October 1908 – Passions run high as the women fighting for the right to vote launch their campaign in Shrewsbury.
A vast crowd had gathered in one of the front rooms of the Music Hall – men and women of all ages waiting for proceedings to start, but there was also an air of tension.
This was the very first public meeting of the local branch of the Women’s Suffrage Society.
The speakers were cheerleaders for one of the most radical and controversial political movements the country had ever seen and there was no shortage of opposition.
From the outset there were indications of disorder – with dissenting voices in crowd.
The President of the Society, Mrs. Katherine Harley from Condover, stood up and addressed the crowd explaining that that their branch was still only very young, only a few months old, but their numbers were steadily growing, and this meeting she hoped would swell them.
But she had a warning for those of her own sex who opposed them…
“If any member of any anti-suffragette society is present we will be glad to hear her views. And I understand they are very active in Shrewsbury,
But we are not in the least bit afraid of them. They have come too late. Sooner or later women are bound get the vote.”
A few more dissenting voices could be heard – but they were quietened when Mrs. Despard stood up.
She was a big name in the movement, a peaceful activist but one who was well prepared to break the law. She was also Katherine’s sister, and she’d worked closely with Emmeline Pankhurst in the past, had met Ghandi, and had already spent time in prison for refusing to pay taxes, and she was doing it again;
Mrs. Despard: “Years ago woman’s place no doubt was in the home but things have changed.
There are very few men who are able to support all the women members of their family, and the girls very often have to go out to work
When politics doesn’t interfere with me and my family, then I won’t interfere with politics.
But the fact is that politics affects us at every turn. Although I have no vote I am directly taxed, but I won’t pay, although I have been served with a writ.
It’s said that women could not understand politics—except at election times! (Laughter) At such times women were asked to speak, and work, and I have done it, but I won’t do it again.”
When she started talking about unemployment she was interrupted, but quickly responded, “l really did not think there were such rude people in Shrewsbury’’.
She went on: “Mr. John Burns, the President of the Local Government Board, has a scheme for turning married women out of factories.
Voice: ‘’Never mind the women” —
Mrs. Despard: “But I have come speak about the women. It would be all very well to keep women out of factories as long as they were bringing up their children, but in times of slackness of work it was very often the case that only through the work of the women bread could be earned to put into the children’s mouths.—There was more interruption, and Mrs. Despard said: “I appeal to the men in the gallery, if you are Englishmen and like fairplay, to let me finish”.
She claimed that the bringing of politics into the family would be an excellent thing, and that well-instructed race of women with votes would mean more than they could imagine in making the world better than it is. She was delighted to think they had a local branch of the union in Shrewsbury, and hoped that some fine educational work would be done there.
Mrs. Despard: “We do not intend to draw back in the work we have taken up, but were going on to victory.” (Applause.)
Mrs. Moss, who was on the panel, rose. She then moved —“That this meeting calls upon the Government to enfranchise women during the present session” I am no supporter of the present government…” — (A Voice: “They all want chucking into the river”.)
—response “and that is the reason why we should be doing our utmost to show them why women should be enfranchised.” (Applause)
The motion was declared and carried despite more noisy elements in the crowds chirping up.
Miss Gale proposed, and Mrs. Timpany, the hon. secretary of the branch, seconded, vote of thanks to Mrs. Despard, and to Mrs. Harley for presiding. A collection was made, and a sum of £11 thus raised towards the expenses.
The room emptied out, and the backlash came in the newspapers.
After the highly charged meeting people turned to the newspapers to vent their frustration.
One man who was particularly wound up was a Mr Frank Livingstone from Prestfeld in Shrewsbury.
He grabbed his pen, and furiously scribbled a letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle.
In his opening sentence he described the events at the meeting as a sorry “spectacle of political women in action” arguing that that far from helping their cause it merely strengthened the case against them..
And he accused the whole suffragette movement of bigotry and blatant dishonesty; although he describes the events at the Music Hall as mere child’s play in comparison with the more militant methods of other groups. He accused its main speaker Mrs Despard as being pigheaded and “having the ambition of seeing her name print..
He added that if Pankhurst gets her way – those employed will soon be needed in the police force!
The letter went on and he described women’s efforts to get the vote thus…
“Let us picture a scene when mankind dwelt in caves. Two dwellers – Algernon and Rupert are together and Algernon covets the most comfortable seat by the fire…which is now occupied by Rupert..
He gives poor Rupert a blow between the eyes , and so comes into possession of the most comfortable seat. The crude methods of Algernon have been superseded by parliament – what used to be settled by force is now settled by voting…and the vote represents that physical force…
The men provide that force and until we have women police, women soldiers and women sailors neither Mrs Despard, or any other woman will have a shadow of claim to parliamentary suffrage”.
So that was Mr Livingstone’s response – he died in battle a month after women were first given the vote in 1918.
But women were against it too. One such person calling herself “A Women Rate Payer” wrote to the Chronicle to say that if these women think the “evil of unemployment” can be cured by votes for women then they’re doing nothing more than mocking those in distress.
The long hard fight would continue.
A year later another meeting of the society was held….And in it Mrs Katherine Harley of Condover appealed to the members “not to be discouraged when hard words were thrown at them “ and urged them to remember that they were helping their poorer sisters and making life easier for women of the future.
So, some women were first given the vote in 1918, ten years after the very first meeting of Shropshire’s local branch.
Voting rights were limited to women over 30, compared to 21 for men and 19 for those who had fought in World War One. Additionally, various property restrictions remained in place (see The Representation of the People Act 1918).
But it would take a another ten years (1928) before all women were given equal voting rights.
As for full gender equality – that’s a fight that’s still going on today in this country, and around the globe.