Suffragette city: How three inspiring Birmingham women helped win the vote 100 years ago

Suffragette city: How three inspiring Birmingham women helped win the vote 100 years ago

It’s something we take for granted – but today marks the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote.

The Representation of the People Act – passed on this day a century ago – changed Britain forever.

And the suffragette campaigners of Birmingham played a major part in making the long-awaited blow for equality.

The city had a reputation as a hotbed for political activism and had been a breeding ground for the various reform movements which during the 19th century extended the vote and other political rights.

And Birmingham councillors are due to mark the centenary at their meeting on Tuesday, including a screening of the Lottery funded film Fight for Right – starring pupils of Birmingham schools.

A key unit of the national Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the militant suffragette group led by Emmeline Pankhurst – was based in Ethel Street.

It became very active around the factory gates, where increasing numbers of women were hard at work and wondering why they did not have the same voting rights as their male colleagues.



Emma Sproson, Julia Varley, Rhoda Anstey

Leading local activists included Emma Sproson from Wolverhampton, who went on to become Wolverhampton’s first female councillor, union activist Julia Varley from Bournville who was jailed for protesting for the right to vote and Rhoda Anstey, principal of the Anstey College for girls in Erdington who took her female students to protests and refused to fill in the 1911 census because she had no vote.

As the campaign grew, along with the disruptive militancy, activists found themselves locked up in Winson Green prison where their tactic of going on hunger strike was brutally ended in 1909 by the introduction of force-feeding.

In her remarkable series of blogs on the suffragette movement, writer Elizabeth Crawford described the events in detail.

The suffragettes disrupted a public meeting with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at Bingley Hall.

One climbed onto a roof as he travelled to the hall and hurled slate tiles down to the ground.

Five of the campaigners were arrested, including Evlyn Burkitt, from Wellington Road, Perry Barr, and jailed.

They went on hunger strike.

It was then that the Home Office decreed that ‘artificial feeding’ be introduced – and there are descriptions of first spoons, then a nasal tube being used to force feed activist Mary Leigh.

The Birmingham WSPU held protests outside.

Leigh gave a graphic account of her treatment in a WSPU publication: “On Saturday afternoon the wardress forced me onto the bed and two doctors came in.

“While I was held down a nasal tube was inserted.

“It is two yards long, with a funnel at the end; there is a glass junction in the middle to see if the liquid is passing.

“The end is put up the right and left nostril on alternative days.

“The sensation is most painful – the drums of the ears seem to be bursting and there is a horrible pain in the throat and the breast.

“The tube is pushed down 20 inches.

“I am on the bed pinned down by wardresses, one doctor holds the funnel end, and the other doctor forces the other end up the nostrils.

“The one holding the funnel end pours the liquid down – about a pint of milk… egg and milk is sometimes used.”



The activism and campaigning, by the WSPU and the less-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which included the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society (BWSS), continued.

But no progress was being made.

The BWSS took part in a national march, called the pilgrimage, from Carlisle to London in July 1913 – joining the procession at Great King Street, Hockley, as they travelled through the city banners waving.

Their law-abiding campaign became tied to the Labour Party.

But the WSPU suffragettes carried on with their more extreme action.

In April 1913, they were accused of setting fire to a boathouse in Handsworth Park and it was reported that a plan to torch the Old Grammar School at Kings Norton was called off when the activists saw the building’s beauty.



A Nellie Hall was arrested for throwing a brick at Asquith’s car during one of his visits to Birmingham.

Fires at properties in Solihull, Perry Barr and Selly Park, cricket pavillions at Smethwick and Harborne, Bromford Bridge racecourse and rail stations in Northfield and Hagley Road were attributed to the suffragettes.

Northfield Library was burned down in 1914 and a bomb exploded at Moor Hall Green.

Birmingham Cathedral was among churches vandalised with grafitti bearing suffragette slogans such as ‘votes for women’.

The frenzy of activity was only halted by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

While many are celebrating the centenary this week, Brummie historian Carl Chinn argues that we should wait another ten years.

He said: “The vote was only given to women over 30 in 1918.

“It was another ten years before there was full political equality with men. So perhaps we should wait.”

He highlighted campaigners such as Emma Sproson, a leading figure in another group, the Women’s Freedom League who went on to become Wolverhampton’s first female councillor.



“It is also really important that we do not forget the role of working class women in the movement.”

“For some it was just a middle class movement, they were not interested in giving the vote to working women.

“But those women in the factories had to campaign and do their hard day’s work.

He said that Catherine Osler, a member of the wealthy family of glass manufacturers, was a leading voice in the BWSS who broadened the campaign to workers.

She encouraged organisers to go around factories recruiting women to the cause.

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