In any discussion of the suffragette movement, the names that most frequently crop up are those of the London-based leaders – in particular the Pankhurst family – but Yorkshire women had a significant part to play in the campaign.
Often they were mill workers and also involved in the trade union movement who saw getting votes for women as part of a larger campaign for equality.
One of the most well known of the Yorkshire suffragettes was Dora Thewlis, a weaver from Huddersfield and an active member of the local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.
Led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the WSPU was the militant wing of the movement and supported direct action. When Dora went down to London to take part in one of their protests, her picture made it on to the front page of a national newspaper. It was a striking image of a young woman being restrained by two policeman – her shawl askew, a defiant expression on her face.
Dora’s photograph was put onto a postcard, which was sent up and down the country and she became known, to her embarrassment, as ‘Baby Suffragette’. After she was released from prison, like many of her fellow protesters, Dora disappeared from view, but it wasn’t just young women who were making their feelings known to those in power.
In the autumn of 1913, a few months after Emily Wilding Davis threw herself in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day, Leonora Cohen, a respectable middle-aged woman from Leeds, decided to take direct action when the Liberal Government announced a men-only suffrage bill, reneging once again on a commitment to votes for women.
She had started off supporting the movement by making marmalade to raise funds. However, when it became clear the Government wasn’t going to give an inch, she went to the Jewel House in the Tower of London – elegantly dressed, she had been a milliner before she married – and hurled an iron bar at one of the display cases.
Leonora spent some time in prison for her action but, because she went on hunger strike, was released under the infamous Cat and Mouse Act, passed by Asquith’s government in 1913. A consequence of the Act was an increase in police surveillance and Cohen, who had already received hate letters and whose son had been bullied at school, was advised to leave Leeds. The family went to live in Harrogate and while there she provided a safe house for fleeing suffragettes, released from jail and attempting to evade rearrest.
The end of 1913 and the early part of 1914 was a time of frenzied activity in the Women’s Suffrage Movement and many suffragettes were either on the run from the police, in hiding, or in exile.
Emmeline Pankhurst had been arrested again and Christabel was in exile in Paris. The third and youngest Pankhurst daughter, Adela, had strong links with Yorkshire, becoming the chief organiser of the Sheffield WSPU and effectively running the campaign in the North. At the tender age of just 19 she was speaking eloquently and passionately in front of crowds of 100,000 people in Leeds.
The outbreak of hostilities in Europe in August 1914 had a dramatic effect on the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
As husbands, sons and brothers headed abroad to fight, women took their place in factories, shops and offices and freed from the shackles of domesticity their fight for equality at the ballot box seemed ever more justified.