Beyond the Pankhursts

Issue: 112

Judy Cox

A review of Jill Liddington, Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote (Virago Press, 2006), £14.99

The front cover of this book shows a picture of a furious 16 year old Dora Thewlis being arrested by two huge policemen after an attempt to storm parliament in 1907. It is strongly reminiscent of the pictures of young women school students being arrested while protesting in Parliament Square on the day the Iraq war was launched in 2003. This spirit of youthful protest runs throughout this fascinating story of previously unsung women activists.

Most histories of the women’s suffrage movement have concentrated on the hugely influential and charismatic Pankhurst family. In so doing, they have also focused on suffrage activity in the capital, a perspective which was pioneered by Sylvia Pankhurst herself in her 1931 book A History of the Suffrage Movement. Jill Liddington has challenged this view by bringing to light the enormous number of working women who made the women’s suffrage movement one of the most geographically penetrating and socially diverse political movements in history.

In 1978 Jill Liddington and Jill Norris published One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, which rapidly became a classic of women’s history. Rather than focusing on the glamorous and daring suffragettes, the authors researched the activity of the working class women suffragists of the Lancashire coalfields. These were women like Selina Cooper, who drew their confidence and experience from their work as trade union activists and labour organisers. Unlike Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and their Women’s Social and Political Union, they refused to break from the labour movement. They were alienated by the window smashing and firebombing of their London sisters and instead they developed the tactics of the mass movement, travelling from town to town collecting signatures on monster petitions, organising caravanning tours that took the suffrage message across the region.

In Rebel Girls Liddington adds a new dimension to the story of the women’s suffrage campaign. Using new research techniques, Liddington has unearthed the amazing stories of mainly young women from the Yorkshire area, who showed tremendous courage and verve in defying the conventions of their communities and hurling themselves at the Liberal government which denied them the vote.

These were the women who, like Mary Gawthorpe, gave up their jobs in the mills to be full time suffrage organisers. They built meetings, harassed Liberal politicians, sold newspapers, and organised demonstrations and election campaigns. They volunteered to be arrested on protests in London, braving harsh treatment as well as ridicule and abuse. Some, like Isabella Ford, spent months during 1908 and 1909 enduring hard conditions visiting the most isolated villages in Yorkshire in caravans from which they distributed leaflets and held meetings.

Old photographs show suffrage meetings in the fishing port of Whitby and the tiny village of Goatland. Newly discovered minutes of a local suffrage organisation in Huddersfield for 1907 provide an intimate portrait of the initiatives, frustrations and triumphs of working class women suffragists during a dramatic era of political activism. Other chapters in the book focus more on the local roots which fed into the national militancy and a genuine mass movement that engaged hundreds and thousands of working class women.

This book tells some thrilling stories. It explores the relationships between class and women’s struggles, between individual heroism and the patient building of mass movements, between propaganda and agitation. It is brilliant in its own terms and full of relevance for the campaigns of today.