In this paper I discuss the violent crowd in a historical gender perspective. The starting point is a study of eight riots and about thirty small-scale street fights in Stockholm 1700–1850. Historical studies of crowds and riots are well rooted in the breakthrough of social historical research in the 1960s with George Rudé and E. P. Thompson as innovative pioneers. Although the genre has grown wide, there is still a lack of gender perspective in the field; in particular, female participation in violent masses has tended to be neglected in research.
Studies of open violent conflict from a gender perspective have a three-fold purpose: Firstly, to highlight women as active participants; secondly to study the social and political power structures; and thirdly to study the historical changes of these structures.
The judicial sources from the trials on the popular riots rarely present women as individuals. Women are seldom mentioned by name, and professions or titles or other socioeconomic markers are often difficult to determine. Among those who went to trial – as witnesses or defendants – men were by far the most dominant gender category. So is also the case of my study of preindustrial unrest in Stockholm. Women appear infrequently in the material, and the tendency for the lack of women seems also be strengthen in the later part of the studied period. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, we hardly see any women at all in the material. However, by generalizing from those women who still are found in the sources, and additionally by using complementary sources, we can detect not only that women regularly were in the masses, but also that they often had different roles than men.
In everyday city life political structures and power structures are usually hidden, both for the historical actors and for the contemporary historian. But when social conflicts arise – for example in riots or insurrections – these structures will come up to the surface, and through exposure to external influences they can be changed. At the same time, they will also become available for historical research.
In my studies, based on urban riots, I have been able to follow an early democratization-process well before the democratic breakthrough and the implementation of universal suffrage. It is a story that begins in a patriarchal society of privilege, and ends in a society based on a democratic view of the world, in which freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and the rule of law were among the bywords. Historiographicly, this is a development that has been described based on ideas coming from the upper layers of society, and which was largely implemented by politicians, statesmen, or other influential groups of male actors. My study, however, shows that democratization was also a process from below – made by the people – where the female involvement was both a necessary and central factor. It was not the violence per se that contributed to democratization, but the open violent conflict displays the process. Women's participation in the violent crowds in the streets of Stockholm shows that women in fact had an active part in the democratic process.