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A powerful and remarkable history: Angela Eagle reviews 'Uncontrollable Women'

A powerful and remarkable history: Angela Eagle reviews 'Uncontrollable Women'

Mary Fildes was hunted down after her appearance on the hustings at Peterloo, 1819 | Alamy

3 min read

A revelatory history of fearless women from the French Revolution to the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1832, Nan Sloane’s tantalising book left me wishing for more

History is written by those in positions of privilege and power and so women are largely absent as movers and shakers in our grand narratives of reform and revolution. As feminists we must be ready to delve deep into less illuminated corners to recover the remarkable activities of our foremothers who fought so fearlessly for the basic political rights we currently take for granted. Not that you would know much of this from conventional historical narrative. We get a glimpse of Mary Wollstonecraft here, and an image of stone-throwing suffragettes being force-fed there, but many of those brave women who risked their lives for our emancipation are largely forgotten now. 

Nan Sloane’s powerful book puts their remarkable stories centre stage. It is a tantalising revelatory book which gives voice to a procession of brave and fearless women who stood up for the principles of free speech, political rights and voting reform – risking their lives and their liberty in the process. She deals with the era convulsed by the French Revolution in 1789 and the tumult of political ideas it unleashed up to the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832. This ended the “rotten borough” – where constituencies which had lost populations retained their boundaries – but preserved a male franchise so narrow it excluded most men and all women. They had to wait 86 long years before they got a vote at all and 96 before they achieved it on the same terms as men. The coverage of women’s activism in the contemporary press is astonishing in its vitriol and violence. Branding women immoral, lower than prostitutes, monsters in female form, impious, abandoned, desperate and wicked was normal. Their transgression was to have the temerity to think they had a role outside the home at all.

Nan Sloane’s powerful book puts their remarkable stories centre stage

We hear from Helen Maria Williams and Anna Laetitia Barbaud, chroniclers of the French Revolution. Radical Richard Carlisle’s wife Jane and sister, Mary Anne, both of whom were imprisoned for blasphemy and sedition for selling political pamphlets. Susannah Wright who spoke for herself before the courts defending free speech, and Mary Fildes who was hunted down after her shocking appearance on the hustings at Peterloo. We also glimpse Mary Molyneux and her sister Lydia who incited riots and factory burning, and Hannah Smith who was executed for highway robbery (stealing potatoes at a time of soaring prices and falling wages).

Britain was governed then by one of the most repressive governments in its history. Following the Peterloo massacre which saw a nascent movement of working people demanding the vote, Parliament passed the Gagging Acts which banned unauthorised political meetings, flags and insignia, increased police search powers, increased the penalties for blasphemy and sedition and sped up the trials of those charged with political crimes. 

Nan Sloane’s book at last gives these women a voice and recovers just some of their history. Much like Dale Spender’s magisterial Mothers of the Novel: 100 good women writers before Jane Austen it is a revelation and leaves me wishing for more.

Angela Eagle is Labour MP for Wallasey

Uncontrollable Women: Radicals, Reformers and Revolutionaries
Written by: Nan Sloane
Publisher: I.B. Tauris

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