On this day in history : 10th October 1903 – Emmeline Pankhurst forms the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – to fight for women’s emancipation in Britain….
The WSPU was founded at 62, Nelson Street, Manchester – the home of the Pankhurst family…. Emmeline, her husband Richard and their daughters Christabel and Sylvia had all previously been active members of the Independent Labour Party, which was founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, who was a family friend…. (Hardie went on to form the Labour Party)….
Many women had put their faith in the ILP – believing it to be the party to fight for their cause…. However, Emmeline became disillusioned with the party – finding its commitment and support of female suffrage half-hearted….a lot of talk and promises but nothing was happening…. She invited a group of women members of the ILP to her home and together they formed the WSPU…. Their motto ~ “Deeds, not words”….
On this day in history : 7th October 1920 – Women are granted the right for full admission and to become members of Oxford University….
From the late 1870s women had been allowed to attend lectures, take the same examinations as men and gain honours…. However, they were unable to receive the degrees that they would have been entitled to had they of been men…. Between 1904 and 1907 some women travelled to Dublin – the university there being more relaxed and willing to award degrees to women – and they became known as ‘Steamboat Ladies’….
By 1920 four women’s colleges had been established;- Lady Margaret Hall, St. Hugh’s, Somerville and St. Hilda’s…. Women who had previously gained honours were able to return to ‘matriculate’ – go through the formal admission ceremony to the university – and then have the degree they were now entitled to awarded to them in another formal ceremony….At the very first of these ceremonies more than forty women attended….
It wasn’t totally equal rights immediately though…. A quota limiting how many women could enrol at any one time was not abolished until 1957…. The colleges remained single-sex until the 1970s – the last single-sex college, St. Benet’s Hall, finally opened its doors to women in 2015….
On this day in history : 14th July 1967 – Abortion is legalised in Britain, ending the misery of many of the illegal backstreet terminations that claimed the lives of so many women….
Throughout history attitude towards abortion in the Western World had been more relaxed – it was considered the foetus was part of the woman and abortion was acceptable providing it took place before ‘quickening’ started – or when the baby’s movements began to be felt (16-20 weeks)…. However, towards the end of the 18th century attitudes began to change – including in Britain….
In 1803 The Ellenborough Act was brought in…. Any abortions carried out after quickening carried the death penalty…. In 1837 the Act was amended to include all abortion…. This was relaxed in 1861 with The offences Against the Person Act, which meant performing an abortion or trying to self abort carried a sentence of life imprisonment….
The Infant Life Preservation Act replaced this in 1929 – making it to crime to kill a viable foetus in all cases except when an expectant mother’s life was at risk…. However, this didn’t last for long – a succession of laws followed to eventually all but totally take away even this access to a termination….
During the 1930s MPs and women’s groups began to audibly voice concerns about the loss of life and damage to women’s health…. Between 1923-33 around 15% of maternal deaths were due to illegal abortions…. This eventually led to the establishment of The Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936…. In 1938 Dr Alex Bourne was acquitted for performing an illegal abortion – this case set a precedence….and during the 1950s support for reform grew…. The contraceptive pill arrived in the 1960s (initially for married women only) and finally The Abortion Act, sponsored by David Steel MP came in 1967….coming into effect as law on the 27th of April 1968…. Abortion became legal under certain circumstances, with the approval of two doctors…. At last control over women was coming to an end….though it didn’t happen overnight – but it was a start….
Before the Act came in to force it is estimated some 100,000 women had undergone backstreet abortions – but in reality it is likely the number was much higher than this…. Other women resorted to DIY methods; drinking bleach, scalding baths, moving heavy furniture or even using a knitting needle or crochet hook on themselves…. Advertisements would appear in newspapers for cures for ‘menstrual blockages’ – but women knew these were abortion aids…. One of the most common and cheapest was for a lead based potion – which was responsible for poisoning and blinding many women…. (Below is an example of an advertisement for Beecham’s Pills from the 1880s – which discreetly claimed to be an abortion aid in the small print – I am not suggesting this was the lead based preparation previously mentioned)….
A network of backstreet abortionists spread across the country…. Extra staff had to be drafted in to hospital accident and emergency departments on Friday nights – as Friday, being pay-day, would be the time many women would seek out the services of the illegal abortionists…. Often performing the ‘operation’ in squalid conditions, the abortionist would usually be unskilled – although occasionally they may have had limited nursing experience – sometimes they could even be a friend or relative of the woman…. Inevitably things often went wrong and emergency medical help had to be sought…. Sometimes there was loss of life….to avoid police questioning and bringing shame on the families sympathetic doctors were known to lie on death certificates, saying the woman had died of miscarriage….
These weren’t all ‘fallen women’…. many already had large families and simply could not afford to feed another mouth…. So many women were forced to take such drastic measures….
Five National Abortion Campaign badges, UK – 1970 – Image credit : The Wellcome Collection – Science Museum London CC BY
On this day in history : 5th July 1888 – Three matchgirls are fired from Bryant and May, accused of telling lies to a journalist about their working conditions; 1,400 female workers go on strike….
The mood amongst the Bryant and May factory workers had been darkening for a number of years…. It was a time when employers could do pretty much as they pleased…. Employees could be fined for being late, or even for talking…. In the early 1880s boss Theodore Bryant had even deducted a shilling from each pay packet to purchase a statue of William Gladstone…. Such was the disgust, that at its unveiling in 1882 some workers attended the ceremony to throw stones at it…. Some strike action was taken between 1881 and 1886 – but it had little effect….
Conditions at the factory in Bow, East London were appalling…. Girls as young as 12 worked long hours for very little pay….and the work was dangerous…. Lack of ventilation meant the dreaded ‘phossy jaw’ was almost inevitable….
The phosphorous fumes created during the manufacturing process caused a type of cancer which led to facial deformities…. Phossy jaw is a painful swelling in the jaw that produces a foul smelling pus…. the jaw would then turn green and black as the bone rotted away…. The condition would be fatal without surgery….
In 1888 journalist and campaigner for women’s welfare and rights, Annie Besant, wrote a radical article entitled ‘White Slavery in London’…. She told of the terrible conditions in the factory – respectable Victorians would have been shocked when they learned of the appalling working environment these workers had to endure…. The Bryant and May bosses were furious and singled out three girls they believed were responsible for talking to Besant….and they were sacked….
However, the rest of the match girls decided to take action….1,400 workers went on strike which in turn effected some 3,000 Bryant and May staff…. For three weeks production came to a standstill….strike headquarters were established and workers had to rely on donations from the public as there was no strike pay or indeed benefits available then…. The public showed their support by not buying Bryant and May matches…. Rallies and marches were organised and there was a visit to Parliament to speak with MPs….
The bosses threatened to relocate the factory but finally after three weeks gave in to the workers’ demands….and the 3,000 returned to work – fining had ended and the three girls were re-employed….
Things did not end there though…. On the 27th of July 1888 the first meeting of the Union of Women Match Makers was held…. Premises were secured using money left over from the strike fund and the union grew….eventually being renamed so men could join too….
1889 saw a sharp increase in strike action, such as the Great Dock Strike…. Many workers had gained confidence because of the victory of the match girls….
On this day in history : 22nd April 1830 – The birth of suffragist and educator Sarah Emily Davies – who co-founded and was an early mistress of the first English college to educate women….
Emily was born in Southampton but spent most of her childhood in Gateshead, where her father, the Reverend John Davies, was rector…. She was educated at home, whilst her three brothers were sent to boarding school…. She was particularly close to her eldest brother, John Llewelyn, who was to be very successful in his studies at Cambridge University…. This only made Emily realise just how much women were missing out on….
After the death of her father Emily and her mother were to move to London, to 17 Cunningham Place – a home found for them by John Llewelyn…. She was to become editor of ‘The English Woman’s Journal’ and began to mix with women’s rights advocates, such as Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson, Millicent Fawcett and Barbara Bodichon…. She was especially good friends with Elizabeth – who was to become the first woman to qualify as a doctor in England…. Emily had considered a career in medicine herself but realised that with her poor early education that this was practically impossible…. She actively encouraged Elizabeth in her quest….
In 1865 Emily became a founding member of the Kensington Society, a women’s discussion group where suffragists would meet to plan campaigns – in 1866 the Society formed the London Suffrage Committee…. They petitioned Parliament to allow women to vote – but were unsuccessful….
Emily began to campaign for a women’s right to education and the ability to obtain degrees and qualifications…. She also played a major role in gaining girls’ access to secondary education examinations…. By now she had decided to devote her life to this campaign – and next she turned her attention to getting women admission to universities…. At this time only men were permitted to attend – she insisted women should be admitted on the same terms as men….
In 1869 Emily led the founding of Britain’s first college for women; with the support of Barbara Bodichon, Dorothea Beale and Frances Mary Buss the Girton College was established in Hitchin, Hertfordshire….the first mistress was Charlotte Manning…. The college was later to relocate in 1873 to just outside Cambridge….
Emily served on the London School Board from 1870-1873 and in 1870 was responsible for the University of London College’s admission of women for the first time…. She was to serve as mistress at Girton College from 1873-1875 – and then took on the role of Secretary until 1904…. However, it was not until 1940 that Cambridge University finally conceded and began to grant full degrees to women….
During her lifetime Emily was to write two books – ‘The Higher Education of Women’ (1866) and ‘Thoughts on Some Questions Relating to Women 1860-1908’ (1910)…. Emily died in Hampstead, London, on the 13th of July 1921….