Women of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder – Val

Published: 29th April 2017

This blog is about women who have inspired me.  The difficulty is where to start, actually who to start with, there as so many women who have influenced my life, my thinking and my motivations.

I’ve started with Boudicca, or Boadicea as we called her when I was young, not because I think she was particularly clever, she got all of her army killed by the better equipped and better organised Romans.  However, I still place her there because she had passion, she had belief in her cause, she wanted revenge for her daughter’s abuses as well as her own.  She wanted to show the world a woman could lead an army loyal to her, she would defend herself, defend her family and her country: pity she failed.  But, since she is a symbol of ‘Britishness’ and we still talk about her and her bravery, is that in itself a success?  I think it probably is.

Moving forward a little we have to mention Queen Elizabeth the First, she was a fairly young woman when she took the crown.  Poor Elizabeth was pressured to marry Philip of Spain, but she was having none of that. I can’t believe she died a Virgin, she seemed to have a passionate nature, but who knows, there are plenty of rumours, good for her if she got up to anything she shouldn’t have and enjoyed it.   As a friend of mine would say, “I don’t think she died wondering”.

Her rule was fraught with religious persecution and war but she kept her enemies at bay.  Apart from courtiers, and plenty of them tried to oust her, there were the French, Spanish and anyone else who might invade.  She managed to inflame the courage of her troops with her speeches and example.  ‘I might have the body of a weak and feeble woman but I have the heart and stomach of a king’, seems to have got to them.  Clever psychology.

She may have been hard hearted at times, she might have been insensitive and scheming but considering her childhood  she should have had years of therapy just to function.  Elizabeth did end up lasting quite a long time and died of ‘natural-ish’ causes: her lead makeup didn’t do her any good.

Then we come to the common woman, the women of substance, the women of real courage without the backup of courtiers, soldiers or, in some cases, money.

The Saxon women were obviously strong and independent, we have evidence they held offices in their parliaments.  In fact women held high office and advisory posts in Government from Saxon times until the Stuarts took over.  I wonder how Nicola Sturgeon would view King James VI of Scotland, or 1st of England, not with favour I imagine.

Another interesting story involves two servant girls. In 1417, almost six hundred years ago, we have two young women who felt they must protest against a strange inequality.  You may know of St Cuthbert, a nice enough old guy who lived most of his life on Lindisfarne and the surrounding islands, in the company of men, him being a monk, bishop and hermit.  After his death poor Cuthbert’s bones were dug up when fears that the Vikings could sack Lindisfarne, he was carried from church to church until they finally found a resting place in Durham Cathedral.

We have two versions of the next bit.

It’s said Cuthbert didn’t like women which seems a bit strange since he was known to be kind to the poor and healed the sick – presumably not all men.  However, we know Cuthbert was visiting the Priory at Coldingham, in Northumberland,  which was a dual monastery housing both monks and nuns.  A lot of these young people would have been given to the church or sent there by their aristocratic families to settle them down.  They did have drink and feasts, so it did get a bit rowdy.  The nuns, later were known as The Naughty Nuns of Coldingham – I think that says it all, they were accused of – now are you ready for this – sewing and embroidering beautiful gowns to wear.  I’d like to know why the monks weren’t given the name of The Monstrous Monks of Coldingham, or something like that, but that’s par for the course.  Both monks and nuns were known to be ‘lax and worldly’, well that’s one way of putting it and the discipline was not up to scratch.  Cuthbert  was sent to the priory to take a look and see what he could do.  He took to going and standing in the sea to stop ‘his more immodest thoughts’ or as we know it now ‘have a cold shower’.  So maybe this left him with a weird view of women, who knows?  He was known to shun the company of women for the rest of his life.

The second version is that the church as a whole didn’t like women very much.  You choose.

Back to Cuthbert’s tomb, it was built in Durham Cathedral, a black line was drawn at the very west end of the nave of the church.  Women were not allowed to cross that line as it was felt that Cuthbert would be offended by their presence.

The servant girls named, Matilda Burgh and Margaret Usher, dressed in men’s clothing went to the Cathedral and touched the tomb.  They were found out and their penance was to dress in the same clothes on six holy days a year, they were paraded in front of the public in St Nicholas  and All Saints Churches as wicked, wanton girls.  Well if that didn’t put other girls off wearing trousers and touching stones I’m now sure what would.  Dear dear!

One of the Women I think is overlooked in feminism is Jane Austen.  She is not recognised for her wit and wisdom, but they are there.  One of my favourite lines in literature is when Jane Bennett asks Elizabeth Bennett of Mr Darcy

‘Will you tell me how long you have loved him’?

And Elizabeth’s answer tells us all we need to know about how Jane Austen saw her contemporaries and the society in which she lived.

‘It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began.  But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’  Well to be honest for me it when I saw him coming out of that lake dripping wet, but I digress.

She is classic in more ways than one.

Jane was scathing in her condemnation of the hunt for a husband and how women must be demure and patiently await their fate.  She also rails against the unfairness and inequality of inheritance, children’s’ care after a marriage breaks down and a woman’s total dependency on the good will of her husband.

Then of course there are the well known heroines like Grace Darling, who today would be on the Olympic rowing team and if the evidence of her previous performances are anything to go by, she would probably have a Gold Medal by now.  Her bravery in helping to save 7 lives was celebrated throughout the nation and she received gifts, honours and attention.  However, she was uncomfortable with all of that fame and fortune, she lived on Longstone all of her life, coming to the mainland to try to gain her health, just before her death from tuberculosis aged just 26.

The Duke of Northumberland decided to look after her affairs for her, since a poor woman and working man would not be capable of handling such large sums.  Perhaps that’s unkind, but would he have bothered with the family if they were still poor?

Another national heroine is Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp and founder of modern nursing.  Florence became a suffragist later and worked tirelessly to give women a more equal role in society generally, but in medicine in particular.

However, let us start to look at the real activists, the Suffragists and the Suffragettes.  The difference between them is not well known and the Suffragettes, although only a fraction in numbers, got most of the publicity because of their actions and there is the difference.  Suffragists worked relentlessly to the gain the vote, they did so within the confines of the law.  Mainly they were pacifists, conventional in their actions and beliefs, some admired their Suffragette sisters until the violence became too much.  The Suffragettes were passionate, fierce and determined, using any action available to them; window breaking, setting fire to post boxes and property, throwing stones and chaining themselves to railings.  The Suffragettes were imprisoned, force fed, ostracised by their peers and family, and a thorn in the Governments side.

First let me start with Elizabeth Lilburne.  Elizabeth was born in London in 1614, she met and married John Lilburne aka Freeborn John, in Sunderland in 1641  John was a radical of his time, he preached equality for all and religious tolerance, he was imprisoned for printing illegal pamphlets without royal consent, he was flogged and whipped for speaking out against the courts.  He actually spent more of his adult life in prison than out of it.

There is a rumour that a mystery lady visited John in prison before he was married, we believe this to be Elizabeth.  She is thought to have smuggled out his pamphlets, how brave if caught she could expect no leniency.  Elizabeth was one of the Leveller women. The Levellers believe in equality for all in all areas of life, not just women.

John was an officer in Cromwell’s army, he was decorated and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.  He was captured and imprisoned in the Royalist Stronghold of Oxford Castle.  When Elizabeth got word that he was due to be executed she took it into her own hands to save him.  John managed to smuggle a letter out of Oxford and get it to London, Elizabeth then managed to meet with Cromwell and hand over the letter, in which John proposed that Parliament take action to have him freed.  They agreed and immediately issued a Lex Talionis, a legal document threatening severe retaliation if Colonel Lilburne was harmed. It had to reach Oxford Castle before his execution.  She rode to Oxford through enemy lines on horseback, in the winter, while pregnant to present that document in person.  She did this and saved John’s life, he was later exchanged by the Royalists for prisoners held by parliamentarians.

When four men were imprisoned for disagreeing with parliament, including John, Elizabeth with Katherine Chidley and a group of women marched on parliament,.  Some reports suggest as many as 2000 women marched, they were named The Bonny Besses in Sea Green Dresses, because either they wore sea green dress material or ribbons as a sign of their solidarity and sisterhood.  They presented the first women’s petition to parliament with over 10,000 signatures in 1649.  They simply pleaded the men’s case asking for their men to be released to be able to care for their families. There petition was ignored.

The following month Elizabeth produced another petition: telling the parliament ‘that since we are all made in the image of god then all should share in freedom and equality.  They asked why the men found them so despicable and unworthy as ‘hey had ‘equal interest in liberty, security and the law of the land.’  They again demanded that the four men be released but they also wanted equality for women in property ownership, upbringing of children and equal pay.   The women were told to go home and mend their socks and do the dishes.

As you can imagine the girls were not happy.

Elizabeth gave birth to two of their ten children in prison.  Women of her social status would not normally be imprisoned but sent home to their husbands to be chastened, however since her husband was in prison with her this was not an option.  She stayed a faithful supporter of John and his cause until his death at 42 when she retired with her three surviving children to their lands in Durham.

Once again John had left her a struggle, she had to negotiate not only a land dispute with John’s neighbours but also try to have John’s pension from Oliver Cromwell reinstated, both of which she did.

Elizabeth was a proto Suffragist, demanding equality, working alongside of other women, making speeches under the eye of the administration, trying to empower women to join their cause.  We don’t know when she was born, we would not know anything about her if she had not married John.  However Elizabeth’s strength and unwavering faith in the power of the people has unfairly been overlooked by historians, and the classroom.

During the next century Mary Wollstonecraft  published her book The Vindication of the Rights Woman – in the book she does suggest women are inferior to men, but that was her social conditioning.  Her plea began with equal education for girls, she stated this would allow them to be better companions to their husbands, they could have intellectual conversation, discuss politics and not be simpering ninnies, that actually was not Mary’s words but I feel it’s what she meant.  As a governess Mary was appalled by the girls lack of education, life style and uselessness.  She later wanted women to be able to express their need for, not just an education, but ‘equality in legal and political roles, sex, affection and esteem’.

Her life was complicated, as they say now when a woman has a relationship outside of the norm.  However, the fact that her second child was Mary Shelley should be no surprise.  Mary lived with Percy Bysshe Shelley while his first wife lived, they were married in 1816.  Mary in a contest with her husband and Lord Byron amongst others was challenged to write a ghost story, she came up with Frankenstein and with Shelley’s encouragement she expanded the tale into her first, and most famous novel.

It should be mentioned Mary Woolstonecraft published a political pamphlet, the Vindication of the Rights Man, in which she writes of social change to give everyone equal rights.

Moving on.

We must mention Mary Smith a Yorkshire woman who thought it vastly unfair that she paid her taxes and was

subject to the law but did not have the right to vote for those setting those taxes or making those laws.   Mary sent the first petition to Parliament asking for votes for women, albeit single women with property.  It was presented by Henry Hunt MP in August 1832, the same year the Great Reform Act expanded the electorate, but to ‘male persons’ only.  The petition was cruelly laughed out of parliament.

Interestingly the Great Reform Act of 1832 was the first document to state that male persons only could vote.  Technically until that time women had the vote on the same basis as men, they just didn’t know or didn’t use it because it would cause such controversy.

Emily Davies is another woman of interest, she was born in Gateshead in 1830, the daughter of a Vicar, Emily was educated at home while her three brother were sent to boarding school.  Her close relationship with her brother, who had success at Cambridge University made her realised that she had been denied the opportunity of an academic education.

There’s a theme here of women being denied a good education.

A friend of Elizabeth Garret , Emily watched her friend’s attempts to become a  doctor fail purely because of her gender.  Emily decided to spend the rest of her life helping young women obtain the opportunities she was denied.  Her dedication became more intense, her first campaign was to persuade the authorities to allow women to become students at London University.  She also became involved in campaign to secure admission to Oxford and Cambridge examinations.  She was one of the founders of Girton College, Cambridge, as a college for women in 1869.  Cambridge University did not give equal status to female entrants until 1940 when they granted the first degrees.  Oxford awarded degrees to women from 1920 but it was not until 1959 that the five colleges for women were given full college status by the university.

Emily joined with her friends to form a woman’s discussion group called the Kensington Society, which was much more than a knit and natter group. The following year the group formed the London Suffrage Committee and began organizing a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.  Although always opposed to the activities of Suffragettes, she went on to join the NUWSS but resigned in 1912 when the organisation gave full support to the Labour Party.  God forbid they should want votes for all, there were limits!

Many women were involved in constitutional lobbying and letter writing.  Someone we have just heard of in passing but others left a larger mark.  Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a great social reformer and pacifist, tried to obtain equal rights for mothers and wives, help Indian sex workers, help workers to gain equal conditions and pay,  as well as reporting on conditions in the British run concentration camps in South Africa.  But her biggest role was in heading the Suffragist lobby for the vote.  Millicent at first admired the Suffragettes actions and passion, when it was banners, marching and demanding access to MPs, but distanced herself and the NUWSS when the action became violent and aggressive.

Can I just mention the Indian sex workers.  Some of these women had been Nannies to the colonial families in India, on their return home they cared for and looked after the children on the passage.  On docking in London they were dismissed with no thought of how they would return home.  The passages were seasonal and expensive so the women where left destitute in a foreign country with no resources, for some prostitution was the only way to survive.  Refugees eh, what can you do with them?

Rant over – onto Emmeline Pankhurst.  Emmeline head of an organisation willing to take risks, to be seen as aggressive in their demand for votes.  Emmeline had been told men used certain tactics to gain what they wanted but women would never get what they wanted as they were unwilling to carry out the actions.  Wrong, but as men were seen to be passionate women were seen as fanatical, hysterical and lunatic.

There was little diversity in the senior officers of the Women’s Social and Political Union.  Like most political movements such as the Bolsheviks and the Labour Party it was led by the middle classes with a membership of working classes.  Annie Kenney was the only working class member of the WSPU leadership.

Emmeline surrounded herself with women and men who were willing to follow her lead without question.  Christabel Pankhurst who studied and passed law at degree level was unable to practice her profession, however she was a natural organiser and together with her mother planned a large number of events and actions throughout the struggle.   She also represented herself and others in court cases relating to their activities.  They planned raids on parliament, they planned speeches and rallies with military precision, some attracting crowds of 50,000 men, women and children.  Some of the supporters, without the leadership knowledge, or so they said, started the window smashing campaign, sometimes coordinating the actions to hit several areas at once, stretching the police resources to their limits.

The arson attacks began small scale with post boxes, but escalated to houses and churches.  This brought both good and bad publicity as it scared off some of the women who would be part of the Union, or they left to join the more peaceful NUWSS.  Emmeline ruled with an iron fist supported by her daughters.  Since she took full responsibility for everything done in the name of the WSPU she spent a large amount of time in prison being force fed with the others.  Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst broke away from their mother and sister in 1910 worried about the increased violent of the WSPU.  Adela was sent to Australia while Sylvia continued to live in the East End and fought for equal opportunities for all including Votes for All.

Sylvia became a member of the socialist Labour Party, striking up a close relationship with Keir Hardy, she then joined the Communist Party.  Later Sylvia lived in Ethiopia,as an advisor to Haile Selassie’.  On her death she was buried with full honours in Ethiopia, usually reserved for heroes; a great tribute to her work there.

But the ones who interest me the most are northern women, working women and women from ethnic minorities, most of whom seem to have been overlooked by the story tellers, the film makers and the documentary makers, but most of all by the history teachers, not their fault they have to follow the curriculum set by the government.

Let us look at these in order

Northern Women – Norah Balls, Connie Lewcock, Bella Faulkner, Ester Harrison, Emma Lewes, Lizzie Crow, Laura Ainsworth, Kathleen Brown and the wonderful Mona Taylor.  Have you heard of any of these ladies.  I hadn’t until our research got underway.  There are a Connie Lewcock Care Home and Connie Lewcock Resource Centre in Newcastle, Mona Taylor Maternity Hospital, but no Davison House or Home, no Norah Balls Memorial Hall.  A blue placque has recently been placed in Newcastle to honour Kathleen Brown an active local Suffragette.

Of course, our heroine is Emily Wilding Davison, the accidental matyr?   I won’t go into her story too much as she is well known, Emily is technically not from the North East, although her family is.  Emily was born in Blackheath, London on 11 October 1872, she was well educated in Royal Holloway College in 1891 but her studies were cut short when her father died and her mother could not afford the fees of £20 per term.  To put it into context a washer woman earned £15 per year.  She became a Governess but she did not give up, she studied part time in her own time and  later enrolled at St Hugh’s College, Oxford for one term gaining a first class pass but of course she could not be given a degree.   She went on to be a teacher which did not suit her and she returned to working as a Governess.  In 1906 Emily joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and was one of their most militant members.  She was imprisoned nine times and force fed forty-nine times which would make weaker women think twice about continuing, but this only hardened Emily’s resolve to win the Vote.  Her death at Epsom, while trying to tie a sash onto the bridle of the Kings Horse Anmer, has caused much debate, was it suicide or was it a fatal, tragic accident.  All of the evidence we have been able to find so far is that it was an accident, if she had gained access to the enclosure where they parade the horses before the race she would have tied the sash to Anmer and probably been carted off to prison once again.  However her death galvanised the Suffragette sisterhood to more daring and violent acts against property, they prided themselves on not harming humans or animals.  Did her ultimate sacrifice help or hinder the cause? Who knows, that again is open to debate.

Let’s talk about some of the other North East women: Mona Taylor lived in Chipchase Castle with her husband but had long before become involved in the suffrage  campaign.  Her parents took her to a meeting addressed by Lydia Becker, Millicent Fawcett and Rhoda Garrett in 1872.  She joined the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1889 and from then onwards was involved in many societies springing up in the North East eventually becoming an officer in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  Mona was an active member writing letters and articles for newspapers unstintingly trying to galvanise the women of the North East to action.   In 1908 when the NUWSS did not want to support the Labour candidates Mona and her daughter with eleven others felt it time to leave and join the WSPU.  She opened a shop in Blackett Street, Newcastle where meetings could be held, planning carried out and the sale of ‘Votes for Women’ newspapers took place.  As time went on Mona once again was in conflict with the leadership on the grounds that they would not support the Labour candidates who had supported suffrage in the past.

Prior to the shop in Blackett Street, many women met in Fenwick’s coffee shop, as you can imagine Fenwick were very unhappy at being involved in the movement.  However, if society ladies or well dressed and well behaved women wanted to meet their friends and discuss politics they were at a loss as to how to stop them.  It must have been a relief for their management when the shop opened.

Lydia Becker mentioned earlier was an inspiration to many northern women including Norah Balls, Laura Ainsworth and others, but more of them later.  Lydia hailed from Manchester, she was an early suffrage worker with the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, she gained many supporters around the country with her speeches.  Later Lydia became a member of NUWSS, she held several offices, but back to Mona…

One of my favourite stories about Mona is when she was addressing a large crowd of working men outside of a factory gate.  Always a strong speaker she began just as one of the wits in the crowd threw a rotten cabbage at her, undaunted Mona caught the cabbage and threw it back shouting “I think one of your lot have lost their head.”

Laura Ainsworth was a local organiser in the North East.  On the arrival of The Women’s March from Edinburgh, on their way to London she arranged a welcome party and then arranged for them all to march down Northumberland Street and Grey Street ‘taking tea at the Turk’s Head’.  The marchers’ ranks were swelled with women from the area including Lizzie Crow, Jane Atkinson, Annie Dover and nine others.  Lizzie Crow, a working man’s wife from Jarrow, organised a large group of women there: Jarrow became a stronghold in the north.  The trip must have been a great sacrifice for someone like Lizzie who not only had to make the journey at their own expense, estimated at 35/-, but also adopt the uniform, as reported in the Berwick Journal, to be ‘a brown tweed costume and a hat of the same material, with a green cockade at the side’.

Born in Lincolnshire Connie Ellis (Lewcock) became a teacher, do you think there is a pattern building up here.  Clever women were allowed to care for and educate young men who would go on to vote, while they could not.

Connie worked in Durham where she met and married William who as a trade unionist, supported her with her activities.  He was a Conscientious Objector in the First World Ward and they both became leaders in the ILP.  Connie who was one of the women who set fire to Esh Winning Station, but was eventually awarded an OBE and invited to Parliament to a private viewing of the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote exhibition in 1978.

Another of our local heroes is Norah Balls, in 1908 she modelled for the suffragette full dress uniform of a white dress with regalia and colours.  Of course in colder weather the ladies could wear a coat but in summer they were expected to wear the uniform outdoors too.  By regalia they would mean their badges, ribbons for force feeding and prisoner’s badge.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, editor of the weekly newspaper, ‘Votes for Women’, wrote:  ‘Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity…white stands for purity in private and public life…green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.’

During her suffragette days Norah with a group of other suffragettes from Newcastle took a petition to the House of Commons, when Mr Asquith refused to let them in they held onto the railings refusing to move.  They were arrested and Norah spent a night in the cells, in awful conditions.  They tried again the next day the same thing happened, and then they tried a third time.  A policeman was rough with Mrs Brown, one of Norah’s fellow suffragettes so Norah battered his arm and was arrested for assault.  Although the magistrate said “This is a most dangerous woman!” he was forced to release her as Winston Church, the Home Secretary, refused to let the women make themselves martyrs.  Later Norah was proud of the fact she had been on both sides of the dock! Norah went on to be a writer, historian, lecturer and magistrate.

She was a full time organiser for the Tyneside Council of Social Service.  She started the Girl Guides with Lady Parsons in Northumberland, becoming secretary of the Girl Guides in the northeast.  She served on Tynemouth council as the only woman for many years.

In retirement she seemed as busy, working as an Air Raid Warden in World War Two, then for the Ministry of Information.  She was Chairman of the Young People’s Clubs, but her desire to see women’s lives improve made her take up the mantle of Chairman of the Electrical Association for Women.  This association was to education women about the domestic use of electricity to make their lives easier.  Their slogan was “Emancipation from drudgery!”  That’s my girl!

Some of the women we don’t hear much about are the ethnic minority women who felt excluded exactly the same as their white or Christian sisters.  The Jewish League for  Women’s Suffrage for instance was supported by a number of well known Jewish women, and a large number belonging to the teaching profession.  There is that radical profession again.   The ladies wanted both political and religious enfranchisement.  They became known in their own communities as The Deborahs of the Platform or Blackguards in Bonnets depending on who wrote about them.  Deborah of course was a warrior, prophet, judge and all round wise woman.

The Deborahs took their fight onto the streets joining the WSPU or NUWSS as well as their own League.  Many were arrested and imprisoned, Gertrude Lowy, one of the main leaders, was force fed and treated no differently than any other suffragette.

However their fight continued after the political vote was won.  Jewish women wanted electoral representation in their communities and synagogues.  They held tea parties and plays to raise awareness for both causes, they disrupted Yom Kippur services in 1913 by shouting “May God forgive them for consenting to the torture of women”, an attack on the Jewish MPs, many women were involved in militant actions.

Strangely the JLWM was founded in 1912 and by 1913 they had 300 members and they included both Liberal Jews and Orthodox Rabbis.   Jewish men were generally of the opinion that the women were ‘jeopardising the position of the Jews’, however men like Hugh Franklin who had mother and aunts involved in the struggle played their part.  Hugh was imprisoned several times for arson and trying to attack Winston Churchill, force feeding was not reserved for women only.  Hugh was force fed, but some reports state that the men were met with rougher treatment than the women.  The women’s treatment was harsh and cruel – so pity help the men.

Like all of the women involved some stood out more than others such as Dora Montefiore who discovered in 1889 that, despite being entitled to hold money and property in her own name, she had no rights over her children when her husband died.  Or Elsa Myres who resisted militant action because she did not want to lose her position as a school teacher.  That was until the holidays when naughty Elsa broke windows, and was imprisoned under a false name for one month.  She was released the day her school reopened and made it to class on time.

Netta Franklin established the JLWS together with her sister Lily Montagu, Hertha Ayrton and others, she was a pioneer educator and became president of the NUWSS from 1916 to 1917.  They could celebrate winning the political vote in 1918 and full parity in 1928, but it took years to gain equality in their religious struggle in 2013 a woman was elected Chair of United Synagogues for the first time.

Asian Women’s Suffrage Societies were also on the rise with the two of most high profile women being Princess Sophie Duleep Singh and Bhikaji Cama.  Princess Sophie was the daughter of the deposed Maharaja Duleep Singh of Punjab.  He was coerced into signing away his kingdom aged 11. He was exiled to Britain aged 15 when he became a pet of Queen Victoria and he gave her, some say under duress, the Kohinoor diamond.  This is an important symbol of the Sikh religion, but it still sits in the Queen’s Crown.

Following a visit to India, Sophie was appalled by the poverty and conditions of her people.  Instead of working for them she realised that women need to be empowered and Britain was the only home she’d known so she immediately joined the WSPU and became an active supporter.  She not only gave money to the cause but stood outside of her home and outside of Kensington Palace selling ‘Votes for Women’ the Suffragette newspaper.

She was involved in an incident that became known as Black Friday.  The suffragettes tried to gain access to the Prime Minister; Winston Churchill once again stepped in and had them expelled.  There are some suggestions that the police, who were waiting for them in large numbers, encouraged men to roughly handle and abuse the women.  Although Sophie was arrested by a police officer she was immediately released when her identity became known.  She tried to report the abuse and injury sustained by the women but the letters she sent were ignored or disregarded.

She sold some of her possessions to support the Women’s Tax Resistance League after she was taken to court for not paying tax on her carriage, dogs and servant.   Their motto was “No Taxation without Representation”.  A slogan used by the American colonials before the War of Independence.

Sophie was a high profile member of the WSPU and persuaded other ladies of high rank to be vocal and visual in their support.  All of her activities were monitored by the administration and at one point the King was heard to say “Have we no hold on her?”, but he refused to have her evicted from her grace and favour house.  After all she was the goddaughter of Queen Victoria.

Bhikaiji Cama became a powerful and influential suffragette and independence fighter.  Another name that was new to me.  Born in Bombay in 1861 to a Parsi family, she was well educated but unhappily married. After contacting Bubonic Plague in 1902 she was advised to travel to Europe to regain her strength.  While in London she became involved with the suffragette movement, as she had always believed in the equality of the sexes.  She held meetings in Hyde Park and India House, she was a highly influential figure to other Asian women and the free India groups.

In a speech to an all male National Conference in Cairo in 1901, Bhikaji said “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that moulds the nation” paraphrasing a quote from an 1865 poem by William Ross Wallace.   She was later exiled to Paris where she entertained many political leaders including Karl Marx and Lenin.

It was not so easy for Black Women, Britain was predominantly a white society at that time.  The majority of black women were working women who would be finding it hard enough with very lower wages.  Black women would be obvious in a crowd, they would be more likely to lose their position, their job, their home if they joined in the activities.

America was much more complex and racist.  The women were seeking equality for all, so long as the African-American women stood at the back of the hall.  Some concerns cropped up when the white women realised servants would be able to vote in elections and that was a bit too much equality for some of them.

Black women’s clubs sprung up late in the 19th century mainly because the women were not allowed to join the white women’s clubs, interestingly except in the New England states.  The communities had some common priorities, such as temperance, political and economic rights and access to education.  However the black women also had the concerns of lynchings, race riots and the rape of African American women.  Also they wanted universal suffrage to include all black men.

During the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington DC the organisers asked the black women to march at the end of the parade.  Ida Wells-Barnett, a black journalist and organiser of the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago refused to march.  During the procession she slipped from the crowd and joined the Illinois delegation, marching between two white supporters.  She would not have segregation.

And finally I want to leave you with Sojourner Truth an ex slave and abolitionist, she spoke to the Women’s Convention in Arkron, Ohio in 1851.  When she stood to speak many worried she would talk about abolition, but she had a very different appeal to make.  Previously men had insisted on speaking first at the meeting stating they had the right to go first due to intellect, or because of the manhood of Christ and yet another gave a theological view of the “sin of our first mother.”  Then Sojourner, a tall, solemn, black woman stood and this is her speech recorded by Mrs Gage the organiser, the dialect is incorrect as Sojourner’s first language was Dutch.  Also there are other records with slightly different wording, but this tells us all we need to know.

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me!  And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!  And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!  And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman!  Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again!  And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

On first reading her words they left me reeling.  Sojourner is still a symbol of strong women, her simple expression of women’s rights still rings true, we should all take something from her today.

But back to who has probably influenced me the most.  After much thought I decided on my grandmother, Nana Maudy, she was an Amazon of a woman, 5′ 10″ with a size 9 shoe.  She had more energy than anyone I have ever known.  I once asked her what my uncle was like as a little boy and she answered “Ee, I don’t remember hinny, I was working too much.”  Her work was mostly voluntary, it involved organising and arranging the school hall, the Masonic hall and anywhere else she could find to house and feed evacuees, people whose homes had been bombed and any other homeless persons.  My Nana’s care of others continued her whole life, often lending money she knew she would never get back.

She gave me two pieces of invaluable advice.  The first was “If you’re going to do a job, do it properly.” And her second piece of advice “Never be poor and look poor hinny, the bank’ll never lend you any money.”  I have never once been refused a loan.  These are, of course, only snippets from her wisdom.  What a woman.

We are always interested in hearing stories and information about our projects, if you want to share anything please either write in our contact box or email office@cannycraic.com