Written by Krista Cowman


Working-class heroines

Militancy and prison during the women’s suffrage movement were not the privilege of the elite. Far from it. Krista Cowman, professor of history and advisor on the film Suffragette, explains how working-class women were vital in securing the vote.


Carey Mulligan plays fictional activist Maud Watts in the film Suffragette.

My involvement with the film Suffragette started with a tentative email from director Sarah Gavron late in 2009. She was interested in making a film about the suffragette movement; would I be prepared to meet up and talk about my work? I had been researching the history of militant suffrage since the late 1980s, and am always keen to share my obsession with a wider audience beyond the usual readers of academic books and articles.

After an initial meeting over a glass of wine it was clear that Sarah’s ideas were very much in line with my own interests. She was keen to make a film that would focus on working-class women, and tell the story of their contribution to winning the vote. This was exactly what I had been looking at for much of my academic career – I was immediately on board.

Many people think that they know all about the suffragette movement. There is a popular version – the Mary Poppins angle – that focuses on wealthy women, usually in London, taking up ‘the cause’ as a hobby. If anybody thought about working-class women’s campaign for the vote, it was in connection with the Suffragists, the constitutional, law-abiding campaigners.

Militancy and prison were thought of as the privilege of the elite. Yet there was evidence that pointed in another direction. In 1910 Lady Constance Lytton, who had already been to prison for suffragette activities, disguised herself as a working-class woman, ‘a Punch version of a suffragette’ as she put it, to prove that working-class suffragettes were receiving harsher treatment in prison.

S_09007Why would she have done this if there were not significant numbers of working-class suffragettes? I turned to the archives, and was amazed by what I found. So many scattered stories of the ordinary women whose work underpinned the militant campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) up and down the country.

Their words spoke of the challenges of working for the vote in households with several children, no domestic help and no modern conveniences. Mrs Towler from Preston who left her husband and four sons to go to prison in February 1908. She baked for a week before to make sure they had enough food, but was so concerned that in the end Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, the WSPU treasurer, paid her bail so she could get home.

Dora Thewlis and Evelyn Armstrong, two teenaged girls whose arrests on a demonstration in 1907 scandalised the Edwardian press. When the magistrate who sentenced them said that they should be in school, Dora’s mother wrote a series of outraged letters to the papers, pointing out that the reality of life for most working-class girls was employment from their early teens.

“Some women were fired when their employers learned of their suffragette escapades. Others were terrified at losing face in front of their neighbours.”

Again and again, working-class women explained how they wanted the vote to improve their own lives, to change the laws that determined the sort of education or work available to them. All over the country it was these ordinary women who made up the WSPU’s regional branches, meeting week after week in draughty halls, collecting subscriptions, inviting speakers, selling newspapers and keeping the campaign alive in their towns and cities.

When some braver individuals carried out the WSPU’s campaign of direct action, setting fire to post boxes and empty buildings, these were the women who hid them, moving them from safe house to safe house, often eluding the police altogether.

They ran great risks. Some women were fired when their employers learned of their suffragette escapades. Others were terrified at losing face in front of their neighbours. East End suffragette Mrs Sparboro begged Union officials to let her husband know that she was ‘free from fleas and flies’ in prison. To lose respectability for a working-class woman in this era was to lose everything.

S_06108Autobiographies from working-class women remain rare. Annie Kenney, Mary Gawthorpe and Hannah Mitchell did write accounts of their suffragette work, although in some ways they were exceptional women, working full-time for the Union as paid organisers, and remaining politically active in later life.

Most working-class suffragettes were more elusive. Their testimonies are scattered. Short paragraphs in Votes for Women and The Suffragette, the WSPU’s newspapers. Random letters collected by the Suffragette Fellowship in the inter-war years, donated to the Museum of London in the 1960s. Occasional press reports if they were arrested.

Piecing them together, we get a sense of how much so many women sacrificed for the vote, and also of how well they worked together. As a single-issue campaign, suffrage united to fight for a common cause.

This unity fragmented once the vote was won (at least in part, for women over 30, in 1918). But while the campaign lasted, suffragettes forgot divisions of class and party to work together to win their citizenship.

In Suffragette we see how this worked on the ground. Following the highs and lows of the movement through the eyes of working-class women brings the struggle alive for a modern audience as we learn exactly what the vote meant to them, and how determined they were to get it.

Suffragette is out on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday, February 29.


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Written by Krista Cowman

Krista Cowman is professor of history at the University of Lincoln where she researches women's political activism in the 20th century. She was the historical advisor for Suffragette.