Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Early women's rights campaigners in Leek 1872

I saw “Lincoln” at the Foxlowe some weeks ago. The film describes the struggles the American President had in getting through the House of Representatives legislation granting civil rights for slaves in the last days of the Civil War. In one incident a speaker argues against the proposition that Negroes should have the vote and mockingly describes an even more absurd suggestion that women should qualify for the franchise. The debating chamber erupts in derisive laughter.

That was in 1865, but only 7 years later the notion that women should exercise their democratic rights was earnestly debated in Leek. In October 1872 at the Temperance Hall, the site of which is occupied by the College, the following motion was passed without dissent at a well attended meeting.

“ That the exclusion of women from voting in the election of Members of Parliament is contrary to the principles of just representation”

Two formidable women addressed the meeting- Lydia Becker and Elizabeth Wolstenholme. These Manchester women can with some justification be described as some of the earliest exponents of women’s rights in the Victorian era. They set the path that was followed by others into the early 20th century.

Lydia Becker was the granddaughter of German immigrants. A scientist by training, Becker in 1868 moved the resolution that women should be granted voting rights on the same terms as men at the first public meeting of the National Society for Women's Suffrage in Manchester. In June 1869, Becker and others were successful in securing the vote for women in council elections. The following year women gained the right to vote and stand for election in the School Boards in England and Wales. She successfully stood for and was elected to the Manchester School Board.

In 1870 Becker founded the Women's Suffrage Journal. Soon afterwards, she began organising speaking tours– a rarity in Britain at the time. At an 1874 speaking event in Manchester organised by Becker, fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst attended her first public meeting in the name of women's suffrage.

 Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was one of the most significant pioneers of the British women's emancipation movement; though she is now overlooked. She was central to every campaign Victorian feminists conducted.

A strong advocate of human rights, as the secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights she earned the nickname of the parliamentary watch-dog from Members of Parliament anxious to escape her persistent lobbying.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who was pregnant at the time, married a poet from Congleton named Elmy at Kensington Register Office in October 1874. The wedding was a civil ceremony and true to her principles, Elizabeth refused to make a promise of obedience to her husband and to wear a wedding ring or to give up her surname.

She supported the rights of the disenfranchised to exert force in pursuit of the vote and Emmeline Pankhurst lauded her as first among the most determined of suffragettes.

Where Becker and Wolstenholme led , the Pankhurst's, Emily Davison and Leek's own Harriet Kidd followed. Poignantly, Elizabeth Wolstenholme died only days after women over 30 obtained the vote in 1918.