5 women’s rights activists you might not know about
This month marks one of the most significant landmarks in the history of British women’s rights. The 1918 Representation of the People Act brought the right to vote to millions of women and men – and paved the way for equality campaigns that continue today. To coincide with the centenary of female enfranchisement in Britain and Ireland, we talked to John Edmonds, co-author of The Stalled Revolution, about five women’s rights activists who you might not have heard of…
Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (1869-1923)
An aristocrat who damaged her health in order to prove how badly less-eminent suffragettes were treated in prison
Though perhaps not quite as well-known as Emily Davison, the suffragette who died after she ran out on to the racecourse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, aristocrat Constance Lytton is considered by many to be a martyr of the women’s suffrage movement.
Born in Vienna in 1869 to Robert Bulwer-Lytton, later the Viceroy of India, and his wife Edith Villiers, Lady Constance led a privileged life surrounded by many highly influential names of the day. But it wasn’t until she joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) as an adult that it became apparent just how different her background was from those around her.
“Constance was a very active suffragette who was imprisoned on several occasions,” explains John. “She discovered very quickly that she seemed to get much better treatment in prison than her fellow activists: receiving good quality medical treatment and not having to undergo force-feeding.”
It was around this time that the question of whether suffragettes of different classes were being treated differently in prison reached the home secretary, Winston Churchill. When he denied that they were, Constance set out to prove him wrong – adopting the alias of Jane Warton, an ‘ordinary London seamstress’, in a bid to see whether she would continue to receive special treatment. “The plan worked, but the consequences for Constance were devastating,” John says. “She was treated so badly during force-feeding that her health was damaged for the rest of her life.”
More like this
Despite damaging her health, Constance’s act of duplicity had a surprisingly positive result. “The important thing for propaganda reasons was that her brother Lord Lytton was a very vocal speaker in the House of Lords,” says John. “He kept telling everyone what had happened to his sister, and having someone in the House of Lords explaining exactly what forcible feeding involved had much more of an impact. Constance Lytton was considered for a long time to be a martyr.”
Annie Kenney (1879-1953)
The working-class suffragette who worked her way into the inner circle of the WSPU
For a movement that had equal rights at its heart, many factions of the suffragette movement were almost exclusively middle-class. This was most clearly demonstrated within the inner circle of the WSPU, whose members included daughters of aristocrats, politicians and landed gentry.
“The lack of diversity in the WSPU inner circle in later years was because Christabel Pankhurst [the eldest daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU], who increasingly took control, was a five-star snob," says John. “Although she made an exception when it came to Annie Kenney.”
Kenney was born in Springhead, Saddleworth, part of the borough of Oldham in Greater Manchester, to a poor, working-class family in 1879. She was involved with the more militant aspects of the WSPU from the very start, and stood by co-leader Christabel Pankhurst during many key moments of her campaigning. One notable moment took place in 1905, when the pair hijacked a liberal campaign meeting with cries of “votes for women”. The police were called, and the pair were taken to a side-room to be lectured on ‘lady-like’ behaviour.
“Annie was absolutely devoted to Christabel, to the point that people have speculated about how far their relationship actually went,” John says. “When Christabel fled to France to avoid prison, Annie would visit her on the packet boat [the mail ferry] every week. She was the most awful sailor – she was sick as a dog every time – but every week she would travel to collect Christabel’s instructions and bring them back to the UK.”
He adds: “There’s one particular thing Annie did that I feel demonstrates her wonderful initiative. She wandered along to Lambeth Palace [the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury] and banged on the door until someone answered it. She said that she would like to speak to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and incredibly she was taken to an anteroom to meet him. When the Archbishop arrived, he didn’t know what to do with her and so gave her some tea, therefore giving Annie ample time to explain to him exactly why he should be supporting votes for women!”
Evelina Haverfield (1867-1920)
The suffragette ‘horse-whisperer’ with an aristocratic background
As the daughter of a baron, Evelina Haverfield grew up surrounded by horses. She joined the WSPU when it was formed in 1903, and proved remarkably useful when Winston Churchill and those around him decided to use mounted police as a means of controlling their campaigns.
“She was what you might call a horse-whisperer,” says John. “She could call some horses out of the police lines and make them lie down. This led to some rather interesting scenarios where ‘PC Plod’ was struggling to control his mount as it nuzzled up to Evelina.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the suffragettes came to be sentenced for various public disorder offences, Evelina was punished more harshly than her contemporaries. “The officers of the state didn’t like being ridiculed, so she received prison sentences that were sometimes two to three times the length of her fellow suffragettes,” says John.
He adds: “She was an incredible person, totally committed to the cause and very much a part of the inner circle of the WSPU. But like Annie Kenney – if you don’t have the name Pankhurst, then you’re not necessarily among the first to be remembered.”
The Raving Beauties (1980s)
A very influential feminist theatre in the Women’s Liberation Movement
Activism didn’t always take the form of pitched protests and rallies. In the second half of the 20th century, the popularity of feminist theatres helped make ideas about gender, sexuality and feminism more accessible for the masses. “During the women’s liberation movement, travelling theatre groups were incredibly important in building morale and support,” says John. “They were also a great way of getting people talking – although today they are more or less forgotten.”
Perhaps one of the best known of these groups in the 1980s was The Raving Beauties, a three-person cabaret performance consisting of comedic sketches and songs exploring issues including motherhood, sexuality and domestic violence. Their first show, titled In The Pink, sold out at the Edinburgh Festival and even featured on Channel 4’s opening night launch in 1982.
Dale Spender (1943-present)
One of the first writers to explore the idea that language favours men
Whereas the efforts of early women’s activists were focused mainly on gaining suffrage, the development of second- and third-wave feminism in the 1960s and beyond highlighted a much wider range of issues. Among many of notable academics of this period was Dale Spender, an Australian feminist scholar who is perhaps best known for her influential book Man Made Language (1980). The main claim made in the book is based on the idea that the language we use is biased against women. This might be as simple as people defaulting to male pronouns when talking about an unknown person or object, but goes as far to suggest that women are excluded from positions of power because the language of leadership is ‘masculine’.
“She makes the point that if you’ve got a language that is, at every turn, assuming that men will be in positions of power and authority, then this gets into people’s hearts and souls and fixates their ideas about gender,” says John.
Shortly after the release of Man Made Language, Spender published a second book. Invisible Women: The Schooling Scandal (1982) introduced the idea that boys are conditioned to study subjects like maths and science at school, while girls are more likely to study domestic and social sciences. For John, her work was “ground-breaking”.
“At the time she was writing, these ideas were really quite new,” he says. “Although they were received very well in feminist-circles, they were perhaps shrugged off by wider society.”
John Edmonds is a visiting fellow at King’s College, London, where he studies labour markets and gender equality, and a visiting professor of Durham University Business School. He is, with Eva Tutchell, the co-author of The Stalled Revolution – a new book that explores how the women’s rights revolutions of the 20th century appear to have stalled.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine for £21.99 every 6 issues + receive a £10 M&S gift card (use online instore).
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99