Women united with common purpose to win the vote

Front page of the bookIn the summer of 1911 an international procession of women from all walks of life walked through the streets of London in celebration of the Coronation of His Majesty King George V.

The women were all campaigners for the parliamentary Vote, and on this occasion the members of the militant groups, such as Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU and the Women’s Freedom League, led by Charlotte Despard walked side-by-side with their non-militant colleagues. This was a display of unity of purpose which would come under ever-increasing strain after the militants escalated their activities in mid-1912 to include arson and the setting fire of the Royal Mail.

High above the procession, seated on a balcony overlooking St. James’s Street, a diminutive figure watched the dazzling spectacle below. She was the 77 year old campaigner Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and too frail now to march alongside her comrades as they demonstrated their loyalty to the new monarch. Elizabeth was seated under a banner, upon which was emblazoned the words “England’s Oldest Militant Suffragette Greets Her Sisters” and, as they passed her vantage point, those women carrying pennants lowered them in respect.

‘women from all walks of life and different campaigning styles were united
in calling for the parliamentary Vote’ 

Though Wolstenholme Elmy was to live until March 1918, only weeks after the enactment of the Representation of the People bill on 6 February, the Coronation procession was almost her last major public engagement. She had worked, however, since the early-1860s to secure better conditions for women. Miss Wolstenholme was middle-class, but never wealthy. She had to earn her own living as Headmistress of a small girls’ school in Cheshire but through her brother Joseph’s University network she was introduced to Millicent Garrett Fawcett and other women whose pragmatic yet stoic non-militant campaign for the vote from 1865 was abetted by their equally controversial claims for economic and social equality for their sex.

The stories of the suffragists are too often overlooked in favour of the valiant headline grabbing suffragettes, with their slogan of “Deeds, not Words!” But suffragists too committed deeds of great valour; such as when Wolstenholme Elmy stood on a public platform in London in 1880 to speak on the topic of marital rape. Not all suffragists were quiet… and they too demand modern women’s admiration.

Blog by Dr Maureen Wright
Associate Lecturer
Department of History and Politics
University of Chichester

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