How Huddersfield's heroines fought to win votes for women

For the women who spent years using militant tactics against the state for the right to vote, it may have come as some surprise that a century later Parliament would be involved in planning a major national commemoration of their efforts.

Those involved in the campaign were willing to deploy radical tactics such as hunger strikes, chaining themselves to railings and even detonating bombs to make their point. In 1913, Emily Davison died under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, while hundreds of fellow suffragettes were imprisoned.

Partial victory for their cause was eventually achieved in 1918 through the Representation of the People Act which allowed women over 30 to vote. It took a further decade before the Equal Franchise Act allowed women to vote at 21 – the same age as men at the time.

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With next year marking the centenary of the former piece of landmark legislation, major national commemorations are being planned as part of the Vote 100 project, including an public exhibition at Parliament in the summer.

But plans are now afoot for similar events in Yorkshire to mark the important role played by local women in the campaign.

The University of Huddersfield is planning a series of lectures and exhibitions next year but is now asking local residents to suggest other ideas on how to best mark the anniversary.

“The campaign for votes for women was fought and won not just in and around Westminster. It was something that had genuinely local roots, especially in places like Huddersfield, with its strong radical tradition,” says the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Tim Thornton, who is a historian.

Huddersfield and its surrounding areas were a hive of suffragette activity in the early 1900s. There were mass meetings at which guest speakers included movement leaders Christabel and Adela Pankhurst.

And one of the most memorable images of the Suffragette movement involved 17-year-old mill girl Dora Thewlis, who was pictured grappling with burly police officers as she was arrested during a demonstration in London. The widely-circulated photograph of her led to national outrage and was even issued as a picture postcard.

But the main reason that Huddersfield has become a focus for research by historians of the female suffrage movement is that the town is home to an extremely rare and valuable document – the minute book of the local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which had been founded nationally in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst.

The Huddersfield branch’s minutes were compiled between 1907 and 1909 by its secretary and organiser, Edith Key, who was steeped in radical politics locally. In 2002, Edith’s descendants deposited the minute book, plus other documents, with the West Yorkshire Archives Service in Huddersfield.

It meant that historians of female suffrage now had a valuable source that could help them understand how the campaign took shape in the regions, away from Westminster.

The significance of this has led the University of Huddersfield to rename one of its buildings in honour of Edith Key. And the university’s own archive has material that includes the minute books of the Colne Valley Labour Party, which also agitated to extend the vote.

“We are an institution that has been about the education of women and giving them access to the professions from soon after our beginnings in 1841. The Vote 100 commemoration is therefore very important to us and we are determined to ensure that it has a local element,” said Professor Thornton.

Anyone with ideas about marking the anniversary should email [email protected]