Oldham Historical Research Group

a brief overview

The suffrage story arguably has its roots in 1792, when the issue of Women's Rights was raised, forcibly, when Mary Wollstonecraft's book, 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' was published.

Until the mid 19th century the issue of women's suffrage was only a minor part of a wider movement to gain more rights for women, socially, politically, educationally and professionally and it wasn't about getting the vote for all women - class differences played a huge part, as did the issue of whether or not married women should also be included in the franchise..

To be clear :
* Suffrage is the right to vote in political elections and it was a right denied to all women, whatever their social or marital status.
* The franchise determined the qualifications needed in order to have the right to vote. They were property based and, initially, excluded all excepting the wealthy landed gentry and nobility.
* Coverture which is the legal status of women under common law:
A married woman had no legally recognised separate identity. She was under 'the protection' of her husband.
Ownership of any property, money or goods, that a woman had at the time of her marriage, automatically became the property, of her new husband.
An unmarried or widowed adult woman had the right to own property and make contracts in her own name but a married woman had no such rights.

1832 saw the first Reform Act following almost 30 years of insistent demands for reform of Parliamentary representation ... very important for the newly industrialised towns and cities, which were without representation in Parliament, including Oldham.
Oldham gained 2 MPs with the 1832 Reform Act - William Cobbett and John Fielden

Successive Reform Acts in 1867 and 1884, extended men's suffrage gradually but was still property based and there was still nothing for any women.
The campaign for Women's rights, suffrage in particular, had begun to gather momentum in the early mid 1800s. In 1865, the first small Group whose primary aim was Women's suffrage was formed in London and radical Manchester was next, forming a suffrage society in the January of 1867. Lydia Becker, whose extended family lived at Foxdenton Hall, was a founder member of the Manchester society, and its secretary. She founded the 'Women's Suffrage Journal' in 1870 and was its editor until her death in 1890.

The first real chink in the armour of male domination came in 1869 with the Municipal Corporations (Franchise) Act. Within the franchise women could vote in council & borough elections but only be elected to sit on rural district councils. Only widowed, or single women rate-payers, were enfranchised but, importantly, it set a precedent that led to enfranchised women being granted the right to vote for, and be members of, the local school boards when they were established in 1870.

The activities of suffrage groups affiliated to the NSWS always remained strictly within the law and relied on the gathering of petitions, writing articles for pamphlets and journals, lobbying MPs for support etc. Their activities were frequently publicised (and derided) in the press, with cartoons and derogatory comments.

In the years from 1865 to 1900 there were numerous attempts to introduce legislation for women's suffrage into parliament but they were always rejected or 'talked out'. However, although there was growing support from individual MPs, they came under pressure, from their party, to vote 'No', whenever a Bill was introduced.

In 1894, The Women's Co-operative Guild, which campaigned for women's rights in the workplace, formally endorsed Women's Suffrage at their Annual Conference, and the North of England Suffrage Society, in Manchester, under the leadership of Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper threw all their energies into involving working class women in the suffrage movement.

1897 saw the re-organisation of the NSWS, resulting in the creation of the NUWSS, which would be in the vanguard of suffragism in the 20th century.

The stated aim of the NUWSS, which could be contentious for some, was 'to obtain Parliamentary suffrage for women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men' Contentious because there were always on-going disagreements concerning to whom the franchise should be extended. Generally, their support had been for Liberal MPs and the hope that they would in turn support suffrage Bills.

As earlier, class differences and whether or not married women should be included in the franchise, were deeply divisive issues in the various suffrage societies.

The first 40 years of the campaign had been driven mainly by educated middle-class women who were stifled by 19th century constraints. The new century saw the NUWSS begin to change, from an organisation dominated by middle class women, to a national movement with a membership of women from across all professional, employment and class backgrounds.

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, a member of the Independent Labour Party, founded the 'Women's Social & Political Union' (the WSPU), in Manchester, with its motto of, 'Deeds not Words'. For a couple of years, things went on much as before then, in1905, a new Suffrage Bill was introduced into parliament by Keir Hardie ... it was rejected.

Also in 1905, Annie Kenney, an Oldham mill-girl, heard Christabel Pankhurst speak at a meeting at Oldham Clarion Vocal Club and, as a result, joined the WSPU. The WSPU, under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst, now decided that they had waited long enough for change, and a campaign of civil disobedience and disruption was kickstarted.

Their first serious act of civil disruption was also in 1905, in Manchester, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled the speakers, and demanded 'Votes for Women', at a Liberal Party rally in the Free Trade Hall ... deliberately inviting arrest to draw attention to the action. They were forcibly silenced - thrown out - arrested - and jailed.

In 1906, The Daily Mail nicknamed them 'Suffragettes'. Intended as derisory, it was an epithet that the WSPU embraced with relish! It singled them out as 'different' ... a force to be reckoned with.

It's sometimes easy for us to confuse the terms, 'Suffragist' and 'Suffragette', and use them wrongly.
* A Suffragist is a person who promoted the extension of political voting rights, especially in respect of women, by means of reasoned arguments and law-abiding activities.
* A Suffragette is a woman who campaigned for the extension of political voting rights, for women, and was prepared to use militant and violent action in pursuit of that goal.

In 1907, at the invitation of the wealthy Pethick-Lawrences, to whom she had been introduced by Keir Hardie, Mrs. Pankhurst moved the WSPU's centre of operations to London, where she was joined by daughters Christabel and Sylvia, and Annie Kenney. The WSPU journal, ' Votes for Women' was founded and edited by Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and her husband. The WSPU became ever more visible as they stepped up their militant actions.

During these years the NUWSS suffragists turned to more pro-active and publicly visible activities including rallies, processions, meetings and the active support of pro-suffrage parliamentary candidates.

The WSPU continued its path of aggressive militancy and violence and also started to dissociate itself from its ILP roots and membership, along with the growing numbers of wealthy, society women joining the WSPU.

The first serious rift, in the WSPU, came in 1907 with a protest, against the changing nature of the militancy and the increasingly autocratic leadership of the society by Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel. Mrs. Charlotte Despard, and her supporters, left the WSPU and founded the 'Women's Freedom League'. The League was also a militant group but used the tactics of civil disobedience and disruption in place of damage to property, and criminal activities.

Whether we consider the WSPU members as anarchic and hysterical or crusaders and martyrs, nothing can take away the fact of their bravery in the face of harsh and brutal treament by gangs of men at public meetings, by the police force, and the justice system. ALL of it, with the implicit approval of government. There was no let-up or wavering in their relentless efforts. Importantly, in the beginning, they were perceived as martyrs.

HOWEVER ... on the debit side, as the aggression escalated, becoming more violent and anti-social, especially after 1910, it alienated that same public support and sympathy.
NOW ... they were no longer perceived as the victims but as the perpetrators.

It was in 1908 that anti-suffragists (both men and women) began to come together in organised opposition groups.

In 1909 the NUWSS started publishing its own journal, the 'Common Cause', edited by Helena Swanwick. This was also the year in which hunger-striking by WSPU members serving jail sentences, was begun by Wallace Dunlop, who demanded the right to be treated as a political offender and not as a criminal. Subsequently, the barbaric process of force feeding was introduced.

Later that year, in September, and afraid of creating suffrage martyrs, the government introduced what became nicknamed, the 'Cat and Mouse Act', in which imprisoned suffragettes, whose health was endangered, were released under house arrest, until health was restored. They were then returned to prison to continue serving their sentence.

In 1910 a suffrage bill with a limited franchise was proposed but failed tp proceed ... as an immediate result of the failure, on the 18th November 1910, a WSPU deputation of 300 women set off for the Commons. It became known as 'Black Friday' as the women were assaulted and denied access to Parliament by the most humiliating and brutal methods over the course of a six-hour struggle.

In 1911& 1912 there were attempts to introduce further Bills but it was pointless. The WSPU were already enraged; the suspension of militant action, whilst the original Bill had been debated, was already over and an escalating campaign of violent attacks, arson and destruction, had begun. It sounded the death knell for Women's Suffrage as the Conciliation Bills collapsed without the necessary support.

It's still not known for certain what her intentions were, that day, but in early June 1913 the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison died 3 days after falling under the hooves, of the King's horse, at the Epsom Derby.

1913 was the year in which the NUWSS felt the need to prove to the country that not all Suffragists were violent and anarchic in their activities ... that the so-called Suffragettes were in a minority. They needed to win back the public support for women's suffrage that had been lost. The NUWSS decided to organise a massive pilgrimage, of non-militant suffragists from all corners of the country, to meet up in London on the 26th of July for a mass demonstration in Hyde Park. En route they would stop regularly to give lectures, hold debates and pass out literature. This was a brave undertaking because most meetings, at which any mention of women's suffrage was made, now resulted in some abuse and often rough-handling of the speakers. The Pilgrimage would prove to be no exception! Fortunately for us, Oldham's Marjory Lees recorded the happenings of the next 21 days in her diary. The Pilgrimage was a triumph for the suffragists although they endured some extremely unpleasant incidents in the three weeks that they were on the road.

More recent research has suggested that, by 1914, the WSPU had 'shot its bolt'. Membership had declined, although their finances didn't suffer thanks to the contributions of wealthy supporters. In February 1914, another breakaway group of suffragettes had formed the United Suffragists Movement. Their aim, like the Freedom League, was militancy and civil disobedience for attention but without the anti-social destruction. In June, the Pethwick Lawrences, who had been ousted earlier from the WSPU, joined the United Suffragists taking with them their journal, 'Votes for Women' which then became the publicity organ for the new movement.

Even though the prison horrors sickened most people, as the WSPU campaign went to even greater lengths, encroaching on the public's own lives, it only served to outrage most of the populace and alienate a large number of their own supporters.

A few weeks later ... and the country was at war.

Both Suffragettes and Suffragists were split into 'pro' and 'anti' war camps.

WSPU militancy and suffrage activity ceased and, as a society, never resumed suffrage activities.The suffragettes still in prison were released soon after war broke out. Under this amnesty, Christabel Pankhurst returned from Paris, having spent the past 2 years there, with a warrant out for her arrest but still directing WSPU operations through regular visits from WSPU members, including Annie Kenney. Mrs Pankhurst, Christabel and their followers threw their energies into campaigning for the government, encouraging volunteers to enlist in the army and women to replace those men in the workplace.

In 1914 the NUWSS members also had the same decisions to take; for the first 2 years of the war the suffrage activities were virtually suspended as women worked to support the troops, raise funds for hospitals and medical supplies, and organise relief of hardship at home.

Oldham Suffrage Society, with Marjory Lees, worked to alleviate hardship in the local families of the enlisted men. Funds were raised for an ambulance on the Western Front, and beds were sponsored in the Scottish Women's Suffrage Societies' hospitals that they had set up in war torn areas.

By early 1916, women's suffrage, and the form it should take, was again being debated in the societies, as they prepared for the time when franchise reform would once again become an issue in Parliament. At a conference in January 1916, Sylvia Pankhurst had proposed full adult suffrage which was supported by the United Suffragists, the Women's Freedom League, and a large number of the NUWSS members. The subsequent consultative committee was divided but predominantly in favour of full adult suffrage. For the next 18 months or so, the same old scenario of demands, broken promises, pressure and negotiation, was played out between the government and the suffragist representatives.

FINALLY, on June 19th, 1917, the Commons voted to accept the Women's Suffrage Clause in the Representation of the People Bill, which became the Act giving Women the right to vote in parliamentary elections, albeit within a limited franchise:
It was given to :
1. all adult males over 21 (also gave the vote to servicemen, fighting in the War, aged 19 or over. Absent voters lists created for men serving elsewhere other than their home.)
2. Women over 30, owning or occupying land or premises, to the value of £5 or more, or to the wife of a man so registered.

An enormous number of women were still disenfranchised by their age or the property qualification... the campaign would continue.

1918 saw another Act passed, that of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act which allowed women to stand as candidates for election to parliament. In the the General Election of 1918 the first woman MP ever to be elected was Constance, Countess Markievicz, in a Dublin constituency. She was the sister of Esther Gore-Booth, Manchester suffragist and ardent campaigner for women's rights.

By the end of 1927, after much resistance by numerous MPs, agreement had finally been reached on equal franchise at age 21. The Bill passed into law and was enacted in 1928.

Local People of interest

* Lydia Becker (19thC Suffragist)
b.1827; d.1890. Lydia Becker, whose grandfather and family lived at Foxdenton Hall, Chadderton, had been to a lecture in Manchester and heard Barbara Bodichon read a paper on 'Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women'. Lydia knew that she had found a cause that gave new meaning and purpose to her life.
She was a founder member of the Manchester Suffrage Society in 1867
It was Lydia Becker who, looking for ways to extend the franchise to women, found a woman who had inadvertently been added to the register of electors. Lydia encouraged her to vote in the 1868 General Election. Her vote was reluctantly accepted.
Capitalising on this anomaly, Lydia encouraged as many women ratepayers as she could, to register on the 1868 electoral roll. In some towns they were accepted but in others rejected ... Manchester, where almost 4,000 women claimed their right to vote, was one that denied the women's claim. Appeals against the adverse decision were taken to the High Court and in a test case Richard Pankhurst was one of the defence barristers, arguing impressively and knowledgeably to support the women's claims.
It was, however, dismissed and one of the judges explained that, "In modern and more civilised times, out of respect for women and by way of decorum ... they are excluded from taking any part in popular assemblies, or in the election of Members of Parliament."
Battle lines appeared to have been drawn.
In 1870 Lydia Becker founded the 'Women's Suffrage Journal' which she edited until her death in 1890.
Passionate about education for girls she was elected to the first Manchester School Board using all her influence to improve the quality of their schooling and curriculum. The rest of her time was devoted to campaigning for women's suffrage and recording it in the columns of her journal..
The 'voice' of Women's Suffrage in the 19th century was the NSWS, the 'National Society for Women's Suffrage' with Lydia Becker as its Secretary.
* Dame Sarah Ann Lees (nee Buckley) (19th & 20thC Suffragist)
b. 1842; d. 1935
Sarah Ann married Charles Edward Lees, a wealthy industrialist and banker, in 1874. Their daughter Marjory was born in 1878.
Charles Edward died suddenly in 1894, leaving his wife and 2 daughters extremely wealthy women. Sarah devoted the rest of her life to continuing her husband's philanthopic work and also pursuing her own interests in Education and local politics.
Her first public roll was on the Education Committee in 1902 ... she had already created scholarships for the Grammar Schools in Oldham.
In 1907 she became the first woman coucillor elected in Oldham - representing the Hollinwood Ward.
In 1910 she became Oldham's Mayor (only the 2nd woman in England to become Mayor in her own right). Marjory became her Mayoress. Marjory never married and continued to live with her mother, at Werneth Park, sharing their beliefs and work.
One of their shared endeavours was the improvement of women's social and working lives and conditions. Both had a strong belief in Women's suffrage and in 1913 both attended the International Conference on Women's Suffrage held in Budapest.
Sarah Ann was well-known to Mrs. Fawcett (President of the NUWSS) and respected by her.
Sarah Ann was created a Dame in 1917 in recognition of her work during the First World War.

* Marjory Lees (19th & 20thC Suffragist)
b. 1878 d. 1970
She was the daughter of wealthy industrialist Charles Edward Lees and Sarah Ann Buckley. The family lived at Werneth Park, in Oldham.
Her father died in 1894. From the mid 1890s both Sarah and her mother were strongly supportive of women's rights and social reform.
Amongst her many other activities ...
From 1897 Marjory was involved with the National Council of Women; in 1900 she was involved in social work with the University Settlement in Manchester.
Around 1902 she was elected to the Board of Guardians.
In 1904 she was elected secretary of the Oldham Branch of the National Council for Women.
In 1910 her mother became Mayor of Oldham and Marjory took the role of her Mayoress.
In 1910 she was instrumental in the founding of the Oldham Women's Suffrage Society and became its President.
In 1913 she accompanied her mother to the International Conference on Women's Suffrage held in Budapest.
Along with other Suffrage Society members she took part in the 1913 NUWSS Pilgrimage.
In 1918 when the Oldham Suffrage Society was re-formed as the Oldham Women Citizens Association Marjory took an active part in its work. She helped to set up the Oldham Council of Civil Service.
* Annie Kenney (20thC suffragette)
b. 1879 d. 1953. Annie was born into a large family in Lees, Oldham.
She worked in the mill from a young age and in 1905 heard Christabel Pankhurst speak at the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club.
Along with Christabel Pankhurst she was arrested (and spent 3 days in jail) after disrupting a Liberal Party Rally at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester - at the start of the WSPU campaign of militant activities.
She was arrested and went to prison on numerous occasions.
She is remembered as the only woman from a working class background who was an intimate of the Pankhursts and influential in the WSPU.
When war broke out in 1914 she joined the Pankhursts in recruiting campaigns, travelling around the UK.
There is a Blue Plaque in remembrance at Leesbrook Mill.
There is an on-going project to erect a statue of her in Oldham.
* Emmeline Pankhurst (20thC Suffragette; nee Goulden)
b. 1858 d. 1929
Born into a middle-class family in Manchester. Her father was co-founder of a cotton-printing and bleach works. She was educated in France between the ages of 15 and 19.
She was married to a barrister, Richard Pankhurst, over 20 years senior to her (he died suddenly in 1898). Politically, he was a radical socialist and a supporter of women's suffrage amongst other causes for social reform. He frequently defended the poor and reformers in court without charge.
Emmeline was widowed in 1898
She had 3 daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adela, and 2 sons, one of whom died in infancy and the second in 1910.
A member of the ILP and friend of Keir Hardie.
Founded the WSPU in 1903 along with a number of her ILP friends.
Served time in jail for her part in suffrage violence and endured force-feeding.
Moved her political affiliation from the ILP to the Conservative Party.
In 1914 ... WSPU activities ceased and Emmeline and her followers threw their energies into campaigning for men to volunteer for the army and women to work in their places..
She has a statue near the Palace of Westminster and another planned for Manchester.
* Christabel Pankhurst (20thC Suffragette)
b. 1880 d. 1958
She was Emmeline's first child and her favourite daughter.
She studied law at the University of Manchester but, as a woman, was not allowed to have a practice.
With Annie Kenney she started the WSPU campaign of civil disobedience.
Christabel and her mother, were the driving forces behind the WSPU's organisation and agenda.
With a warrant out for her arrest in 1912 she fled to France where she remained until the amnesty in 1914, when she returned to England. She had continued to organise the WSPU through Annie Kenney, as members made frequent trips to France for instructions.
She was instrumental in ejecting her sister Sylvia, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and her husband Frederick from the WSPU in 1914.
Sylvia Pankhurst (20thC Suffragette)
b. 1882 d. 1960
She was her father's daughter in that she was faithful to the causes for reform that had motivated him.
Sylvia was educated, like her sisters, in Manchester. She studied art and in 1900 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. In 1907 she travelled through northern England and Scotland studying the working conditions of working class women and painting their portraits.
She came under pressure from her mother and sister to abandon her career and throw her energies into working for the WSPU. She used her artistic talents to design banners, posters and leaflets as well as decorating meeting halls for fund-raising events.
A radical socialist she maintained her links with her close friend, the MP Keir Hardie, and the ILP.
Sylvia's activities became centred on the East End in London and she founded the autonamous East London Federation of the WSPU after she was expelled from the WSPU in 1914. She continued throughout the war in the East-End, working desperately to alleviate the economic distress and maintain demands for suffrage.
She founded the newspaper, 'Women's Dreadnought' subsequently becoming the 'Workers' Dreadnought'.
She took an anti-war stance and supported conscientious objection.
Final rift with her mother was in 1927, when she refused to marry the father of her son, Richard.

This article based on the Oldham Historical Group's more detailed and illustrated talk,
'Votes for Women! The Campaign for Women's Suffrage from 1867 - 1928'
Part 1: 1867 - 1900 HERE                      Part 2: 1900 - 1928 HERE


NUWSS ... National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies
NSWS ... 'National Society for Women's Suffrage'
WSPU ... Women's Social and Political Union.
'Common Cause' - journal of the NUWSS ... link on the Oldham HRG website to copies.
'Votes for Women' - journal of the WSPU. ... link on the Oldham HRG website to copies.
ILP ... Independent Labour Party.

The General Election, 1918
The First Women to Stand for Parliamentary Election

Contributed by Sheila Goodyear

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