The following is taken from the Big Issue North’s Facebook page
This week we mark 100 years since some women gained the right to vote. Behind the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst were lesser-known figures in the Votes for Women campaign in the north of England.
In 1901 over 29,000 Lancashire mill workers signed a petition for women’s suffrage and inspired the formation of the WSPU in 1903. Many of those working-class women became members but the organisation was accused of campaigning for “not votes for women, but votes for ladies”. Since it only granted women the right to vote on the same terms as men – if they were over 30 or owned property – many working-class women remained disenfranchised after the passing of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.
In 1904 Rochdale tailor and suffrage campaigner Ada Nield Chew became involved in correspondence with Christabel Pankhurst on the pages of the Clarion, illustrating the conflict working-class socialist women faced in joining the campaign. “To give wealthy women a vote would mean that they, voting naturally in their own interests, would help to swamp the vote of the enlightened working man, who is trying to get Labour men into Parliament,” wrote Chew.
The stories of these suffragists, who preferred the constitutional tactics of Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) over the militant tactics of the WSPU, are less sensational and therefore lesser told, but they were no less radical and no less vital.
Nor were actions on the other side of the Pennines. Yorkshire woman Mary Smith is credited as the first to petition parliament for the female vote in 1832. She stated that she paid taxes and was subject to the rule of law, and therefore did not see why she should not vote, but it was laughed out of the House of Commons.
In 1902 Yorkshire textile workers delivered their suffrage petition to Westminster and notable early campaigns developed in Halifax and Huddersfield. In the latter, a branch of the WSPU was formed by 50 local women and detailed notes and minutes kept by secretary and organiser Edith Key have shed much light on branch activities – both legal and illegal. Key began operating a safe house for fugitive suffragette ”mice”, evading prison under the Cat and Mouse Act. It is heroic acts of defiance like Key’s that are the defining landmarks of the Yorkshire road to women’s suffrage.
In Big Issue North, alongside original illustrations by Julie Gough we highlight the part played by four women: Dora Thewlis, Selina Cooper, Leonora Cohen and Florence Lockwood.