Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain: Books

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain: Books

Article excerpt

The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain. By Sarah Richardson. Routledge, 252pp, Pounds 80.00. ISBN 9780415825665. Published 12 March 2013

This book sets out to challenge analyses of 19th-century politics that are based on narrow definitions of the subject and therefore marginalise the role of women. Drawing on a broader definition of political culture, Sarah Richardson illustrates a rich diversity of activism, especially that based on writing in various forms. She points out that a broad array of publications by women were well received when first published, but were subsequently often overlooked by political historians.

Women of all classes, whether or not they advocated women's involvement in politics, were involved in ethical consumption practices, such as boycotting retailers selling slave-grown sugar. The period covered by this book - 1800-70 - is significant for its health and humanitarian reforms. Consequently, these issues, of a so-called quasi-political character, were to exercise women; thus, on diverse subjects, such as prison reform, the abolition of capital punishment, the cruelty of bull-baiting and the callousness of sati, women's voices were heard.

The book is divided into four sections: politics at home, politics in the community and neighbourhoods, the national stage, and international politics. Homes are places where social plans are incubated: this model of the middle-class intellectual home is still very much alive today and some of us would recognise a world of debate over dinner, as linked to subsequent social action, with important thinkers attracting influential guests to their tables.

Political salons, often organised by women, were at the heart of public life, and women and children attended. Women could lobby and petition from the comfort of their own homes in a period in which it would have been taboo for them to approach men directly. Richardson offers as an example Sarah Austin, who initiated a written conversation with William Gladstone, remarking in 1839 that she "shrank from appearing before the public in my own person or behalf, as the author or champion of any opinions whatsoever"! …

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