This is a summary of Dale Spender, Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done to Them) (Ark, 1983) 385–398. It is a discussion of women’s rights and feminism in eighteenth century Britain, with a particular focus on Anna Wheeler (1785–?), and a critique of Roger Fulford’s treatment of Anna Wheeler in his 1958 book (title presently unknown, probably Votes for Women).

Spender begins by refuting any possible presumption that women in Britain during the eighteenth century ‘were perfectly content with their lot.’ She explains that such notions are ‘selective history’ and that ‘there was a steady stream of objections for the first fifty years, which built up into the more widespread and popular protest of the second half of the century’, while acknowledging the differences between Britain and America culture.

The United States, Spender argues, was significantly more forward thinking as a result of it being a ‘new’ country than Britain, which remained reliant upon its traditions for guidance. While similarities existed, this led to different analyses and arguments for change. The political shifts in Britain (Chartism, the Anti-Corn Law League) were not as ‘searching and searing as the abolition of slavery [but] were sufficient to make some women aware of their own oppression’ and aided women in gaining valuable practical political experience. Nevertheless, woman’s rights conventions were not held in Britain as in the United States (‘and no single act … to mark the beginnings of a woman’s movement’), although written protests have been preserved in records.

Spender explains the contrasting frameworks in which British and American women operated: ‘in turning to past traditions for insights they quickly came to recognise that their legal and political position, far from improving over the centuries, had deteriorated.’ This can be seen with reference to ‘ancient rights’ that ‘women had enjoyed … and that it was custom and not law which prevented women from exercising such rights in the nineteenth century.’ In Britain some women saw women’s rights as a reclamation of that which had been taken, rather than the gaining of something new. Spender cites Helen Blackburn (1902), who pointed out that women having titular responsibility (as, for example, head of state, hereditary sheriff or custodian of a castle), women often performed such responsibilities and this was not an extraordinary or exceptional event.

On the other hand, in the United States these ancient rights were not preserved in the Constitution and were not considered part of ‘the natural order of things’. ‘British women did not have to look back very far to document the evidence of rights once enjoyed and since removed.’ Spender refers to the example of Anne Clifford (1589–1675), Countess of Dorset, Montgomery and Pembroke, one of ‘the last women of the old traditions’ (quoting Blackburn, 1902) who successfully maintained her lawful claim to the Sheriffdom of Westmorland against James I and defended her castles against Cromwell. Spender, citing Roger Fulford (1958), demonstrates Clifford’s political influence to promote a particular candidate.

Spender demonstrates the nature of eighteenth century law with regard to women’s political autonomy by referring to the election of Sarah Bly as sexton of a city church in 1733. Bly was elected ‘primarily because forty women householders had voted for her’. When the election was challenged, Lee CJ ‘ruled that there was no law which positively excluded women from voting or which confined it to men.’ This changed with the Reform Act 1832 that was the first statute to confine voting to men. This placed women in Britain in a similar position to those in the United States: required to change both convention and law to reclaim rights.

The volume of work on the oppression of women at the turn of the nineteenth century is evident by The Feminist Controversy in England 1788–1810, edited by Gina Luria (1974) and containing forty-four titles in eighty-nine volumes. Fulford, in Votes for Women, ‘dates the feminist protest and the demand for the restoration of political rights — to his mind one and the same thing — from’ the 1825 publication An Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery: In Reply to a Paragraph of Mr Mill’s Celebrated Article on Government by William Thompson (although acknowledging an earlier protest by Mary Wollstonecraft that was not, however, a demand for the vote).

Spender states Fulford’s view of Thompson: ‘Fulford deplores the fact that for so long Thompson has been overlooked, for he was a brilliant philosopher … . Thompson, this great thinker who instigated the demand the demand for political rights for women, has not been treated at all fairly, laments Fulford, and he was even omitted from the Dictionary of National Biography until included … in … 1901. And women who owe him so much have also treated him badly, for he was never featured on any banners of the women suffrage marchers, even though they ostensibly depicted the individuals who had made a contribution to the cause.’

But then, Fulford mentions that there was a ‘co-author’. Needless to say, there is not the same concern shown for her disappearance. Her name was ‘Mrs Wheeler’; she is described disparagingly; her contributions commented on but by no means commended. We are informed that she came from Ireland, that she was the daughter of a highly respected archdeacon, that she married an Irish squire who ‘possibly irritated by her opinions, took to the hunting field and the bottle’ … , that her daughter (nameless) married the great novelist (named) Bulwer Lytton, that she was the great-grandmother of the later suffragette Lady Constance Lytton; that she left her husband, ‘bolted’ from Ireland and threw herself on the protection of an uncle — and, if this is not enough — that she is to be remembered for the influence she had over the philosopher, Thompson, and for the way in which ‘dukes, diamonds and dinner parties, captured her shallow mind’.

Spender recounts Fulford’s outline of the background to the 1825 book: in 1823, ‘James Mill (the father of John Stuart Mill) wrote an article on government for the Encyclopaedia Britannica in which he stated that women had no genuine interests of their own which necessitated independent political representation, but were adequately represented through men.’ Fulford infers that Mrs (Ann) Wheeler’s outrage upon reading this would have led her to pur ‘her tribulations into the receptive ear of Philosopher Thompson and together they concocted an answer to Mill’ (Fulford, 1958).

Spender is critical of Fulford’s portrayal of Ann Wheeler, stating that it is contrary to the view of Thompson himself, and to the views of Bauer and Ritt (1979) or those of Richard Pankhurst in William Thompson (1755–1833): Britain’s Pioneer Socialist, Feminist and Co-operator (1954); ‘but it bears many resemblances to the standard portrayal of women in a male-dominated society, and a striking resemblance to the portrayal of Harriet Taylor, another acknowledged co-author with a male of intellectual stature.’

Fulford notes this similarity between John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor and William Thompson and Anna Wheeler; the male philosophers considered themselves ‘merely the amanuenses for ladies gifted with minds of singular force’; but suggests that both philosophers falsified the brilliance of the women behind their texts.

That men steal women’s creativity and intellectuality for their own ends is a thesis admirably substantiated by Fulford’s endeavours, and that women’s resources of their own are insignificant, of no value, and readily available for use and transformation by profound men, is so much part of Fulford’s taken-for-granted reality, he is not even aware of the distortions and misrepresentations he so assiduously constructs.

To the contrary, it is clear from the ‘Introductory Letter to Mrs Wheeler’ at the start of Thompson’s text that Thompson has attempted to arrange the ‘expression of those feelings, sentiments, and reasonings, which have emanated from your mind’. Thompson is open about his inability to speak for women, but notes that this does not prevent him from stating the counter-arguments to James Mill’s article and proving why ‘it is impossible for women to be represented through men’ (Spender). He acknowledges that, at the time the introductory letter was written, it is impossible to separate his thoughts from Wheeler’s: ‘the work is a collaborative one’ (Spender). Thompson is firmly opposed to plagiarism, insisting that Wheeler’s contribution be acknowledged, and adds that he would have preferred her to write the book herself, as she proved able in many pseudonymous articles (unfortunately said pseudonym is not mentioned).

[Thompson’s] analysis of inequality … makes relevant reading almost 160 years later. Individual competition, he says, leading to the accumulation of individual wealth, ‘is the master-key and moving principle of the whole social organization,’ and while it remains ‘it seems impossible — even were all unequal legal and unequal moral restraints removed, and were no secret current of force or influence exerted to baffle new regulations of equal justice — that women should attain to equal happiness (as measured by equal wealth) with men.’ For women — by virtue of time out for gestation and rearing of infants — would never be able to compete on the same terms as men and would never, therefore, be as successful in acquiring wealth (and happiness); while individual competition prevails women are doomed to inequality.

Spender chooses not to address the social arrangements regarding child-rearing, instead going straight to the point: according to Thompson and Wheeler, men have made rules that suit them and women cannot expect to successfully compete under those rules. Although women are capable of becoming men’s equals in terms of knowledge, talent and virtue, if women are to compete they must make their own rules that are not based on individual competition and accumulation of wealth. Under the social arrangements of the early nineteenth century, women would remain inferior. Spender draws attention to the contemporary relevance of this by referring to the United Nation’s conservative statistics (for or about 1982) that women own less than 1% of the world’s wealth; 157 years after Thompson and Wheeler’s book was published ‘we are no closer than they were to realising an alternative.’

Coupled with their natural advantage, men ‘set up the existing system of marriage: under which for the mere faculty of eating, breathing and living, in whatever degree of comfort husbands may think fit, women are reduced to domestic slavery, without will of their own, or power of locomotion, otherwise than as permitted by their respective masters’. Spender describes this critique of marriage as, besides Mary Astell’s, ‘the most scathing I have encountered.’ Spender ‘has often argued that if tomorrow every woman … were financially independent, few would be the marriages or heterosexual relationships that would last to the following day’ and says that this same point is made by Thompson, who held that the ‘true test’ of a relationship is that of ‘unbought and uncommanded affection, and that if women had no need to be bought and no necessity to be commanded, men might find themselves confined to each other’s company’. Freely entering a marriage is a farce: given that man is to be the owner, master and ruler of all, women will starve by being deprived of all that men have; in reality they had little choice but to marry.

Men, Thompson argues, promote the qualities they despise in themselves in women: they create an intellectual, moral, financial and physical dependence that were a woman to achieve these independently would be called unfeminine in order to subvert equality. This is a reflection of man’s jealousy and love of superiority:

only by robbing woman of all her intellectual and creative resources can man protect his power. He will not even let you speak, he argues, passionately, particularly not in public, or to other women, for the public arena which is a source of influence and intellectual improvement has also been monopolized by man.

Fulford states:

On sexual matters there are not feeble beatings about the bush but the author plunges straight in forcing the reader’s attention over and over again to the horrors and dangers of what he calls the “shared pillow”. Marriage is merely a superstition called in aid by men when they wish to admit women to the high honour of becoming their “involuntary breeding machines and household slaves”.

Marriage is described from the perspective of woman, the subordinate, rather than man, the dominant. Spender criticises Fulford, who, while acknowledging this departure from convention, does not draw connections between the married woman that was Anna Wheeler and Thompson’s thesis, contrary to Thompson’s clear intention to draw on Wheeler’s personal experience as a wife.

Spender notes details about Anna Wheeler’s life are sparse. According to Richard Pankhurst, she was born in 1785 and was the youngest daughter of Archbishop Doyle, a noted Irish clergyman. At 15 she married Massy Wheeler, a dipsomaniac and degenerate, and the marriage was a disastrous failure. Despite an alcoholic husband and home in disrepair, Anna Wheeler studied social and political philosophy through books obtained from London, including material of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Pankhurst adds:

Local opinion commiserated Massy Wheeler on account of his wie’s absorption in study, for despite his own alcoholic failing it was held that her duty as a married woman was to immerse herself wholly in the interests of her spouse.

Spender summarises:

Her daughter Rosina later complained that Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings had warped her mother’s mind … . [Anna] left her husband (who died in 1820) to live with her uncle, Sir John Doyle, the Governor of Guernsey, and from the on she moved within the foremost intellectual circles of her day. She was a friend of Robert Owen, of Jeremy Bentham, of Charles Fourier and of Flora Tristan; she was the centre of a Saint-Simonian circle and was referred to as the ‘Goddess of Reason’ and ‘the most gifted woman of the age’

But she flits in and out, and leaves behind only questions: who was this woman who wrote and spoke in this manner at a time when I am informed (by good patriarchal authority) that there was only silence, when the voice of Mary Wollstonecraft had disappeared, and where absolutely nothing was happening in Britain in relation to the ‘woman question’?

Whether or not many women knew at the time about Anna Wheeler … there were numerous individual women who also registered their protests against patriarchy in the first half of the nineteenth century — when absolutely nothing was happening! In 1832, through the services of ‘Orator’ Hunt, Mary Smith, a Yorkshire woman of considerable means, lodged a petition in the House of Commons, requesting that as a property owner she be permitted to exercise her right to vote. In 1840 Lady Morgan published Woman and her Master, and in 1843 Mrs Hugo Reid published A Plea for Women, which listed the inconsistencies in women’s position, for while they were permitted ‘to vote for an East India director’ — literally the governor of the country — (and while there was not, she added, ‘the faintest hint of any inconvenience resulting from the practice’), and while they were allowed at times to vote at local elections, they were not allowed to vote for the governors of England.

Spender cites other examples of feminist activity in this time: William Johnston Fox’s ‘A Political and Social Anomaly’ in the Monthly Repository discussed the foolishness of the inclusion of the word ‘male’ in the Reform Act; Richard Cobden stated similarly at a meeting in 1845; Anne Knight published a leaflet in 1847 advocating for women’s suffrage; in 1851 Harriet Taylor’s article on ‘Enfranchisement of Women’ appeared in the Westminster Review; and in 1855 ‘Justitia’ (a pseudonym of Mrs Henry Davis Pochin) published a pamphlet titled The Right for Women to Exercise the Elective Franchise.