Turbulent Londoners: Anna Wheeler, ~1785-1848

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who played a part in the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Next up is Anna Wheeler, a feminist philosopher and author. Her great grand daughter was Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923).


Anna Wheeler

Anna Wheeler in 1825 by Maxim Gauci, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, after J. Porter (Source: National Portrait Gallery)

Anna Wheeler has been described as “the most advanced but neglected feminist and socialist activist and thinker of the period after Mary Wollstonecraft” (Hardy, 2009). Intelligent and persuasive, Anna was a significant figure in early British feminism. She was also an important node in the network of European radicalism in the early nineteenth century, bringing the ideas of French socialists and feminists to a British audience.

Anna Doyle was born in about 1785 in County Tipperary in Ireland. The daughter of a clergyman, she did not receive a formal education but learnt a lot from the people around her (e.g. family acquaintances and foreign dignitaries who visited her relatives). She was well known in the area for her intelligence, as well as her beauty. In 1800, when she was around 15, she married wealthy local landowner Francis Massy Wheeler. Francis himself was only 19 at the time, and Anna’s mother disapproved of the match. Unfortunately the marriage was not a happy one, and in 1812 Anna took her two daughters, Hanrietta and Rosina, to live with her uncle in Guernsey where he was governor. Anna travelled a lot during the rest of her life, living in London, Dublin, Caen and Paris.

Over the next few years, Anna gained a reputation in France for her intelligence and patronage of young intellectuals. In London, she became close friends with liberal philosophers such as the utilitarian Jeremy Bentham and Robert Owen, the Leader of the Co-operative movement. Her most significant friendship was with William Thompson, an Irish political economist, feminist and critic of capitalism. Francis died in 1820, leaving Anna without an income. She began translating the work of French Owenite philosophers into English.

Anna was living in Paris in 1823, whew she met French Utopian socialist Charles Fourier, She decided that London Owenites could benefit from his ideas, so she translated his dense writing on human harmony into English, at the same time making it more accessible. In 1826 she returned to London after her daughter Henrietta died suddenly.

In 1825 Anna’s collaborative work with Thompson led to the publication of 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 (succinct titles were not a priority in the nineteenth century!) The book combined elements of liberal and socialist feminism, and fiercely criticised marriage as a form of domestic slavery. It argued that women needed education, the right to vote (almost 100 years before it actually happened), and alternatives to domesticity. Thompson and Wheeler challenged utilitarians, who argued for human happiness but excluded women. They also criticised James Mill’s argument that women didn’t need the vote because their interests were shared with men. Both Wheeler and Thompson were also supportive of contraception, which was an incredibly controversial issue at the time.

Anna was a well known public speaker in her own right, giving talks and lectures on women’s rights. She also published essays in the radical press using the pseudonym Vlasta. In her writing she argued that both men and women had been subjected to social conditioning by corrupt institutions. She wanted harmony and cooperation between men and women, not conflict. Anna believed that women were under the power of a learned ideology of romantic love, which concentrated their thoughts on pleasing men (perhaps she would think that this hasn’t changed). She was suspicious of arguments which gave women an inherent capacity for nurture and affection. Anna argued that women needed to act on their principles and reason to liberate themselves from customs and social conditioning.

Anna’s French friends tried to get her to Paris in the run up to the 1848 revolution, but she was too ill. She died in Camden on the 7th of May. Throughout her life she had been an important conduit for ideas between British radicals and their counterparts on the continent, as well as an influential feminist philosopher in her own right. Perhaps spurred on by her own disastrous marriage, Anna focused her considerable intellect on improving the lot of future generations of women, and for that we owe her thanks.

Sources and Further Reading

Dooley, Dolores. “Wheeler [nee Doyle], Anna.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last modified 8th October 2009, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/46577 [subscription required to access].

Hardy, Patsy. “Wheeler, Anna Doyle.” in Iain McCalman et. a (eds) An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

McFadden, Margaret. “Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848): Philosopher, Socialist, Feminist.” Hypatia 4, no. 1 (1989): 91-101.

Wikipedia. “Anna Wheeler (author).” Last modified 22nd May 2019, accessed 23rd July 2019. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_Wheeler_(author).

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