20th Sep, 2018

How Warwickshire women helped win the vote a century ago

ONE hundred years ago today women won the right to vote – and women in Warwickshire played their part in the historic moment.

While the more revolutionary Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) made the headlines, the most dominant branch of the nationwide suffrage movement was the National Union of Women Suffrage Society (NUWSS) who preferred a more peaceful approach.

An important distinction between the WSPU and the NUWSS was in the names ‘suffragettes’ and ‘suffragists’. The suffragettes of the WSPU adopted the French suffix ‘ette’ – a political joke suggesting their gender inferiority.

The law-abiding NUWSS, along with the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association (CUWFA), were two of a number of suffrage organisations operating across the county.

Dr Sarah Richardson and Tara Morton are historians at Warwick University aiming to put those ‘ordinary’ women on the map and have to date, discovered some 20 campaigners in Leamington, and two men of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, who were active in the suffrage movement.

Dr Richardson said: “What we’ve found in Warwickshire demonstrates the number and strength of different organisations active in a medium sized town and just how many women were involved – women like vicars wives and teachers.

“There’s so much focus on leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst but the movement was equally strong in our Warwickshire towns and villages.”

Lady Marie Willoughby de Broke, of Compton Verney, was among those fronting the CUFWA branches which were more prevalent in Warwickshire than elsewhere in the country.

Lady Marie along with her husband, the 19th Baron, organised a women’s suffrage rally at their mansion near Wellesbourne, one month after the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, who famously threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Lady Marie also encouraged hundreds of residents to sign petitions, and organised a march which paraded along the streets of Stratford.

Other advocates noted by the historians included Mary Dormer Harris, an Oxford-educated historian and playwright who went on to found the Dramatic Study Club, and who regularly performed at Leamington’s Loft Theatre.

Mary, an active member of NUWSS, organised meetings and a talk by prolific suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett.

And together with secretary Mary Vellacott, the women collected 850 signatures from residents, committed to the cause.

Unlike the more militant members of the WSPU – who were known for throwing bricks in windows and blowing up London post boxes – women of the CUWFA in Warwickshire rarely got on the wrong side of the law.

But there were cases of direct action in Warwickshire.

WSPU member Bertha Ryland organised a campaign in Leamington which saw protesters climb over railings into Victoria Park in the early hours of the morning and hide in undergrowth for ten hours in order to heckle the Earl of Crewe who was holding a meeting there.

And Ada Florence Wightwick, a member of the CUWFA, graffitied a census form by scrawling ‘votes for women’ around the edges.

She filled in all the details as legally required and underneath her name wrote, ‘ non-militant suffragette (at present)’.

Ms Morton said: “Her census form gives us an interesting insight to her mindset. Her signing it as a ‘non-militant suffragette at present’ shows she was getting frustrated and that she was at a cross roads.

“Women were given so many promises and they’d had so many disappointments and I think this seriously says something about the state of play at that time in 1911.”

The historians hope to collect enough information to create an interactive online suffrage map of Warwickshire which will help residents to discover any relatives, who were part of the revolutionary movement.

Ms Morton added: “I think the project will demonstrate how ordinary people can change political landscape and really change the way people think.”

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