The Leeds Women Who Changed Your Lives by Chris Nickson

Chris Nickson celebrates the Victorian Leeds women who led the way for female suffrage. The Vote Before The Vote is a new exhibition opening on 3 May at the Central Library, Leeds. 

Next month, at Room 700 in Leeds Central Library, an exhibition called The Vote Before The Vote looks at the Victorian Leeds women who fought for equality, the Suffragists who laid the foundations for the Suffragettes. It examines what they did, and the successes they had. And they had a profound impact on all our lives.

Take Mary Smith, for instance. She lived in Stanmore, Yorkshire, which was probably the name of her house just off Cottage Road in Headingley. In 1832, just after the Great Reform Bill, she became the first woman to petition Parliament to extend the franchise to “every unmarried female, possessing the necessary pecuniary qualification.” It was laughed out of the House of Commons, a sign of the contempt for women by the men in power. But it was the start, the seed.

Then there’s Constance Holland, born in New Wortley, who opened in school in Woodhouse with her sister, and in 1868 helped gather the signatures for the first petition for women’s votes specifically from Leeds. Think about that for a moment: a petition specifically from Leeds (we don’t know any details – Parliament doesn’t keep petitions). She became one of the first members of the Leeds branch of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, setting up meetings in each electoral ward for women, quite deliberately involving the working classes. and Constance also helped organise protests against the Factory Acts that limited the ability of women to work.

Mrs Catherine Buckton Mrs. Catherine Buckton was another early member of the Suffrage Society, and in 1873 became the first woman to hold elected office in Leeds when she was voted on to the School Board. By then she was already nationally-renowned as a lecturer, and as a board member gave voluntary lessons to girls in cooking, going on to devise the Domestic Science syllabus, as well as arranging teacher training.

Louisa Carbutt, who was also involved with the Suffrage Society from an early date, was another popular speaker who arranged lectures and examinations for women teachers, as well as loaning candidates money for the exams and helping them find jobs. In 1883 she became a Poor Law Guardian. The first task the male Guardians set her was to try on 40 different overcoats to see which would be the most suitable for girls. Really!

Alice Cliff Scatcherd was born into wealth, and was notorious for refusing to have the word “obey” in her wedding vows or wear a wedding ring. But her activism was more than words. In 1872 she joined the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society and became active in meetings, as well as canvassing and political education. Three years later she was helping to set up the Women’s Trade Union League in Yorkshire, and assisting a six-week strike by female power loom weavers. She launched a campaign in the Isle of Man that helped give women the equivalent of a Parliamentary franchise there in 1881, and remained active in the Liberal Party, as well as the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Women’s Franchise Guild, which helped extend the local government franchise in 1894.

Isabella Ford came from a politically involved Quaker family, and became involved with the Leeds Socialist League, helping to set up the Leeds Tailoresses’ Union, becoming its president and leading them during the strike of 1889. She was one of the founders of the second incarnation of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society, a Parish Councillor in Adel, and one of the founder members of the Independent Labour Party in 1893. She remained a political force for her entire life, campaigning for women textile works. In addition, her Quaker beliefs made her an ardent peace campaigner during both the Boer War and for First World War.

Mary Gawthorpe grew up in Meanwood, the daughter of a factory foreman. A bright child, she won a scholarship to secondary school, but couldn’t afford the fees. Instead, she became a pupil-teacher, instructing younger children during the day before receiving her own lessons in the evening. She finally qualified as a teacher when she was 21, when she moved to Hunslet, taking her mother and younger brother to leave her abusive father.
Gawthorpe joined the Labour Party and the Suffrage Society, becoming noted as a powerful, quick-witted speaker. In 1905, Gawthorpe joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, a woman who straddled both the eras of both the Suffragists and the Suffragettes, in 1905. Four years later, after merely heckling Winston Churchill at a meeting, she was badly beaten. Six months later, she was beaten again, and a judge dismissed the charges she brought against her attackers. Her injuries were so bad she was forced to resign from the WSPU. In 1916 she emigrated to the US, and died there in 1973.

The sad part is that even in Leeds, most people don’t even know these women existed, let alone what they achieved. They’re not taught in schools. They should be. But The Vote Before The Vote exhibition, curated by historian Vine Pemberton Joss, offers the chance to learn more about them and the work they did during the 19th century, as well as displays of artefacts and background materials, along with workshops that give greater depth. It’s free, open to all, and runs from May 3-30 in Room 700 at Leeds Central Library. Maybe you should go. 

Chris’ latest book, The Tin God will be launched at a free event at 1pm on 5 May at Leeds Central Library as part of The Vote Before The Vote exhibition in Room 700, Central Library, Leeds. This is a free event, all welcome and no booking is required.

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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