In 1918 women were finally given a portion of the vote; with the Representation of the People Act allowing women over 30 who were married to a property owner, were graduates in a University Constituency or were a member of a Local Government Register (or at least married to one!) to vote in elections.
Getting to this partial step towards equality had been one loooooong fight. Thousands upon thousands of women fought for decades for the simple right of having a say in their own lives.
So, lets remember the badass brave ladies that history all too often forgets!
1. The fire starter: Kitty Marion
A former chorus girl, Kitty Marion was steadily climbing the ranks to become a headlining music hall act. But she quickly discovered that wasn’t going to happen unless she got on the casting couch.
Sounds familiar huh? 🤔
Kitty was appalled by just how disgustingly sexist the theatre industry was. But she wasn’t going to give in that easily.
Instead of walking away, she decided to fight; not just for her, but for every woman! She wanted women to be seen as equals, not as objects. In her mind that couldn’t happen until women had equal political power.
And so in 1908, Kitty joined the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union, commonly known as The Suffragettes)
Now, to say Kitty was happy to use militant tactics for the cause, would be the understatement of the century.
Kitty was arrested a ton, for a whole litany of crimes, including window smashing, pulling fire alarms and Kitty’s personal favourite, arson.
She burned down Hurst race courses grand stand, an MPs house and several properties across Manchester and Liverpool.
Kitty actually kept a scrapbook, where much like her theatrical press cuttings, she popped news articles about her arson attacks; including several pieces on attacks where the culprit was never found…hmmm, I wonder who could have done those?!?
Unsurprisingly for someone carrying out all of the arson, Kitty spent a lot of time in prison.
She regularly undertook hunger strikes, which led to her being force fed a record 242 times.
But Kitty was unwavering. Even setting fire to her cell after one force feeding (girl had a theme!)
By 1915, the First World War was in full swing and the German born Kitty was seen as way to much of a threat to remain in the UK (to be fair, she was doing all of the arson..) so she was deported to America, where she could live a quiet life and stay out of trouble.
Obvs, Kitty immediately joined the US birth control movement.
She was part of the group that would go on to create Planned Parenthood and spent a lot of time on the streets raising awareness of birth control.
This led to Kitty receiving deaths threats and daily abuse. Her actions also meant she was arrested again and again and again!
In 1921 Kitty and Margaret Sanger set up America’s first birth control clinic. The police never stopped trying to close it.
Kitty continued campaigning until her old age, eventually dying in 1944, surrounded by her friends and fellow fighters.
2. The teenage tear away: Dora Thewlis
Dora had been working in a Huddersfield mill since she was just over 10.
Now to be blunt, being a mill worker was the worst. The hours were long, the pay shit and the safety negligible; with children and adults both working in hazardous conditions.
But, Dora was one smart cookie. She’d bring pouring through newspapers and chatting politics since she was just 7! All this parliamentary prose has made Dora determined to see change, but she knew this couldn’t happen when half the population couldn’t even vote!
So in her early teens, Dora became a founding member of her local WSPU branch.
In February 1907, a 16 year old Dora hopped on a train with her fellow WSPU members and travelled from Manchester to London for a quick parliamentary protest road trip.
Dora’s ‘clog and shawl brigade’ were joined outside Parliament by WSPU groups from all over Britain.
They weren’t alone; an army of hundreds of policeman met the ladies head on and things quickly escalated.
Pretty quickly 75 suffragettes we’re arrested for trying to ‘rush’ the House of Commons; Dora was one of them.
Within hours of her arrest, Dora was the face of the suffrage movement. With this picture slap in the middle of the Daily Mirrors front page.
The newspapers dubbed her:
‘The baby suffragette’
When she appeared in court, the judge (here to be known as Captain Asshat) was equally condescending and flippant. Proclaiming to the court that he was sure the reason Dora was actually in London was to ‘entice’ men. Captain asshat then went onto ask:
‘Where is your mother?’
Sadly if captain Asshat was thinking Dora’s Mum would be pissed at her daughter, he was wrong! Dora’s Mum actually wrote to him saying just how proud she was of her headstrong and intelligent daughter!
Sadly, no matter how amazing this was, it didn’t help. 16 year old Dora was sent to prison.
Now, being in prison as a suffragette was hard, being in prison as a working class suffragette was HAAAAAAARD.
Dora was bullied by the guards and most probably experienced beatings in addition to the daily verbal harassment.
By the time she left, the teenagers spirit was crushed.
But that didn’t stop the Edwardian paparazzi hounding Dora as soon as she stepped off the train in Manchester!
They all wanted to know what the baby suffragette would do next.
Dora was not down with this!
She was done with the hierarchy treating her like a child whose views were a cutesy joke. Nearly 17, she shot back at journalists:
‘Don’t call me the ‘Baby Suffragette’, I am not a baby. In May next year I shall be 18. Surely for a girl, that is a good age?’
Dora continued campaigning; until in 1914 she decided to escape mill life; moving to Australia.
There she lived happily until a ripe old age, with her husband and children (who btw were all obvs educated in feminism and the need for equal rights for all!)
3. The wild woman: Leonora Cohen
Leonora Cohen grew up in a hard working family; just like Dora, she worked from an early age. eventually settling down with a nice man to pop out a few kids.
But this wasn’t the end of Leonora’s story!
You see Leonora had watched her mother struggle as a single Mum, had herself faced horrific working conditions as woman and was generally treated as a second class citizen. She watched as those around her just took this and that sparked something inside:
‘My mother would say ‘Leonora, if only we women had a say in things’, but we hadn’t. A drunken lout of a man opposite had a vote simply because he was a male. I vowed I’d try to change things.’
In 1909 Leonora joined the WSPU, initially selling suffragette papers in the gutter (so she couldn’t get arrested for obstructing pavements)
But two years into her activism, Leonora decided to go all in. With her husband backing her all the way, she went big on militant actions!
Leonora attended more protests than ever before, she learned to give powerful speeches and ignore the masses of hate mail that followed them. She even went to Holloway Prison for stone throwing!
But it wasn’t enough. Leonora wanted to do something that would grab people’s attention.
And so she planned to break into the Crown Jewels
In 1913, Leonora walked into the Tower of London, a crowbar hidden under her coat.
Nobody noticed the slight woman…until she whipped out the crowbar and smashed through the glass protecting the Crown Jewels.
She was immediately tackled to the ground amid a shower of broken glass. But the damage was done.
Leonora had succeeded. Her act was front page news; the note she’d wrapped around the crowbar providing the words on everyone’s lips:
‘My Protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women, but continues to torture women prisoners – Deeds Not Words. Votes for Women. 100 Years of Constitutional Petition, Resolutions, Meetings & Processions have Failed’
Leonora continued her work after women were partly granted the vote in 1918.
She became the first female president of The Yorkshire Trade Councils, before becoming one of the UKs first women to take the bench, when she was made a magistrate in 1924.
Leonora stayed an active feminist right up until her death in 1978, at the grand old age of 105!
This was interesting, where can I find out more?
Kitty Marion: Rather excitingly, there are actually two books on Kitty coming out this year! The first is Fern Riddells, Death in 10 Minutes, which is out in April. The second is Kitty’s unpublished autobiography (I know!) no date set for that yet, but keep an eye out.
Dora Thewlis & Leonora Cohen: There arnt any amazing books dedicated in full to either one of these ladies, but you should definitely check out Rebel Girls by Jill Liddington which features both, along with several other incredibly fascinating women.