Rothbury, History Society

Rothbury riverside
Rothbury riverside

The lecture this month was delivered by Dr Liz O’Donnell, who described the battle women faced to win the right to vote and informed the meeting of a number of local women who were instrumental in bringing about reform.

An article in the press circulated at the time was entitled “Women that want to Crow”, and stated that women should leave management of affairs to men.

The campaign for female suffrage began in earnest in the mid 19th century, although women had been actively involved prior to that time, distributing leaflets and raising awareness of social issues, such as slavery and the effects of the Corn Laws, which kept prices and profits high.

Suffragist groups existed throughout the country, fighting for women’s rights through peaceful means, seeking political and social justice.

At that time women had no legal rights of property or their own children.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a suffragist who believed in non-violent protest, but was a tireless campaigner to improve opportunities for women’s education.

Constitutionalists had wanted to pursue peaceful change, and there were 50,000 moderate female supporters, but divisions developed within the movement.

As Parliament defeated consecutive suffrage bills, some of the women who became suffragettes were increasingly militant and resorted to a policy of violence against property, burning down buildings and breaking windows in protest.

Emily Pankhurst “shaped an idea of women for our time; she shook society into a new pattern from which there could be no going back”. She established the Women’s Party, dedicated to promoting women in public life. Members wore the colours of white, green and purple, their banners bearing the words, “Deeds not words”. The colours became a nationally recognised symbol.

Emily Wilding Davison is perhaps the most famous suffragette, but there were many more who made significant changes to the role and opportunities for women.

Emily Davies, born in Gateshead, presented a petition to Parliament pressing for women’s voting rights, and founded Girton College, Cambridge, the first college to educate women.

With her presenting that petition was Elizabeth Garrett, who became the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and created a medical school for women.

The petition was unsuccessful, but their efforts continued. Emily Davis went on to set up a society in Gateshead as the first women’s employment exchange.

Another campaigner was Josephine Butler, who in later life lived near Wooler. She campaigned for the rights of women for a better education, and was committed to unite women through gender, rather than class, encouraging others to support her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, which had been introduced to protect men based in garrisons or ports. Women were forcibly removed until free of infection and venereal disease.

She was married to a clergyman who shared her beliefs and was involved in the welfare of prostitutes. Angry men attended her speeches and demonstrations to protest.

Three Priestman sisters who were Quakers, were also very active and influential. As Quakers, they were used to equality within their organisation, and this experience guided their involvement and radical attitude. They were active in anti-slavery campaigns and exposing social injustices. They lived in Newcastle, where their father was a wealthy tanner.

Another example was Elizabeth Spencer Watson, who was married to a prominent Tyneside Quaker. They were in the Liberal party and supported educational reform and temperance.

Dr Ethel Williams was the first woman GP in Newcastle and specialised in women’s health and local issues. She refused to pay taxes as she had no political rights. Her goods were seized and auctioned and she vigorously protested the injustice at the sale.

The suffragettes used non-payment of taxes as pressure to encourage change, and they adopted the slogan “No payment without representation”.

Various marches were organised, culminating in a march from Edinburgh to London, gathering signatures for their petition for women’s votes as they walked. More joined the march as they approached London.

Emily Wilding Davison was the first suffragette martyr. She was a major supporter and influential figure and dedicated her life to the struggle. She was imprisoned, went on hunger strikes and was force fed. In between these events she returned to her mother’s home in Longhorsley to recover.

There is still controversy about her death as to whether she died by accident or intention when she attempted to pin a banner to a racehorse as it passed. There were two funerals, one in London and the second one in Morpeth, where 20,000 people lined the road from the station to St Mary’s Church where she is buried.

The First World War united the suffragettes, who suspended fighting for their cause to focus on the war effort, often filling jobs left empty by the men on the battlefields.

In 1918, Emily Davis was the only original suffragette who survived long enough to cast her vote when at last an Act was passed allowing women who had property and were over 30 to do so. She was 88.

It took until 1928 before women under 30 could also vote. The same year another Act was passed allowing women to be elected to the House of Commons.

The informative lecture was greatly enjoyed by an appreciative audience.

The next meeting is on Friday, December 15, at 7.30pm, in the Jubilee Hall, Rothbury, when the speaker will be Elizabeth Finch, whose topic is Wallington And Its Residents. Our traditional Christmas wine and cake will be provided, as well as our usual refreshments. Members and visitors are most welcome.