Uncontrollable Women by Nan Sloane review – history’s secret heroines

A compelling study of celebrates the working class pioneers of female emancipation who have been overlooked

In 1822 Susannah Wright stood before the Lord Chief Justice accused of blasphemy. Despite her limited education, she was determined to conduct her own defence and duly began to read out a carefully prepared statement. Her “blasphemy” had nothing to do with being a potty mouth. Rather, Susannah was found guilty of selling a pamphlet that challenged the right of the Established Church to meddle in secular matters. Infuriated by the effrontery of this young lacemaker from Nottingham, the judge attempted to cut her off. Sharply, she told him to be quiet: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”

It is a thrilling moment. It is also, suggests Nan Sloane, one that deserves to be far better known. The same goes for the many other occasions on which working-class women dared to speak truth to power during the first third of the 19th century, a time of bitter unrest when it looked as though Great Britain might follow France and America into revolution. There is, for instance, Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood on the hustings alongside Henry Hunt at Peterloo in 1819 and only narrowly escaped death in the state-sanctioned carnage that followed. Or Jane Carlile who, like Susannah Wright, was found guilty of blasphemy for selling her husband’s newspaper The Republican, and was sentenced to two years inside Dorchester prison with her newborn baby.

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