When Samuel Smiles (1812–1904) looked back over his career from the vantage point of old age he saw himself as one who had labored for “the emancipation and intellectual improvement of women.” His self-description will surprise those who know him, either through his famous book,
Self-Help(1859), where women make fleeting appearances as maternal influences on the achievements of great men, or through the attempts that have been made during the Thatcher years to offer him as an exemplar of a highly selective code of “Victorian Values.” Nonetheless, there is much to be said for Smiles's interpretation: not only was he a prolific author on the condition of women, but his writings on this subject from the late 1830s to the early 1850s were radical in tone and content.
By directing attention to these writings, this article makes three points about early Victorian gender relations, radicalism, and Smiles's own career. First, it challenges the lingering notion that this was a time when patriarchal values stifled debate on gender issues. For some historians who write about the women's movement, the early Victorian era has the status of something like a dark age in the history of the agitation for women's rights; this period is overshadowed on the one side by the great debates initiated by Mary Wollstonecraft's
Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792) and on the other by the new feminist movements that developed after the 1850s. Barbara Caine, for example, has written recently that the exclusion of women from the public sphere was “absolute” in the mid-century years; few women had the financial resources necessary to set up a major journal even if they had been bold enough to do so, and the sort of man who wrote sympathetically about women was concerned primarily with his own needs.