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6 February 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:44pm

Let’s not forget the working class suffragettes

Popular history focuses on the more wealthy fighters for women’s rights.

By Krista Cowman

On 14 February 1907, Louisa Entwistle, a 20-year-old Blackburn weaver, stood in the dock of Westminster Police Court. She was one of almost sixty women arrested during a demonstration outside Parliament organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Louisa, who chose a week in Holloway Gaol over a ten-shilling fine, was keen to explain her actions. The Lancashire Evening Post reported that she told the magistrate she was “here to get votes for women. I am here on behalf of my companions who work in the mill and until we get votes we shall not be satisfied.”

Louisa’s demand for votes for working women was not unusual. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the WSPU in 1903 with friends from the Manchester Independent Labour Party (ILP). Its first recruits came from the northern labour and trade union movement. There was Teresa Billington, the ILP’s first female organiser, Mary Gawthorpe of Leeds Women’s Labour League and the Oldham mill girl, Annie Kenney, alongside her sisters Jessie and Nell. This close relationship fractured in 1906 when Annie Kenney was sent down to London to establish a national centre. She targeted working women in Canning Town but also made more affluent contacts such as the wealthy left-wing couple Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Their connections (and resources) widened the class base of the WSPU so much that when its Manchester secretary, Alice Milne, attended a London meeting that October her diary recorded that it was “full of fashionable ladies in rustling silks and satins”. The Union’s politics also shifted when, after refusing WSPU support for the ILP candidate at the Cockermouth by-election, Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel and other suffragettes resigned from the party. 

Popular versions of suffrage history suggest that working class women were frozen out of the Union at this point. In fact, many remained active in its provincial branches and some played a national role. The WSPU, now representing no single class or party, took every opportunity to show the public its diverse membership. The platform speakers at its huge national demonstration in Hyde Park in June 1908 were carefully chosen to reflect the breadth of Union membership. Confident, educated middle-class women shared platforms with Mrs Jeannie Baines, who, by the age of eleven was “already working for a living”; tailoress Mrs Roe who knew “the hardships of working women’s lives first hand”; and Ada Chatterton, an elderly Manchester factory worker said to be “a racy and effective speaker”. Votes for Women, the Union’s paper, noted close to twenty working class speakers on the eighteen platforms in the park.

These speakers wanted votes so that women might have more control over their working lives. And they were not alone. In 1913, suffragettes Annie Kenney and Flora Drummond persuaded the Chancellor, David Lloyd George, and the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to receive a deputation of twenty working women. Factory hands, fishwives, laundresses, weavers and pitbrow lasses descended on Whitehall to put their case for women’s suffrage. They came, said one factory worker, “for the working classes” not “as a cat’s paw for the mid­dle class”. They spoke of pitifully low pay and their belief that the vote might improve things. Alice Hawkins from Leicester told how unionised men in her shoe and boot trade could choose which men to send to Parliament to represent them, while voteless women could not. Leeds tailoress Leonora Cohen explained that voting women would have power to demand higher wages as men had done, which would stop underpaid girls from drifting onto the streets. 

Working class suffragettes could also be militant. Many attended the WSPU’s Women’s Parliaments held at Caxton Hall from 1907, which coincided with large Westminster events – the state opening of Parliament or a debate on a private member’s suffrage bill. They were also a byword for direct action. After a day of speeches and debates, suffragette delegates would leave Caxton Hall in small groups to take resolutions to Westminster. The police would be out in force and high numbers of arrests were inevitable. Over 100 women were charged after the Women’s Parliament in June 1909. Delegates were asked in advance if they were prepared to risk going to prison – many of them, including Louisa Entwistle, clearly were.

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Imprisonment for a working class woman was not an easy choice. Not only did she risk losing respectability, a vital part of working class life, but there were practical concerns too. Before the February 1908 Women’s Parliament, Annie Kenney revealed that many Lancashire delegates had baked, washed and made countless other preparations for their families in case they were given lengthy sentences. Not all of them managed. Rose Towler, a Preston tackler’s wife, left her family four weeks’ worth of baking but was so anxious for their wellbeing that the WSPU unusually agreed to pay her bail after only a fortnight in prison.

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There was no bail when militancy involved serious criminal damage, but even then working class women came forward risking heavy sentences. Votes for Women’s profiles of the participants of a 1910 mass window-smashing episode in London revealed that factory hands and shop workers had taken part alongside more affluent suffragettes. At least one WSPU arsonist, Jane Short (also imprisoned as Rachel Peace) was working class – the daughter of a labourer, who had been a shirt machinist and embroidery worker before her first arrest in 1912. 

When women finally got the vote, the stories of many working class suffragettes were quickly forgotten. Few of them had the time or contacts needed to publish autobiographies and most could not afford to travel to London for the meetings of the Suffragette Fellowship, a militant old girls’ association that tried to preserve their campaign’s history. As we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave votes to at least some British women in February 1918, we should remind ourselves of the sacrifices made by many ordinary and anonymous women, who risked their livelihoods and reputations alongside their more affluent companions in the fight for equality and citizenship. 

Krista Cowman is Director of Research at the College of Arts at the University of Lincoln.