Dorothy Thompson (1923-2011) - Groundbreaking historian of Chartism

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(356)

Dorothy Thompson was a socialist and feminist historian who transformed the study of the Chartist movement. Keith Flett considers her life and achievements

Dorothy Thompson, who has died aged 87, was one of the post-1945 era's leading socialist and feminist historians and a political activist of considerable note and impact.

She was married for many years to the socialist historian E P Thompson, who died in 1993, and her work and activity were in some ways complementary to, and at least equal to, his own. Edward studied Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, for example, while Dorothy focused on the period immediately afterwards - that of Chartism, the first great working class movement.

Both left the Communist Party in 1956, both were part of the New Left in the 1960s and both later went on to become peace campaigners around CND in the 1980s. Yet both Dorothy and Edward made distinctive and independent contributions to historical knowledge and socialist politics.

Early years

Thompson, born Dorothy Towers, a third generation south Londoner, recorded much about her early years in her 1993 book, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, and in an interview she gave to Sheila Rowbotham in New Left Review in the same year Rowbotham provided a fine obituary for Thompson in the Guardian).

She came from a relatively privileged background but one with a liberal intellectual outlook.

She had been politically active from age 14 but from 1942 at Girton College, Cambridge University, she engaged both with the politics of the Communist Party and with the kindred intellectual spirit of Edward Thompson.

Both Dorothy and Edward eschewed involvement in the academic establishment for work in adult education in Halifax during the 1950s and much of the 1960s.

In Dorothy's case, with three children to bring up, the work was part-time and there were time limits to her political engagement in the era before women's liberation made an impact. She became a leading proponent of socialist feminist politics both in the academy and as an activist.

Change in universities was central to the upheaval of the 1960s and Thompson moved to take up an academic post in the history department at Birmingham University from the late 1960s. She was responsible for tutoring and encouraging a generation of socialist historians who went on to produce a distinctive body of work, often around the subject of Chartism. From the late 1960s her published works began to flourish. These were often groundbreaking.

She was, for example, one of the first to touch on the exclusion of women from labour movement histories in her essay "Women and Nineteenth Century Radical Politics: A Lost Dimension", published in 1976.

Early Chartists (1971) began a series of works, including The Chartists (1984), which were for many years the landmark histories of Chartism, reflecting her enormous breadth of knowledge in this area. Her research opened up new topics of study, from a focus on female Chartists to the role of ethnicity in Chartist politics.

Political activism was not forgotten. In her obituary, Rowbotham records how Thompson helped to organise events around the Beyond the Fragments initiative in the early 1980s, which sought to unite grassroots activists in the struggle for socialism. At the same time she was active in European Nuclear Disarmament, a campaign that specifically encouraged links with peace activists in Eastern Europe, reflecting the heritage of her decision to quit the Communist Party in 1956. In 1983 she published the book Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb.

As a Chartist historian myself I had the privilege of being in a sense a second generation Thompson student. The editor of and adviser for my book on post-1848 Chartism was Owen Ashton, who was also an editor of the book of essays in honour of Thompson, A Duty of Discontent.

From Ashton I was able to witness the Thompsonian method in the study of Chartism - an intellectual rigour combined with a keen interest in exploring and developing new areas and avenues of research.

Complexities

Another student, Neville Kirk, noted that she was an "inspirational teacher, both democratic and rigorous in her practice". He argues that she put a research agenda focusing on ambiguities, nuances, complexities and contradictions before adherence to a specific historiographical framework, such as Fabianism or Marxism, two dominant themes in Chartist studies.

This meant that Thompson could sometimes come up with points or issues that were awkward for Marxist historians or active socialists. As her interview in New Left Review reflects, she was doubtful about the political implications of the concept of progress in history, for example, and in later years concerned about whether people did want to be politically active. However, her commitment to the left both in historical research and politics could never be doubted, whatever the disagreement on specific issues.

In 1956 and after, she stood clearly with socialists who did not see the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe as in any way associated with socialism.

In person Dorothy Thompson could be a sharp critic, but that was combined with a friendly encouragement to historians to actually get on and do historical research and to expand historical knowledge with their findings. In the age of Wikipedia an emphasis on visiting the archives cannot be overestimated.