Seen but Not Heard? Women's Platforms, Respectability, and Female Publics in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

This article explores the role of the press in defining the boundaries of respectable feminine activity in the public sphere in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Through an examination of the reporting of women's meetings and appeals to female opinion, it demonstrates that although women who engaged in public controversy risked ridicule and condemnation, it was possible for women's engagement in the public sphere to be portrayed as respectable and even desirable by developing the notion of a virtuous female public opinion based solely on consensus rather than controversy. This was achieved by selective reporting of women's meetings, usually excluding any reference to debates and individual speeches, and concentrating only on the outcome. The article proceeds to consider the broadening opportunities for women to address mixed audiences on topics such as female education and social reform. It concludes that the stifling of public debate between women in order to uphold an ideal of female moral purity was a price that women had to pay in order to have an influence on public opinion, and that such ideals of feminine respectability continued to shape women's access to platforms long after the hypocrisy of moral arguments against women's involvement in political debate had been exposed and the existence of a unified "female opinion" thrown into doubt.

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Researching the public activities of nineteenth-century women can be a frustrating business, especially when it comes to searching for evidence of women's occupying platforms and addressing public audiences. This is especially the case when one is interested in the respectable middle-classes who lacked the freedom brought alike by landed wealth or relative poverty. Nonetheless, the local press reveals that in the period from 1830 to 1860 a small number of women were able to make public addresses, while a larger but more shadowy number could increasingly be found occupying platforms at public debates, remaining silent but fulfilling an important symbolic role. That they were allowed and often encouraged to do so can be explained by the belief that developed in the existence of a specifically female public opinion that could be appealed to on issues of great moment or that had a bearing on the moral improvement of the nation and its people.

This article examines different ways in which the platform was used to reach and shape female opinion, and it explores the extent to which women themselves could address audiences without fear of compromising their feminine respectability. It will be argued that the press played an important part in policing the boundaries of what was acceptable and unacceptable for women to discourse upon in public, and that it often imposed an unofficial censorship by excluding the speeches of women from its reports. This was not simply a case of removing women entirely from the 'public' domain of rational debate, but a means by which women's agency in the public sphere could be harnessed for particular political or civic projects without exposing them to allegations of becoming "unsexed" by open involvement in political controversy. The dangers of such allegations are apparent in the hostile press reports of radical women's meetings, generally attended by lower-class women, which concentrated on casting aspersions on the participants' feminine respectability rather than on a rational engagement with the issues raised.

As a result of recent critiques of the work of Jurgen Habermas, we are well aware of the existence of multiple and even overlapping 'publics'. (1) As the examples below demonstrate, by the middle of the nineteenth century it was perfectly possible for women to hold public meetings on their own account and to address gatherings of women in a variety of settings; but this was quite a different thing from broadcasting their words to the wider public addressed by the mainstream press. However, even this definition of the public had its limits. …

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