disappeared from the field. Those who remained intransigent and committed to their democratic ideals found middle class society turning against them. Over two thousand anti-Jacobin vigilante squads were formed. Wollstonecraft, who had written a book to defend the French Revolution against the attacks of Burke and other conservatives, was viewed as a dangerous radical. She was seen as an insurrectionist, an English equivalent of the revolutionary French women. Many respectable women, even some of her bluestocking friends, distanced themselves from her positions.
Of course, the democratic movement retained some middle class figures, both men and women. But the backbone of the movement from this period was constituted by artisans and other workers. The term “left” was already beginning to appear, and feminists were being identified with the left. An Evangelical movement developed, aiming to combat the ideas of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment by preaching Christian love, persuading the rich to live a moral life so that the poor could be told that they too should give up all insubordinate ways, and attacking radicalism everywhere. Hannah More’s popular tract Village Politics wrote:
“Tom: What is to be an enlightened people?
Jack: To put out the light of the gospel, confound right and wrong, and grope about in pitch darkness.”
To sexual conservatives (like More) feminist ideas represented a threat to masculine pride, and also an insult to God. By the end of the century, English bourgeois radicalism had totally receded. Those who retained a vision of universal emancipation soon felt that such an emancipatory project was incompatible with capitalism. Enlightened capitalists like Robert Owen, or revolutionary democrats and feminists like Anna Wheeler and William Thompson were to move in the direction of socialism. The utopianism of radical-democratic ideology now oriented to a new social system, and from the beginning, this new project included the emancipation of women as a central task. It is this British utopian socialist feminism that we will be examining in detail.
The New Science of Society
Marx and Engels called the early socialists utopians. However, the early socialists themselves were influenced by the Enlightenment, and claimed to be wholly scientific in their outlook. As Robert Owen, the central figure of the movement in England, wrote, this new science was “the science of the influence of circumstances over the whole conduct, character, and proceedings of the human race”. Owen explained that the human character is formed by society. This was a commonplace of progressive thought. But it was with Owen and his followers that the political implications were hammered out. They argued that the domination of individual interests over the principles of union and mutual cooperation had caused the ill-conditions in which most people lived at resent. For Owen, religion, marriage and private property were the three primary sources of social disunity. Religion perpetuated ignorant superstitions about the innate imperfections of the human character and fomented sectarianism within its adherents. Marriage converted women into male property and established single-family interests which eroded neighbourly spirits. Private property made individual wealth the basis of social power and transformed all human relationships into competitive contests for individual gain. It was a standard idea of Owenite socialism that excessive self-love turned human existence into a wasteland of lonely greed and self-seeking individualism. Owenism had a nascent theory of class analysis. But it viewed capitalism not merely as a class-based economic order but as an arena of different kinds of divisions and hierarchies, numerous forms of injustice. The freedom of the individual had to be associated with the emancipation of humanity as a whole, and that could be done only by complete social transformation. Egalite is universalized here across sex and class, and this is backed by a critique of the material and ideological sources of social hierarchy. Marx and Engels criticized this as utopian, since the appeal was to society at large, rather than specifically to the working class, and because they felt that while the critical analysis was valid, the solution proposed, usually the building of communist communities, was a utopian solution for it assumed that a direct class struggle could be avoided. However, the core elements of this critique would be substantially accepted by them as well.
Owenite feminists were deeply involved with the presentation of these ideas to as wide a public as possible. Many of them were publicists rather than theorists, and so the bulk of their writings were devoted to popularization of the doctrine. However, some texts were produced that should be seen as crucial theoretical essays. One such very important text was the pamphlet Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, written by William Thompson, but with a clear statement that the ideas were those of Anna Wheeler. In 1824, James Mill had written an essay dismissing the claims of workers and women to suffrage, arguing their interests were effectively represented by others who were better able to wield political power – husbands and fathers in the case of women, the ‘wise and virtuous part of the community, the middle rank’, in the case of workers. The Wheeler-Thompson pamphlet (I am here following Dale Spender’s usage concerning the pamphlet) was intended as a reply. But it was in fact a more wide-ranging work, providing a broader critique of the bourgeois liberal assumptions on which Mill’s case had been based. Wheeler-Thompson demanded to know how the interests of women and men could coincide, when in every facet of social and economic life men had given themselves despotic powers over women. Fathers bartered their daughters in marriage. Husbands subjected their wives to arbitrary and often humiliating authority. Educators ridiculed women’s mental abilities, while employers either refused them work or purchased their labour for a pittance, and in the political arena women’s lack of independent representation deprived them of any legal redress for these grievances. The conclusion drawn was that all women, and in particular women living with men in marriage, had been reduced to helplessness, slavery, and consequent unequal enjoyments, pains and privations. Responding to the Utilitarian Mill, Wheeler and Thompson used utilitarian arguments. But they claimed happiness was a social good. So not through competition but cooperation could happiness be achieved. Under the system of Mutual Association proposed by Owen, knowledge, wealth and education would be equalized between the sexes. Wheeler and Thompson argued, in separate essays and letters, that femininity was not natural but a social construct. Owen and the Owenites responded to religious propaganda, according to which female imperfection was innate and caused by the original sin of Eve. Owenite feminists launched a full-scale attack on the notions of innate female inferiority. One woman wrote in The New Moral World, the Owenite newspaper, “The laws of mind appear to admit of a constant progression, and if women are capable of experience, who shall say they are not perfectible?” The most important laws of mind were the laws of external influence. In the long run, character could be improved by the establishment of social communities. In the short run it required intensive educational programmes. As another woman wrote, “It is my conviction that the relative inferiority, superiority, or equality of one sex to the other, cannot be ascertained until each shall have received a rational education”. There was also an attempt to provide scientific basis for this argument. Thus, in 1929, Anna Wheeler delivered a lecture, in which, after talking about women’s moral and physical capabilities, she went on to say that “All the researchers of anatomy have not been able to prove a difference in the brain either.” Another science extensively used was ethnography (early anthropology) since it showed that women were both capable of different kinds of work, and also that sexual customs were not universal, evidence of the social construction of all customs. Wheeler, for example, argued that the argument about the bodily weakness of women “is nothing but a civilized disease, imposed no doubt on women, to shorten the duration of life, and to provide men with a rapid succession of youthful slaves”.
Cross cultural analysis also enabled the Owenites to develop an evolutionary account of human social development. The improvement of women’s position was postulated as a primary index of humanity’s progress. In this, the Owenites were influenced by the French socialist Charles Fourier. Fourier had advanced an elaborate theory of mankind’s evolution through a series of historical stages, each characterized by a determinant pattern of conjugal relations. He argued that the progressive liberation of women was the fundamental cause of all social progress. Fourier’s theory was based on an analysis of sexual passion as an unconscious psycho-dynamic underlying all historical change. English socialist feminists mostly ignored this dimension, but accepted the argument itself. Thus, in the Appeal, Wheeler-Thompson suggested that “a comparative sketch … of the state of married women in different countries”, would show that the “happiness of the whole of society is in direct ratio to an approach of an equality of rights and duties between husbands and wives”. Interestingly, at this point the socialists also carried out a major subversion of enlightenment logic, which had posited reason as masculine, by treating reason as feminine, as opposed to mere brawniness of the masculine. Free women would thus be the bearers of a new moral culture. This notion of women’s moral role was of course an ambiguous one, since anti-feminists also used a similar notion. Even among feminists, this line of argument often led to celebration of women’s specialness and moral superiority, which was of doubtful logical consistency with claims to equality. On one hand, women were demanding equality. On the other hand, there were areas of their existence where women could not live in the male mode. The tension was particularly acute for the socialists, since the attributes supposedly specific to women, like love, compassion, generosity, charity, were qualities they wished to see across the population regardless of sex. The dilemma could only be resolved, as some Owenites recognized, by postulating the simultaneous transformation of both the sexes – the critique of the social construction of femininity must also become the critique of a socially constructed masculinity. In the 1829 lecture, Wheeler said, “I have no antipathy to men, but only institutions”.
Feminist writings from the 17th century had been attacking the family as an institution. The rise of working class socialism gave it a new dimension. The counter-revolutionary wave in England from 1792-3 meant that the bourgeoisie was recoiling from its earlier criticisms of the cynical property marriages of the upper classes. During the rise of Puritanism, the fierce injunctions against adultery and pre-marital sex had been accompanied by a romanticisation of marriage itself, as a companionate relationship. Daniel Defoe could write that the wife should not be used as an upper servant in the house. But laws were simultaneously being passed, which deprived married women of all rights over their property and person. Christopher Hill’s studies show that in practice, the bourgeois marriage also prioritized property considerations. Hill also argues that the stress on pre-marital chastity was largely a commercial proposition (“expensive goods must not be shop-soiled” – Hill, Clarissa Harlow, in Puritanism and Revolution). An Appeal exposed these contradictions sharply. “Home is the eternal prison-house of the wife’. Challenging the claim that marriage was a contract, the Appeal argued that men had dictated the terms of the so-called contract and forced them on women. But where the Owenites differed with liberal feminists, was in arguing that in order to end property in wives, it was essential to end private property as a whole. This meant that their feminism and their socialism were absolutely integrated. It was the combined power of men and money that held women in a state of ‘helpless bondage’. In a socialist society (or “community”, as they often called it) money would not be known, nor would people fear lack of money. Frances Morrison, another well-known Owenite feminist, wrote that there would be no marriage based on convenience, but on love, arguing that the realization of this bourgeois ideal required the dissolution of the bourgeois society itself. Male domination must lose its economic foundation before it could be overthrown fully. Meanwhile the new cultural and educational opportunities available before women would enable them to overcome the crippling sense of inferiority they had at the present. The Appeal argued that household work would be converted from private to the public domain, and the most scientific equipment would be used for it. It would be performed by all on a rotational basis. So from sex-slavery, Wheeler and Thompson extended their critique to the sexual division of labour itself. They argued, in a remarkable passage, that as long as women remained subject to men within the patriarchal family, a major source of social disunity remained. The habits of dominance and subordination formed within the family were identified as the ideological underpinnings of the competitive system. The self-seeking attitude of the male was formed within the family, and he then took it outside, into the public domain. So constructing an alternative to this would require not reform, but the abolition of the family. In practice, the Owenites campaigned both for immediate reforms of family (outside the communities) and for communalized family life. In 1835 Owen published his influential work, Lectures on the Marriages of the Priesthood in the Old Immoral World. In this work he argued for civil marriages, as opposed to the weddings performed in the Established Church, treated as the sole legally recognized wedding. Because of this last reason, there were others, including members of the dissenting churches, who supported such a demand. Similarly, the Owenite demand for easier divorce laws was echoed by others. But the socialists saw this as part of a more radical orientation, towards the repudiation of the entire system of ‘single-family arrangements’.
There was however a subtle difference between Owen and Wheeler-Thompson. For Owen, the family was anti-social, and that was why he condemned it. It was not so much the patriarchal nature f the family but its role on developing selfishness and aggressive individualism that drew his fire. Owen’s writings lacked the passionate indignation to be found in the writings of the socialist feminists, including Thompson, who did the actual writing of the Appeal even if the ideas were those of Wheeler. Nonetheless, Owen did recognize that in existing marriage the condition of the wife was the more pitiable. He asserted that social relationships must flow from emotions and desire, not from an iron web of rules strangling and dividing people. This did not mean that Owen, or the influences behind him, which have been identified as those of Godwin and Shelley, advocated “free love”, if by free love was meant casualness in sexual matters. Nature’s chastity was seen as a central, defining feature of moral existence. But chastity, argued Owen, was a feeling implanted within human nature, and existed between the sexes when in their intercourse they felt sincere and genuine affection for each other. Like the rejection of property based marriage, this also emerged from the contradictions of bourgeois sexual ideology. What after all did a union of the affections mean? Radical sects in the English revolution had rejected more orthodox Puritan views on this. Now Owen and the socialists were taking up that line of argument. The Evangelists were seeking to impose a sexual code bleaker than at anytime in the past, possibly. Owenites responded to this. One Owenite woman wrote: “And do the laws of morality forbid the enjoyment of pleasure? What! Has Nature given to us affections merely for our torment? Are we possessed of our senses, only to deceive and betray us?” The arrival of French Saint-Simonian thought in England strengthened this strand of Owenite thought in the 1830s.
However, feminists, including socialist feminists, took a dimmer view than Owen about moral marriages. Anna Wheeler wrote, in a letter to Owen’s newspaper The Crisis, that love in a woman had been made a pseudo-religion. For the socialist feminists, it was necessary to place reason over passion. This reflected, on one hand, a grim recognition that the most “moral” of love could also result in unwanted pregnancies, along with resentment at men who treated women as sexual playthings. There was also a fear that love could be a fetter binding women to their oppressors.
Despite such differences, however, all Owenites, male or female, agreed that love could not flourish in a condition where women were economically dependent on men. So this led them to propose the Owenite communities. According to most of the blueprints drawn up, the entire population would be housed in several large, connected buildings with individual bedrooms for the adults and dormitories for the children. Eating, working and socializing were all to be done in the communal areas. Owen’s favourite plan called for an enclosed ‘parallelogram’ of two thousand inhabitants (he held this to be the ideal figure for a viable community) with schools, libraries, gymnasia, theatres, museums, workshops and kitchens all arranged around an enormous open courtyard. Alternative proposals for separate cottage-like buildings were opposed by Owenites with the argument that this would restore the burden of housework to the individual (usually the women). Given the importance of character building in Owenite strategy, it was also inevitable that childcare and education would receive considerable attention. The community as a whole would take charge of these matters. Essentially, all the schemes, whatever the variations, stressed the collectivization of all reproductive labour in the community. The schemes of both Owen and Thompson provided for simple forms of marriage and divorce by declaration before the community. Robert Dale Owen, Owen’s son, was also an early advocate of birth control, not chiefly from Malthusian aims, but because he thought it important to liberate sexual pleasure from the burdens of procreation. Richard Carlile stressed that women should be able to express their sexual needs without fear of pregnancy. Control over her reproductive capacity was a woman’s absolute right, Robert Dale believed.
Socialist Feminist Women:
In the 1820s the number of Owenites was very limited. From the late 1820s, this began to change, and in the 1830s and till 1845, a large number of people became Owenite socialists. Many of them came from the upper working class – skilled factory operatives, artisans, etc. Hundreds of women also joined, a large part wives and daughters of such workers, themselves dressmakers, straw-bonnet makers, weavers and domestic servants. There were also women from the lower middle classes – teachers, and others. Finally, a small number of women came from well to do layers. The London Owenite Institution had large meetings of working women, as did Manchester. Hundreds of women attended Owenite lectures on women’s rights. In this sense, Owenism created the first mass feminist movement in England, before the middle class, liberal feminist movement. The eventual failure of Owenism resulted in a split between the socialist and the feminist goals, ad many of the women who continued to demand women’s rights, especially those from the middle classes, went in the direction of liberal feminism, but retaining a degree of pro-working class or pro-democratic sympathies, such as Harriet Taylor, who, though not an Owenite strictly speaking, had been in touch with them, moving in the same circles as Anna Wheeler.
However, less than a dozen women became well-known socialist-feminist propagandists (though this was a larger number than the post-Owenite period for many years) supplemented by a slightly larger number who delivered occasional lectures. Among these publicly identified feminists, the majority came from an ambiguous region – being “respectable ladies” of small means, i.e., coming from the border between the lower middle class ad the upper working class. However, more important than their social origin is the fact that they transgressed social conventions, not merely in ideas but in their lives. Their rejection of the narrowing boundaries of “women’s place” was an important factor in determining the nature and strength of their feminism.
Anna Wheeler and Frances (Fanny) Wright were two Owenite feminists from wealthy backgrounds and possessing prestigious male connections. These were factors helping to preserve greater details about their lives.
Wheeler was the daughter of a radical protestant Archbishop in Ireland. She married, against family objections, Francis Wheeler. The marriage was a disaster as she discovered Francis only interested in fox hunting ad heavy drinking. Depressed by family confrlicts and repeated pregnancies, she plunged into a programme of self-education. In 1812, she fled, first to her uncle, the Governor of Guernsey, and then to France, where she met St Simonian and Fourierist socialists, including Flora Tristan. She translated French socialist writers into English. In England, Owen and William Thompson became her friends. She also mixed in non-socialist radical circles, including with circles containing Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill. But outside the relatively few radicals, Anna found women themselves, especially middle class women, silent about their oppression, while the Reform Act of 1832 convinced her that men would not give up their privileges.
Though the Appeal was formally written by Thompson, he said clearly that he had tried to arrange the “expression o those feelings, sentiments, and reasonings, which have emanated from your mind” (Introductory Letter to Mrs. Wheeler). He also writes that she had written a number of articles under a pseudonym. The analysis, already discussed in parts, ca be briefly summarised. Individual competition leads to accumulation of individual wealth, and this is the key to the entire social organization. Given women’s role in child bearing and child rearing, they would never be able to compete successfully with men on an individualistic basis. Men have made up the rules on terms convenient to them. Till women set their own rules they cannot achieve equality, and this cannot be based on individual competition and the accumulation of wealth. In addition, said Wheeler-Thompson, men have set up the existing system of marriage, under which women are reduced to domestic slavery. They rejected the view that women freely entered into marriages, and wrote that if women had no need to be bought and no necessity to be commanded, men might find themselves reduced to each others’ company. Women have bee excluded from the making of the marriage contract. Women will starve if they do not marry. They have no knowledge or skills, no access to property, no civil or political rights. Richard Pankhurst says that for Thompson, marriage was the legalized prostitution by which man seized upon woman for his pleasure, taking advantage of her dependence to force her into virtual slavery.
Frances (Fanny) Wright too was the product of a well-to-do, enlightened family. After the deaths of both her parents when she was very young, she was eventually brought up by James Milne, a progressive relative. Her father had been a Scottish linen manufacturer with Jacobin sympathies. By her mid-twenties Fanny had written several books. In 1818, she and her sister Camila travelled across America. Fanny’s book on this experience was so democratic in view that it shocked British upper class public opinion. In 1824, she met Robert Owen at his New Harmony communist colony, and was converted to Owenism. She then sank her own fortune to build a community at Tennessee. She advocated communism, class-based political organisation, and a masterless sexual status for women. Her Tennessee community, Nashoba, had an uncompromisingly libertarian sexual code. She declared that in her community no woman could lose independence due to marriage, nor could she claim special access to any man beyond what mutual inclination dictated. The attempt failed, and in the process saw coercion over women. Fanny remained committed, however, to free unions. She had a relationship with an Owenite named Phiquepal D’Arusmont. She did marry him when she became pregnant, but the experience convinced her of the negative role of marriage, as she became embroiled n a legal conflict with him, and he eventually got hold of her entire property.
Fanny Wright gave lectures, both in America and in England. She gave lectures on slavery and called for amelioration and abolition. Miriam Gurko says it was as a lecturer that she made her greatest mark on the United States. Equality for women was a regular topic of her lecture. She also advocated birth control and equal treatment of illegitimate children. Wright recognised that knowledge was power, and that ruling elites used knowledge to strengthen their power. For her, one of the greatest evils in society was that of the ethic of competition, and she argued that knowledge was used for competitive purposes, not to improve the world. Not surprisingly, this also drew on her the thunderbolts of official society, and she was called a “red harlot” and accused of atheism and “free love”.
James Morrison’s The Pioneer is well known to historians of the British labour movement. He was a member of the Painters’ Union, active in the cooperative movement, in workers’ education, and in the struggle for an unstamped press (i.e., a free and cheap press for the working class).So Morrison’s paper reflected the views of a considerable section of the working class. Concerning women there were both feminist views and conservative notions about a ‘woman’s place”, because here we are not dealing with political philosophers but people in a movement with their ideas in a flux. The weekly Pioneer came out in 44 issues, between 1833 and 1834. In issue no. 8, there was a report on the formation of a women’s union at Leicester. In course of a discussion on this, Morison makes a couple of significant points – significant for our present discussion in particular. First, he does not advocate equality for women, to be granted by men, but advises women to take equality. Second, he rejects all sex-based roles. A man had been asked to be the secretary and a man had been posted to ensure security. Morrison objected to women depending on men for either of these two functions. Thus, he denied that either for brains (rationality) or brawn women needed to depend on men. There were also, in several issues, attacks on the “insolent despotism of men”. On sexuality, Morrison had little to say. But what he had to say was important. “Yet where is the woman who can say she is free? Why are the ladies so very reluctant to go out alone? Because, by going free, they subject themselves to reproach.” “An unmarried woman is a ghost as well. Thus, or instance, if an unmarried woman should be so unfortunate as to have a child, that child can inherit nothing, because, as the law says, “he is the son of nobody”.” What is striking, in these and other comments, including the argument that there can be no punishment for prostitution since it is the refusal to train women for jobs and provide them with jobs that leads them to prostitution, is the strong feminism present and the fact that there was no adverse reader reaction. It was not the rank and file that blocked Morrison. In 1834, it was Robert Owen who got the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, the sponsors of the paper, to drop their support, after Morrison had refused to hand over control to Owen and the Grand National leadership. Morrison came out of the experience broken in health. He died at the age of 33 in August 1835. Like William Thompson’s death, his early death was a blow. Like Thompson, there are good reasons to think that his views on women were not his alone, but co-authored with a woman, in this case his wife, Frances Morrison.
Frances Cooper was the illegitimate daughter of a Surrey farm girl, brought up by her grandmother in the early years. At the age of fifteen she decided to live with James Morrison. She educated herself in Owenite politics. Frances regularly contributed articles to The Pioneer under the pseudonym A Bondswoman. Barbara Taylor argues that she co-authored many of the editorials written by James, something not stressed much by Hal Draper, who wrote about James. After the death of James, she became a paid lecturer for the Owenites. Poverty and the need to bring up four daughters made it impossible to continue this life for long, and she disappeared from the Owenite scene, acting as a teacher and giving her daughters in apprenticeship to the tape-weaving trade. But according to the evidence of her children, she remained loyal to her socialist feminist ideals until the end of her days. One essay by Morrison is worth mentioning. Entitled To the Women of the Working Classes, it called for women workers’ unity to fight for equal wages. A ‘Women’s Page’ was launched in The Pioneer, and many letters and articles were written by women in it. Furious debates raged over women’s right to unionize. That in the end all these early efforts failed, partly at least because the structure of capitalism itself was changing, does not detract from the important theoretical and practical issues raised by the socialist feminists.
At the end, I want to say that early socialism may have had a less tightly theorised concept of women’s oppression and women’s liberation, but it did put sexuality back into reckoning. In its most radical, it argued that women no less than men had the right to a free choice in partners, and that the family as an institution bound the woman in all things, including sexual preferences. This of course conflicts with the view that antifeminism was the chief attitude within the proletariat. I am not arguing that there was no proletarian antifeminism. But as I will argue in my talk on German Social Democracy, socialist thought was connected to the movement and had diverse currents that need to be carefully studied.
 I have not seen the Pioneer. This and other quotations from Morrison are based on an article that he never wrote. Hal Draper has taken up sentences from Morrison and put them together. He remarks that he has added or changed nothing, but has rearranged. See Hal Draper, Socialism from Below, New Jersey and London, 1992, p. 236 for the quotation, p. 235 for Draper’s comments about the ‘synthetic” article.
 Ibid, p.236