As we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage we take a look at the lesser known women of the suffragette movement.
While the Pankhursts and Emily Wilding Davison became household names, there were many more suffragettes of note who we know relatively little about. Here, Rise Up Women! author Dr Diane Atkinson reveals the contributions of the other names to know.
Sophia Duleep Singh
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was born at Elveden Hall in Suffolk. Her father was Maharajah Duleep Singh of the Punjab, who lost vast lands and jewels, including the Koh-I-Noor diamond, after the British invaded the Punjab in 1845. Nonetheless, the Maharaja was a great favourite of Queen Victoria, who became Sophia’s godmother. When she and her siblings were orphaned in 1893 they were allowed to live for free in a grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Green.
Duleep Singh was part of the establishment, so her refusal to pay tax until women had the vote, and her presence at suffragette protests, were such an embarrassment that in 1913 King George V was urged to have her family evicted from their home. (The Suffragette newspaper published a photograph of the princess selling copies of the paper at the gates of Hampton Court Palace. The placard advertising that week’s issue had just one chilling word: ‘Revolution’.) But because of Duleep Singh’s close relationship with his grandmother, Victoria, the King felt unable to act.
Duleep Singh, who had joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909 when she was in her mid-30s, was very much a ‘New Woman’, smoking 20 Turkish cigarettes a day, and appearing in the pages of cycling magazines on her Columbia 41 lady’s safety bicycle. Duleep Singh witnessed the riot in Parliament Square on Black Friday 18 November 1910 – she had volunteered to be a member of Mrs Pankhurst’s deputation, an offer Mrs Pankhurst was unable to refuse. What stronger point could be made when someone from such a privileged background was prepared to risk the fury of her royal patrons by joining in such a protest?
On 6 February 1911, Duleep Singh and her friend Kitty Marshall, who had just come out of prison, pounced on the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, as he left 10 Downing Street, and stood in front of his taxi. Because the women were so well-dressed the police had not suspected them of being suffragettes. From the depths of her fur coat, Duleep Singh unfurled a banner saying ‘Give Women the Vote’. The women were disappointed not to be arrested and get the publicity of being sent to prison.
Duleep Singh’s political life did not end when women got the vote; she continued to battle injustice and campaigned for Indian independence. She died in 1948, aged 72.
Mary Eleanor Gawthorpe, 25, was a school teacher from Leeds when she became a suffragette in 1906. A fiery orator, she helped set up the Leeds division of the WSPU.
Known to her family as Nellie, Gawthorpe came from the working class, but gave up her job and worked full time for the WSPU, campaigning and recruiting.
At one outdoor meetings she became weary of the heckling. When a man shouted, “If you were my wife I’d give you poison,” Gawthorpe replied, “Yes, and if I was your wife I’d take it.” Another who was frustrated by her repartee threw a cabbage at her, which she caught and threw back.
When Parliament opened on 23 October 1906, 150 women went to the House of Commons, hoping to talk to MPs. Gawthorpe was one of 20 allowed in, but they were ignored so they produced banners and yelled, “Votes for women!” Gawthorpe jumped on a chair and started to make a speech, but was dragged away by police. She and nine other suffragettes were charged with using “threatening and abusive language” and provoking a breach of the peace.
In court, pandemonium broke out when their sentences were announced: two months in harsh second-division cells. This meant the women were treated as common criminals, not political prisoners. Gawthorpe was forced to wear prison clothing, and served two months in solitary confinement.
Despite this, she embraced her sentence and told Christabel Pankhurst she was ready to go to prison for the cause, but her two-year engagement to Thomas Birtwistle-Garrs, a union organiser in a print works, was called off.
Gawthorpe died in New York in 1973 aged 92, where she’d been active in the suffrage and Trade Union movements since 1916.
Thirty-two-year-old maths and science teacher Rachel Barrett got into trouble with her headmistress because of her suffragette activities (among other things, Barrett had been flour-bombed while helping Mrs Pankhurst’s daughter, Adela, hold a meeting at Cardiff docks in 1907).
It’s unsurprising that a few months later she left teaching and her life in Wales and went to study at the London School of Economics (LSE), having decided to help the WSPU’s campaign: “I felt that they were doing the right and only thing. I had always been a suffragist since I first began to think of the position of women, but with no hope of ever seeing women win the vote.”
In the summer, Barrett abandoned her studies and became a full-time organiser: “I was sorry to give up my work at the LSE and all that it meant, but it was a definite call and I obeyed.” In 1910, she was appointed chief organiser for Wales.
Barrett was a senior figure at the suffragettes’ London headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn House, where she met her girlfriend Ida Wylie, a reporter at The Suffragette. When the police raided the offices on 30 April 1913 she was preparing copy for the forthcoming edition of the paper. Barrett and four other women were charged with “conspiracy to commit damage to property and inciting others to do so”.
Sentences varied; Barrett got nine months. She went on hunger strike and after five days was released to a suffragette nursing home to recover.
When she returned to Holloway Prison, she started another hunger strike and was released after four days. Despite a 24-hour police presence, Barrett was smuggled out of the nursing home several times to speak at meetings and was not rearrested until the late summer.
During the Twenties Barrett and Wylie became friends with Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, the most famous lesbian couple of the day. They supported Hall in 1928 when she was prosecuted for her ‘obscene’ novel The Well of Loneliness, which was banned in England until 1959.
Later, Barrett helped raise the money to erect a statue of Mrs Pankhurst near the Palace of Westminster. She died of a cerebral bleed, aged 78, in 1953.
Annie Kenney was 26 years old and her sister Jessie 18 when they joined the WSPU in 1905. Their parents and most of their siblings (the family had 12 children) worked in the cotton mills of Oldham. Their mother had died at the start of the year, and after hearing Christabel Pankhurst demanding votes for women at a meeting, the Kenney sisters were welcomed by the Pankhursts into the suffragette movement. The elder Kenney took part in the WSPU’s first militant protest with Christabel, heckling Liberal politicians at a meeting in Manchester on 13 October. She served three days in Strangeways and Christabel got seven days.
As a normal, working-class woman, Annie was a poster girl for the movement and often wore her mill clothes, clogs and a shawl around her head in personal appearances and photographs. She took charge of ‘rousing’ women in the west of England for four years.
Her book Memories of a Militant gives a vivid picture of suffragette life: “I thought nothing of having a hard morning’s work sending out handbills and chalking pavements, of speaking at a factory at 12 o’clock, of speaking at the docks at half past one and of holding a woman’s meeting at three o’clock and a large open-air one at seven. And when it was over I would address envelopes for letters to the sympathisers and members in the district.” Annie cheerfully called herself a fanatic.
From the spring of 1912 Christabel Pankhurst was in and out of prison and on the run. When she was in self-imposed exile in Paris, the movement needed Annie and her deputies, whom Pankhurst had trained to take over. Kenney ran the campaign when it was at its most difficult and dangerous. She was sent to prison 13 times, was a hunger striker and force-fed on multiple occasions.
Aged 73, she died from diabetes in hospital.
In 1871, aged 15, Katherine Marie Schafer ran away from her violent father in Germany to live with an aunt in Essex, later taking to the stage as a dancer, singer and comedienne. She became Kitty Marion and for 19 years performed in theatres and music halls all over Britain – her experience of sexual harassment in showbusiness later drew her to the suffragettes.
Marion joined the campaign in 1908, smashing windows, heckling politicians and staging arson attacks. It destroyed her stage career and she became known as “that malignant suffragette”.
To honour her friend Emily Wilding Davison, who was fatally injured when she dashed in front of the King’s horse at the Derby on 4 June 1913, Marion and Clara Giveen set fire to the grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse, near Hampton Court, on 8 June. They were arrested and sent to prison for three years.
Marion went on a hunger and thirst strike and was put in solitary confinement. After four days she was weak and constipated; by day five, she was so dizzy she could not move and was taken to a suffragette nursing home, where she was visited by two friends. There, Marion changed clothes with one of them. Her impersonator was arrested, but Marion – dressed in her friend’s clothes – took a bus to Croydon and went on the run.
She committed more militant acts without being caught, and was not rearrested until 6 January 1914 at Charing Cross station. Marion was returned to prison, went on hunger strike and was force-fed 232 times.
In 1915, being German, Marion was hounded out of England so went to New York, where she established America’s first birth-control clinic. She passed away in 1944.
Despite her socialite background, Guthrie threw herself into the cause with great intensity. She was a debutante in 1908, then soon joined the WSPU, telling her mother she wanted “to give her life to her more unfortunate sisters”. She also became an actress, performing under the stage name Laura Grey.
In 1912, Guthrie served six months in prison for smashing windows in Whitehall and went on hunger strike. She was awarded a ‘For Valour’ medal for her “utter disregard of the self… suffering the pain and horrors of forcible feeding… out of loyalty to the cause you so passionately love”.
Shortly afterwards, Guthrie retired as a suffragette. She started drinking absinthe and using cocaine (at this time Harrods sold the drug). Two years later, she was found on the floor of her Mayfair flat, dying of an overdose of the barbiturate Veronal. Erotic photographs were found in her flat and letters from several ‘gentlemen callers’ suggested she had become a sex worker.
The inquest was grim: Guthrie’s mother was told by the coroner that her daughter had been pregnant. The verdict was “suicide during temporary insanity”. The newspapers went into a frenzy, with headlines such as ‘A Girl’s Downfall: From Militancy to Suicide’. They repeated the coroner’s view that the suffragettes were to blame.
The suffragettes replied that if their young member had remained with their cause then perhaps she would not have died a “fallen woman”. The reaction to her death diminished her contribution to the suffragette cause, but now we should not ignore the strength she fought with.
Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives Of The Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson is out on 8 February.
Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.
Illustrations: Garry Walton at meiklejohn.co.uk