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A well-attended meeting of Glendale Local History Society, which coincided with International Women's Day, was reminded of the pioneering women of the North East, who had struggled to ensure that today's women can vote.

Sunday, 26th March 2017, 12:00 pm

The most famous, of course, was Emily Wilding Davison, who lost her life after she protested at a national race meeting, the Epsom Derby, in 1913, and was struck by the King’s horse.

But as Liz O’Donnell told us in an inspiring talk, Emily Wilding Davison was only one of a long line of female activists with strong roots in the North East.

In her talk, Dr O’Donnell explained how the campaign for votes for women grew out of several related campaigns, which arose in the early part of the 19th century, as the rights of every human being to equal respect and treatment before the law were increasingly recognised.

Women were involved in anti-slavery campaigns and in the Corn Law League.

The issue of women’s voting rights also arose in the various reform bills, which slowly extended the franchise to different groups of men as the century proceeded.

We were surprised to learn that Earl Grey’s famous Reform Act of 1832, which introduced votes for all men owning property, was the first to explicitly exclude women.

Until then, the franchise was defined in terms of eligible “persons”, while the new act referred specifically to “male persons”.

By the 1860s, with a new reform act under way (passed in 1867), a petition was presented in Parliament to include women in the extended franchise.

The petition was presented by MPs whose wives and friends were involved in the growing campaign.

We heard of the roles of Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Josephine Butler, the Priestman sisters, Millicent Fawcett, Norah Balls, Florence Nightingale Harrison-Bell and Dr Ethel Williams, all with North East connections.

These activists mostly had middle class backgrounds, which gave them the time, education and contacts for such campaigning.

Several of them came from non-conformist backgrounds, particularly among the Quakers and Unitarians.

But they were often involved in several campaigns and projects at once.

Some, such as Josephine Butler, stayed largely on the margins of the movement. In Butler’s case she was so deeply absorbed in her work on the difficult topic of the treatment of women alleged to be spreading sexual diseases to play a major part.

And Emily Davies put her main efforts into creating what was to become Girton College in Cambridge. She did not return to campaigning for the women’s movement until 1906.

By the 1880s, several roles in public life were being opened to women. They could vote on Poor Laws and become members of school boards.

A well-supported proposal that the Parliamentary vote be extended to women householders was justified on the grounds that such women were not only taxpayers, but had special knowledge of children and would bring more variety into national politics.

Newcastle City Council voted to support this measure, though Gateshead did not.

There was also support in some of the national newspapers.

However, in the end, Prime Minister William Gladstone dropped the issue of women’s suffrage from what became the Third Reform Act of 1884 in order to pass a significant extension to male suffrage.

But still 40 per cent of men and no women had the vote.

By this time, many women were getting impatient with the slow progress of the right to vote.

While some women continued to work through persuasive argument and continual pressure through legal means, others concluded that the only way forward was to become much more militant.

The most visible of such groups was the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Sylvia Pankhurst.

The WSPU organised not just demonstrations, but set fire to buildings and tried to disrupt the lives of key politicians.

North East women, such as Norah Balls, spent time in prison as a result, though none of them demonstrated so dramatically as Emily Wilding Davison.

The flood of feeling which Davison’s funeral attracted was so large that perhaps the campaign for votes for women would have succeeded within a short time.

However, the First World War both disrupted the campaign and advanced it.

So many women were involved in so many spheres of life that in 1918 votes were finally extended to women over 30, along with all men over 21.

Women over the age of 21 had to wait until 1928 for the vote.

As our speaker emphasised, however, winning the vote was only one step in the wider struggle for greater equality for women in all spheres of life. She, herself, was involved in struggles in the 1960s and 1970s.

She suggested that there was a new interest in promoting women’s rights these days, with the active celebration of International Women’s Day.

Her talk reminded us nevertheless just how much the struggles of earlier generations of women had brought benefits, which we later generations have enjoyed and should be grateful for.

The next meeting of the society, and the last of this session, will be on April 12 in the Cheviot Centre, Wooler, when Anthony Atkinson will talk on the life of Mary Eleanor Bowes, of Gibside, an ancestor of our present Queen.

A short annual general meeting will follow the speaker.