With the amount of recognition, promotion and publicity today’s feminist movement receives worldwide, it is important to reflect that the gruelling fight for female suffrage took place not so long ago. Whilst we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality, the progress made since the suffragette movement of the nineteenth and twentieth century is a remarkable feat that is worthy of recognition.
Women in Great Britain received the right to vote only a mere 104 years ago on the 6th February 1918. Although the Representation of the People Act passed in 1918 only secured the vote for women over the age of thirty, who also held a sufficient property qualification, the act was a momentous and glorious victory for women across the country. Women had been treated as subordinate to men for centuries, and the act marked the beginning of a long line of developments for women and their fight for equality.
Many would assume that London, the capital of the modern British Empire, was the forefront of political and social change, however, many of the famous and outstanding characters of this history came from elsewhere, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, a proud Mancunian, who is commemorated through a statue in St. Peter’s Square. The suffragette movement, once nationalised, came to a head in London; however, the industrial city of Manchester played a crucial role in its beginning.
Emmeline Pankhurst was born into a politically active family in Moss Side, Manchester and introduced to the female suffrage movement at the age of fourteen. In 1903, she became the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Together with its bold motto “deeds not words” and army of militant, fearless activists, Pankhurst and the WSPU became a force to be reckoned with, drawing public attention to their cause and threatening the male ascendancy in government.
Unbeknownst to many, Emmeline Pankhurst was not the only bold, and influential female suffrage activist to come from Manchester. The name Lydia Becker is not one that is as well-known as the Pankhurst’s family, yet her contributions to the suffrage movement were undeniably invaluable. Lydia Becker is credited with involvement in the suffrage movement from its very beginnings – establishing the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1886. This was the first of its kind throughout England, placing Manchester at the forefront of societal change. The fight for women’s suffrage was just starting and the concept of women moving into the male domain was still an absurd idea to most of the population – even women. This makes Lydia Becker stand out as one of the most significant activists of the time and a pioneer of the suffrage movement, defying what were then completely concrete and inviolable social constructs. She risked becoming an outcast to society and losing everything to her name. Ridiculed and bullied by many men and often crudely caricatured for her views and appearance, Becker continued to campaign for female suffrage, even extending her fight to the promotion of the idea that men and women were intellectually even. She is also thought to have been an inspiration to a young Emmeline Pankhurst, who hinted that without her, the movement may never have had the impact or results that it did.
Lydia Becker was also the secretary of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1867, however, this was a post previously held by Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, another name with an extraordinary legacy that deserves a great deal more recognition.
Wolstenholme-Elmy was a furiously active political persona throughout her life, particularly involving herself in the campaign against the discriminatory and unjust Contagious Diseases Acts and successfully bringing about their repeal in 1886. She took part in the formation of the WSPU alongside Pankhurst and was described by Pankhurst herself as “the brains behind the suffragette movement”. Wolstenholme-Elmy’s participation in the movement did not concentrate on solely women’s suffrage, but women’s rights as a whole, expressing considerable interest and leading several campaigns addressing women’s education, property rights and protection against domestic violence. A selection of the acts she was instrumental in procuring include the 1869 Endowed Schools Act and the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act. In 1871, she became the first ever paid employee of the women’s suffrage movement.
The industrial city of Manchester is endowed with the privilege of being the home of such exceptional and historically monumental personalities such as Emmeline, Lydia and Elizabeth: only three out of a long list of contributors to the women’s suffrage movement to come from Manchester. The city saw the first women’s enfranchisement committee in the country established, alongside the rapid evolution of the suffragette movement into a militant operation, headed by strong-minded and fearless Mancunians. The city of Manchester’s role is forever ingrained in its architecture, with plenty of spots around the city to remind you of the movement’s roots. Emmeline Pankhurst’s family home is located near Oxford Road and the People’s History Museum containing a suffragette banner claiming Manchester to be “First in the Fight” for women’s suffrage, which was first used in protest in 1908 in Stevenson Square.
Whether you’ve lived in Manchester all your life, whether you’re a student studying at the university or whether you’re just on a weekend trip, Manchester’s rich history and influence in founding the suffragette movement is something for all to take pride in.