Any Questions? the Gendered Dimensions of the Political Platform

Article excerpt

Through a comparison of the political performance and reception of the Chartist Mary Ann Walker and the social reformer Josephine Butler, this article considers how changes in the organization of public meetings in the mid-Victorian decades helped to make female oratory more acceptable to audiences. Objections to women assuming the role of public speaker were not based simply on a desire to exclude women from the political sphere, but derived from a reluctance to allow women to face public interrogation. Most Chartists welcomed the token presence and even the voices of women on the platform but were loath to expose women to questions and heckles from the audience. Denied the opportunity to defend their speech or to engage with detractors, women were unable to assume the full duties of the Chartist delegate. By contrast with the rowdy nature of Chartist assemblies, with the proximity of speaker and audience, public meetings, from the 1850s onwards, resembled more closely the format of the public lecture or reading where speakers were not required to take questions. The women who began to speak out on a range of social and moral questions did so within very controlled and disciplined auditoriums where the speaker was distanced and protected from the audience. Women like Josephine Butler were not simply beneficiaries of changes in the public sphere, but rather were themselves advocates of a mode of public discussion that emphasised the authority of the speaker and the passivity of the audience.

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The political platform was the central stage of nineteenth-century democratic movements. Those who were celebrated as platform speakers occupied a privileged space within popular politics. Their speeches were reported in the radical and non-radical press, providing them with a reading as well as a listening public. Their views were eagerly solicited and they were frequently selected as delegates and representatives. The ability to move the crowd was rewarded by access to policy-making bodies where speakers could shape the course and the meanings of their movement. (1) The platform and its occupants have been the subject of close historical investigation in recent years and yet there has been little examination of the gendered aspects of political performance, despite the recognition that women's access to this sphere was very restricted. Those of us who have analyzed women's political interventions have focused overwhelmingly on what they said, rather than on how they expressed themselves. (2)

This article attempts a preliminary examination of the gendered dimensions of the political platform by exploring how two women negotiated public speaking. Both were radicals who defended the constitutional liberties of "the People" and advocated the political and social rights of their sex. Mary Ann Walker briefly attracted the attention of the Times, Punch, and the Chartist press in 1842 when she lectured on behalf of the People's Charter and defended women's political representation. Like most contemporary female radical lecturers, Walker received only fleeting media interest as a Chartist celebrity. By contrast, Josephine Butler gained lasting recognition as the most prominent and celebrated leader of the movement to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts, and moved from the national to the international stage to become a leading figure in a global campaign against the state regulation of prostitution. Their contrasting fortunes might be explained by their different social status--Walker the unmarried daughter of a working man, Butler the wife of the principal of Liverpool College--but their political careers may also signal changes in the gendered formation of the public sphere in which female reformers played some part.

The prohibitions against women becoming platform speakers were not simply to do with appearing in public, for since the reform agitation of the late 1810s women were welcomed sometimes onto the platform, though often in a nonspeaking but highly symbolic capacity. …