Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Anna Wheeler Irish radical Feminist and Socialist

Posted in Anna Wheeler Irish radical feminst and socialist by sheelanagigcomedienne on December 1, 2016


Anna Wheeler 1780–1848,  was a writer and advocate of political rights for women,  a socialist, feminist and promoter of the benefits of contraception . She was very much part of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. I will sprinkle quotes from the treatise on Women’s Emanicipation and Equality which was written jointly with William Thompson.

Anna Doyle was the daughter of the Rev. Nicholas Doyle, a Church of Ireland  clergyman, Rector of Newcastle, County Tipperary. She had no formal education, but learned French, geography, reading and writing at home. Her brother Sir John Milley Doyle John  was a commander of British and  Portuguese forces in the Peninsular War.

Women of England! women, in whatever country ye breathe–wherever ye breathe, degraded–awake!

In 1795, at about the age of fifteen, she married Francis Massey Wheeler, of Lizard Connell, heir to an estate at Ballywire, who proposed to her at a ball. Her family opposed the marriage and invited her to London as a diversion to stay with her uncle Sir John Doyle. But she was stubborn and married him. He was himself only nineteen and was a grandson of Hugh Massy, 1st Baron Massy. They set up home in County Limerick. According to the autobiography of her daughter Rosina, Wheeler had five daughters but only two survived into adulthood Rosina and Henrietta and Rosina remembered being told about the wrath of her drunken father on the birth of another girl.

First, as to the pleasures of the senses. So notoriously are wives and all women restrained, that equal enjoyment of these pleasures with men, particularly eating and drinking, is esteemed immoral in them, while to men it is freely permitted. Sexual pleasures, in husbands, involves no punishment at all; in wives, punishment, legal and moral, only short of death.

She continued to read widely, taking refuge from her abusive husband and cut off from her friends. She read the French Age of Enlightenment thinkers and Mary Wollstonecroft whilst her sister read romantic novels, beside her on the couch, according to Rosina.

Sleeps there an infant your bosom, to the level of whose intellect the systematic despostism and pitiful jealousy of man have not sought, and for the most part successfully sought, to chain down yours?

She eventually separated from her abusive husband after twelve years.

Although women, like men, as soon as adult, are in most civilised countries protected in civil and personal rights, against their fathers as against other individuals; yet, no sooner are they married, than by the marriage code, notwithstanding their experience, they are again deprived of all these inefficient rights, and thrown back into the class of children or idiots.

Anna, with her brother John and sister Bessie left her bad marriage by moving to Guernsey to live with her uncle General Sir John who was by then the Lieutenant Governor of the island.

The marriage codes of all nations, even the most civilised, render women in effect the slaves of men.

general-sir-john-doyleHe had a distinguished career in the British Army  which he joined in 1771. He served with distinction in the American War of Independence, in the French Revolutionary Wars and served in Holland, Gibraltar and Egypt. His efforts were greatly appreciated by King George who wrote to the Earl Marshall.. “so that his [Doyle’s] zeal and exertions in our service may be known to posterity”He was elected MP for Mullingar in the Irish House of Commons in 1783.He was appointed Private secretary to George 1V , Prince of Wales.

In Guernsey she was feted by the aristocratic mainly French royalty especially the aged Duc De Bouillon who courted her for twelve year.

Real and comprehensive knowledge, physical and moral, equally and impartially given by education and by all other means to both sexes, is the key to such higher enjoyments.

In 1815 she moved to London, to benefit the education of her daughters. By 1816 she had started journeying through France, leading a peripatetic life. She was described as The Goddess of Reason.

In 1820 Francis Massey Wheeler died. Anna is in financial difficulties. Friends and family help out. She earns some income as a translator of works from France, especially the works of the French Owenites and Charles Fourier.

She also began, what became a life long habit,  visiting various family members and friends as a means of support because she did not have a home of her own. For the rest of her life she moved between London, Dublin, Caen, and Paris and in doing so she became a means of spreading political and feminist ideas.

Women then might exert in a free career with men their faculties of mind and body, to whatever degree developed, in pursuit of happiness by means of exertion, as men do. But this would not raise women to an equality of happiness with men: their rights might be equal, but not their happiness, because unequal powers under free competition must produce unequal effects.

As a staunch advocate of political rights for women and of equal opportunities in education, she was a friend of the French feminists and socialists Flora Tristan and  Desirée Veret  becomes associated with the Tribune des Femme. the journal established by working class women in France in 1832. Originally named La Femme libre it only published articles by women and aimed for the freedom of women. Her other friends and associates included Henri Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, Suzanne Voilquin , Marie-Reine Guindorff and Jeanne Deroin.Suzanne Voilquin


In other words, the treatment of the individual members of the family, – sons, daughters, breeding-women, servants, slaves, and all other denominations of sentient beings, – may be improved by the prosperity of the affairs of the master, or deteriorated by his reverses or change of character. (This reminds us of the neo-liberal notion that prosperity for the few improves life for everyone whereas we see that it increases inequality between the uber wealthy and the poorest  and has made the rest of us despondent)

William Thompson  was an Irish political and philosophical writer and social reformer, developing from utilitarianism into an early critic of capitalist exploitation whose ideas influenced the Cooperative, Trade Union and Chartist  movements as well as Marx. Born into the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy silver spoon life of wealthy landowners and merchants of Cork society, his attempt to will his estate to the cooperative movement after his death sparked a long court case as his family fought successfully to have the will annulled.


In 1825, provoked by James Mill’s dismissal of political representation for women, Thompson wrote Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and Hence in Civil and Domestic, Slavery.Thompson described the book as the “joint property” of himself and Anna Wheeler

Thompson’s work contained an, ‘Introductory Letter to Mrs. Wheeler’ which credits her as the source of many of the ideas in the work. In ‘The Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other’, the formidable pro-feminist text, he acknowledges the enormous contribution made by Mrs. Wheeler in an introductory letter to her. he emphasises that the ‘Appeal’ was the product of collaborative work undertaken by  them both and he notes that ‘A few only therefore of the following pages are the exclusive produce of your mind and pen, and written with your own hand.  The remainder are our joint property, I being your interpreter and the scribe of your sentiments.’

You look forward, as I do, to a state of society very different from that which now exists, in which effort of all is to out wit, supplant, and snatch from each other; where interest is systematically opposed to duty; where the so-called system of morals is little more than a mass of hypocrisy preached by knaves, and practised by them, to keep their slaves, male as well as female, in blind uninquiring obedience


Dr Dolores Dooley, ( retired from the Philosophy Department in University College Cork) has written. Equality in Community: Sexual Equality in the Writings of William Thompson and Anna Doyle Wheeler (Women’s studies/philosophy). She seeks to show Anna’s involvement in it.

Women are one half of the human race, and as much entitled to happiness on their own account, for their own sakes, as men. Just as necessary would it be to inquire whether the possession of political rights by men would tend to promote the happiness of women. The happiness of every individual, and of all classes, of the human race, ought to be promoted for the sake of such individual or individuals, and not in subservience to the happiness of any other individuals or classes whatever. When every individual is made happy, the happiness of the whole is promoted.

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

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 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.’

In 1829 Anna gives a lecture on the “Rights of Women” in a chapel near Finsbury Square, London.She sometimes spoke at the South Place Chapel “a radical gathering-place” then under the leadership of the Rev William Fox and now better known as  Conway Hall where I was for the 120th anniversary of the British Humanist Association on 26th November 2016 when we awarded Lord Alf Dubs with the Humanist of the Year award.

In 1833 William Thompson died leaving Anna an annuity of £100, which was then enough to maintain a modest household.

She retires from active work in the feminist movement because of her poor health around 1840. She does continue corresponding with her friends, especially those in France. She was invited to participate in the revolution of 1848 – but she declined this invitation. Her health was poor.She died in 1848  at the age of 63.

Anna’s daughter Rosina Bulwer Lytton ( who had a scandalous marriage) was a novelist and outspoken public speaker. Her grandson Robert Bulwer-Lytton 1st Earl of Lytton served as Viceroy of India and two of her great grandsons became the 2nd and 3rd Earls of Lytton. One of her great-granddaughters was the sister-in-law of the Prime Minister Balfour, while another, Lady Constance Lytton, became a leading suffragette protester, hunger striker and writer, and a third, Lady Emily Bulwer-Lytton, dismayed her parents by successfully proposing to the architect Edwin Lutyens and later became a Theosophist. The biographers Mary Lutyens and Jane Ridley are descendants of that marriage. So, she seems to have continued to inspire further generations.

Anna Wheeler is undoubtedly another woman whose contribution to women’s and socialist thinking has been neglected. Obviously, as an Irishwoman she should be acclaimed in our struggle for emancipation and equality that continues with the campaigns on violence against women, pay parity and abortion rights.

There is no doubt that she would have been at the forefront of our ongoing struggle for bodily control and equality and would be leading us on it. She would be saying Repeal the 8th Amendement.…/england-speaking-of-i-m-e-l-d-a-speaking-of-ireland-makin.


IMELDAs outside King’s Cross Station


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