A well-attended meeting of Glendale Local History Society, which coincided with International Women’s Day, was reminded of the pioneering women of the North East, who had struggled to ensure that women can vote.
The most famous was Emily Davison, who lost her life as she protested at a race meeting in 1913. But, as Liz O’Donnell told us, Davison was only one of a long line of female activists with strong roots in the North East.
Dr O’Donnell explained how the campaign for votes for women grew out of several related campaigns, which arose early in the 19th century as the rights of every human being to equal respect and treatment were recognised.
Women were involved in anti-slavery campaigns and the Corn Law League. The issue of women’s voting rights also arose in various reform bills, which slowly extended the franchise to groups of men.
We were surprised to learn that Earl Grey’s Reform Act of 1832, which introduced votes for all men owning property, was the first to explicitly exclude women. Until then, the franchise was defined in terms of eligible ‘persons’, while the new act referred specifically to ‘male persons’.
By the 1860s a petition was presented in Parliament to include women in the franchise, the petition presented by MPs whose wives and friends were involved in the campaign.
We heard of the roles of Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Josephine Butler, the Priestman sisters, Millicent Fawcett, Norah Balls, Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell and Dr Ethel Williams, all with North East connections.
These activists mostly had middle class backgrounds, which gave them the time, education and contacts for campaigning. Several came from non-conformist backgrounds, particularly among the Quakers and Unitarians.
But they were often involved in several campaigns at once. Josephine Butler stayed largely on the margins of the movement as she was so absorbed in her work on the treatment of women alleged to be spreading sexual diseases. Emily Davies put her main efforts into creating Girton College in Cambridge and did not return to campaigning for the women’s movement until 1906.
By the 1880s, several roles in public life were being opened to women. They could vote on Poor Laws and become members of School Boards. A well-supported proposal that the parliamentary vote be extended to women householders was justified on the grounds that such women were not only taxpayers, but had special knowledge of children and would bring more variety into politics.
Newcastle City Council voted for this measure, though Gateshead did not. There was also support in some newspapers. However, Prime Minister Gladstone dropped the issue from the Third Reform Act of 1884 in order to pass a significant extension to male suffrage.
But still 40 per cent of men and no women had the vote. By this time, many women were getting impatient. While some continued to work through persuasive argument and continual pressure through legal means, others concluded that the only way forward was to become more militant.
The most visible of such groups was the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, which organised not just demonstrations, but set fire to buildings and tried to disrupt the lives of key politicians. North East women, such as Norah Balls, spent time in prison, though none demonstrated so dramatically as Emily Davison.
The flood of feeling which Davison’s funeral attracted was so large that perhaps the campaign for votes for women would have succeeded. However, the First World War both disrupted the campaign and advanced it.
So many women were involved in so many spheres of life that in 1918 votes were finally extended to women over 30, along with all men over 21. Women over 21 had to wait until 1928.
As our speaker emphasised, winning the vote was only one step in the wider struggle for greater equality for women in all spheres of life. She herself was involved in struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, and suggested that there was a new interest in promoting women’s rights, with active celebration of International Women’s Day.
Her talk reminded us just how much the struggles of earlier generations of women had brought benefits which we have enjoyed and should be grateful for.
The next meeting of the society, and the last of this session, is on April 12, in the Cheviot Centre, Wooler, when Anthony Atkinson will talk on the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes of Gibside, an ancestor of our Queen. A short AGM will follow.