With the release of Suffragette this month, Chris Nickson is timely in reminding us of some of the Leeds women who also took part in the fight for women’s votes and emancipation. Trail blazers in their own right.
In looking at the history of Leeds, it can be all too easy to simply see the male figures. There are far more of them in the history books after all, while for generations the work of women went largely unremarked and unreported. But women made changes across the West Riding. Not just Isabella Ford, who became in her quiet way, a vital political figure. There’s Leonora Cohen (who’s remembered with a display at Leeds City Museum), a suffragette who fought for the vote, was arrested twice and then, in the middle of the 1920s, awarded the OBE.
Or what about Mary Gawthorpe? She grew up in poverty in Woodhouse but managed to become first a pupil-teacher, then a teacher, becoming active in the Suffragist movement early in the 20th century, then in the greater issue of female emancipation. She was arrested on a number of occasions. In poor health, due in part to the prison conditions she endured, she emigrated to America in 1915, before women in this country received the vote.
Alice Scatcherd came from a slightly earlier generation of activists. The wife of a factory owner in Morley, she wore her politics naturally, right down to not wearing a wedding ring. She was active locally, involved in many causes, and nationally, giving the address to the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. But her history of involvement with women’s suffrage dated back much further: in 1873 she was the secretary of the Yorkshire Society for Women’s Suffrage.
There’s Catherine Buckton, the first woman elected to the Leeds School Board, in 1873, just three years after women were allowed to stand. By that time she was already secretary of the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society, which had been founded two years earlier.
Bertha Quinn was one of the suffragettes arrested in 1908 at a demonstration when Prime Minister Asquith came to address a meeting in Leeds. She was involved with the Tailor and Garment Workers’ Union and a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union. During the General Strike of 1926 she was a member of the Leeds Council of Action, and eventually became a Labour councillor, although she was expelled from the party for awhile.
And finally, how about Alice Bacon, the first woman MP elected for Leeds in 1945? She grew up in Normanton, the daughter of a miner and became a teacher before being elected for Labour. She became chair of the Labour party and a member of the Cabinet before retiring in 1970, eventually taking the title Baroness Bacon of the City of Leeds and of Normanton.
Several generations, battling for the vote and beyond it for the rights of women. Of course the work isn’t done yet, sadly. It may not even be much easier. But these, among many, many others, most lost to history, helped blaze a trail.
Chris Nickson’s new book, Skin Like Silver, is published at the end of November. It’s the third in his Tom Harper series, set in Leeds in the 1890s, and is set against the backdrop of the early Suffragist movement.
Chris will be speaking this Monday, 6pm at Oakwood Library as part of the Roundhay and Oakwood Festival with a special preview of Skin Like Silver.
The book launch will be held December 3, 6.30 pm, at the Leeds Library on Commercial St. This is a free event and all are welcome but please contact the library first to reserve a seat as places are limited.