Burning Passions: the local struggle for women’s suffrage

Speaker: Jess Jenkins

19 September 2017

Jess Jenkins' aim was to tell stories of less well-known women (and men) who took part in the fight for votes for women. There were many other women and organizations fighting for the vote, not just the well-known such as the Pankhursts, Emily Davison and the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Firstly Jess reminded us that until the Reform Act of 1832 very few people had the right to vote at all. In 1866 when the first petition from women was sent to Parliament five Leicestershire women signed it, and there were1302 petitions between then and 1905, but it was not until 1928 women finally won equality. Many had been campaigning peacefully for 40 years before Christabel Pankhurst realized that only protests and arrest would raise awareness in the minds of politicians. In 1884 the new Reform Bill gave all male householders the vote, but still ignored the claims of women.

The Leicester and Leicestershire Women’s Suffrage Society was founded in 1887 following a successful meeting at which Millicent Fawcett spoke in Leicester (she would later come to the very forefront of the women’s suffrage movement). Various well-to-do local ladies were involved in the early movement including Edith Gittins, a corn-dealers daughter and Sunday school teacher and Mrs Agnes Fielding Johnson, who was manager of Wyggeston Girls School and also campaigned for a maternity hospital in the city.

As protests became more militant, women from Leicester joined protest marches and demonstrations. The Joint Women’s Franchise Demonstration (1907) included, among others, Mrs Margaret Ramsey McDonald wife of the MP. Alice Hawkins who worked in the boot and shoe industry and her husband Alfred were arrested by the police on many occasions and Alice imprisoned seven times. Among other men who supported women in their fight was Henry Nevinson a founder member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage.

Successive governments failed to take the claim for women’s suffrage seriously, but in1914 the start of the First World War put an end to the militant campaigns. In 1918 The Representation of the People Act enfranchised all men and women over the age of 30. Finally in 1928, The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, gave the vote to all women over 21 on equal terms with men.

If you would like to read more, Jess Jenkins has written a book entitled ‘The Burning Question: the struggle for women’s suffrage in Leicestershire.’ IBSN 978-0-85022-487-0. Printed by Leicestershire County Council.