Vote battle that showed a path towards equality

Lucy Moore, project coordinator, and Nicola Pullan, assistant curator, with some of her paperwork
Lucy Moore, project coordinator, and Nicola Pullan, assistant curator, with some of her paperwork
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The Great War divided the Suffragette movement, but it was also a chance for women to show they were equal to men in the workplace, as Chris Bond reports.

WHEN hostilities erupted in 1914 the Suffragettes faced a moment of reckoning.

In the years leading up to the First World War they had been locked in an increasingly militant battle with the government in their fight for women’s rights. But the onset of war split the famous Pankhurst family, Emmeline and Christabel immediately ceased their campaign, supported the recruitment of soldiers and urged women to join the war effort, while Sylvia and Adela remained pacifists.

On the one side were the arch patriots who supported the war when suddenly faced with this new threat, and on the other were the internationalists who opposed it.

But while the Pankhurst family tend to loom large in any discussion about the Suffragettes and the role of women in the Great War, campaigners in Yorkshire had a significant part to play, too.

One of the most prominent figures was Leonora Cohen. She gained public notoriety in 1913 for smashing a display cabinet in the Jewel House at the Tower of London and paid a price for having the courage of her convictions, spending time in jail at both Armley and Holloway.

“She’s probably Leeds’s most famous suffragette,” says Nicola Pullan, assistant curator of Leeds Abbey House Museum. “She was a very smart lady and throughout her life she kept a lot of material relating to issues that were close to her heart.”

Cohen was closely involved with the Trade Union movement and was a vocal campaigner for greater rights for women workers. “There isn’t an easy to patch out narrative when it comes to her role in the war,” says Pullan. “There are a few references to her working in a munitions factory in Leeds and being involved with various organisations, but it’s hard to pin down exactly where she worked once war kicked in. But we do have some items from her collection that give us clues about what she was doing.”

From Cohen’s personal archive collection, housed at the museum, we know that in 1917 she was on the Lady Mayoress’s committee. “This was a group of women who were doing all sorts of charitable things, including work with hospitals, so we know she was quite actively involved.”

Cohen kept a personal scrapbook which includes copies of wartime speeches and newspaper reports about the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell. “She kept abreast of things that were going on. We have a copy of a speech given by Christabel Pankhurst who argued that the Americans couldn’t in all conscience send materials and goods to Germany, and at the same time send food to the Belgians who were suffering terribly.”

The wartime records not only for Suffragettes, but women in general, are often quite scant. But Pullan says this is largely because they were getting on with their jobs. “One of the reasons why we have gaps in our records is that women were busy doing things, rather than recording what they were doing.

“Once the war started there were very few women who were still being militant because they had moved into being part of the war effort. Most of them had the view that if they did their bit and bided their time they would get what they wanted, and by 1918 women over 30 did get the vote.”

Lucy Moore, First World War project co-ordinator at the Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, says 1914 was a watershed moment in the story of women in this country. “What I find really interesting is that as soon as war was declared you get the wives of people who worked in factories setting up charities to help the other wives whose husbands had gone off to fight. So what you see is women stepping in and really being involved from the very beginning.”

In Sheffield, women were working as tram drivers for the first time and across Yorkshire they were working as bus conductors, window cleaners and helping plough the fields to ensure the nation wasn’t starved into submission. “Women who became tram conductors had to have special uniforms made because they couldn’t be seen wearing trousers, so they wore long skirts instead,” says Pullan. “They were also making bandages for soldiers and in 1917, when food shortages really start to bite, women were very much involved in communal kitchens and teaching classes on home economy and how to preserve what you had.”

They also spearheaded local fundraising campaigns. “There was a flag day committee operating in Leeds during this period. Women sold flags and tokens out on the street to raise money not only for local soldiers and their families, but also for people abroad.

“There’s one flyer we have which talks about helping the children of France who had lost their fathers – and a lot of this campaigning came from the lessons of being involved in women’s movements before the war.”

Women not only kept the home fires burning, they kept the war effort moving and without them Britain’s war machine would simply have ground to a halt.

Pullan says that although the war brought dreadful suffering it also gave women opportunities they had never had before. “By the end of the war their expectations had been raised, so even if they had to leave their jobs there was no chance of going back to the status quo where women simply stayed at home and weren’t seen in the workplace.”

At the start of the war the vast majority of women in Britain had been chained to a life of domesticity. But by the end they had earned people’s respect and even though some of them had to leave their workplace once the soldiers returned home, they had proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were just as good as their male counterparts.