Pioneering Women

Mayor of London

Meet the pioneering British women whose historic deeds helped to pave the way. #BehindEveryGreatCity

Suffrage heroes
Millicent Garrett Fawcett is not the only pioneering woman to be honoured by the statue in Parliament Square. She is remembered alongside celebrated suffrage heroes like the Pankhurst family and Emily Wilding Davison, as well as less well-known pioneers like Rosa May Billinghurst, Lydia Becker and Louisa Garrett Anderson.
Emmeline Pankhurst
Like Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Emmeline Pankhurst is known as one of the foremost members of the suffrage movement. Born in Manchester in 1858, Emmeline was the founder of the Women’s Franchise League, along with her husband Richard Pankhurst. In 1903, following Richard’s death, Emmeline formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the suffrage group known for its militant direct action, including arson, smashing windows, and assaulting police officers.

Emmeline was also the mother of suffragettes Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela Pankhurst, who helped her to establish the WSPU.

Emily Wilding Davison
Emily Wilding Davison was an itinerant WSPU organiser, and also worked in the union’s London office. To avoid being listed in the 1911 census, Emily spent the night of the census hidden in a cupboard at the Palace of Westminster, which is today commemorated by a plaque.

Most famously, Emily was hit by King George V’s horse, at Epsom Derby, while trying to pin a “Votes for Women” flag to its reins.

Emily later died of her injuries and became a martyr to the cause, prompting Millicent Garrett Fawcett to write: “Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.”

Lydia Becker
Manchester-born Lydia Becker was an early suffrage campaigner, becoming secretary of the Manchester Committee for Women’s Suffrage. She founded and published the Women's Suffrage Journal between 1870 and her death in 1890, and was an early advocate of voting rights for unmarried women and widows.
Rosa May Billinghurst
Rosa May Billinghurst was a disabled member of the WSPU. Having contracted polio as a child, she was unable to walk, and used either crutches or a tricycle wheelchair to get around. Despite this, she was in regular attendance at suffrage protests, and became known for using her chair to charge at police. She founded and became secretary of the Greenwich branch of the WSPU in 1910.
Agnes Pochin
In 1868, Agnes Pochin was the first woman to speak about suffrage on a public platform, at the first public meeting of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Previously – in 1855 – she had written The Right of Women to Exercise the Elective Franchise, calling for women to have equal rights in voting, education, divorce, and ambition. Agnes died in 1908, ten years before The Representation of the People Act.
Margaret Ashton
In 1908, ten years before winning the right to vote, Margaret Ashton become Manchester’s first woman councillor. Margaret was chairperson of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage, and a member of both the WLF and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). She was also a prominent peace campaigner during the First World War. 
Eleanor Rathbone
Eleanor Rathbone was Liverpool’s first female city councillor, elected in 1909. She was honorary secretary of the Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society, and later co-founded the Liverpool Women Citizen’s Association. In 1919, after Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s retirement, Eleanor took over the presidency of the NUWSS – which by then had been renamed the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. She was elected MP for Combined English Universities in 1929, remaining in Parliament until 1946.
Nessie Stewart-Brown
Nessie Stewart-Brown, along with Eleanor Rathbone, founded Liverpool Women's Suffrage, and the Liverpool Women's Citizens Association. She also led Women's Liberal Federation branches in Liverpool, and served on the Women's Freedom League executive. Nessie was a Liverpool city councillor, and in 1922 stood as a Liberal Party candidate for election. She was one of the first women to be appointed Justice of the Peace, in 1924.
Ada Nield Chew
Ada Nield Chew was one of the first speakers on the Clarion Van – used by the Independent Labour Party (ILP) to canvas support for the party around the UK. She attracted the ILP’s attention after writing a series of anonymous letters, signed “A Crewe factory girl”, calling on her fellow factory workers to demand a “living wage”.
Teresa Billington Greig
Previously a school teacher, Teresa Billington Greig was one of the first paid, full-time organisers of the WSPU, responsible for organising publicity and demonstrations. She resigned from this role in 1907, over disagreements with the Pankhursts, and went on to form the Women’s Freedom League (WLF).
Minnie Baldock
Minnie Baldock was a member of the ILP, and one of the first Londoners to join the WSPU. In 1906, she was involved in setting up the WSPU’s first London branch, in Canning Town, east London – where she went on to work as its chair. Minnie withdrew from militant activism in 1911, for health reasons, but remained a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage.
Louisa Garrett Anderson
Louisa Garrett Anderson was a medical pioneer, who co-founded the Women’s Hospital Corps. She was chief surgeon of Endell Street Military Hospital in Covent Garden, the first hospital run entirely by women, treating 26,000 patients from 1915 to 1919. Louisa came from a strong line of female pioneers; she was the niece of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – the first woman to qualify as a physician and surgeon.
Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy
Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy was a founding member of the Women's Franchise League and the Women's Emancipation Union, and an early member of the WSPU, who marched in many of their large demonstrations. She was a secularist and sexual radical, who lived in a ‘free love’ union with Ben Elmy, a silk mill owner, secularist and feminist. The couple reluctantly married when her pregnancy scandalised other feminists.

By taking those all important first strides in their respective fields, each of these women opened up a whole new world of possibilities for future generations of young women.

Their achievement in 1918 was about more than just voting rights; it was a hugely significant step in the journey towards gender equality.

Credits: Story

#BehindEveryGreatCity: celebrating the centenary of the first women winning the right to vote and tackling gender inequality in London

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