Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote by Sue Slack

Light blue silk Cambridge University Women's Suffrage Society banner, which survives at Newham College. (Courtesy of Newham College, Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote, Amberley Publishing)

Every schoolgirl knows that it was Emmeline Pankhurst and her Suffragettes who gained some women the vote in 1918, or was it?

Certainly the stories of their daring protests and their challenge to the status quo, at a time when women were not expected to speak in public, has an appeal to modern advocates of girl power.

In Cambridge the Suffragettes did not disappoint, planting improvised bombs at Great Shelford station and the rugby club, mutilating volumes at St John’s College Library and allegedly daubing Votes for Women on the gates at St John’s College – which later turned out to be an undergraduate prank.

Suffragette teacher Miriam Pratt, from Norwich, also committed arson in Storey’s Way, burning two houses aided and abetted by Olive Bartels, the local WSPU organiser and chief aide to Emmeline Pankhurst.

Olive and Grace Roe, the East Anglian WSPU organiser, were members of the Bodyguard who protected Emmeline Pankhurst from police brutality and from capture. The Bodyguard were trained in jiu jitsu and often acted as decoys to allow Mrs Pankhurst to escape dressed in large hats and veils. They also used weapons to protect themselves from increasingly violent treatment and even sexual assault from the police. Hat pins and Indian clubs were sometimes used and barbed wire could be secreted in their bouquets or muffs.

 

 

 

The Great Pilgrimage, July 1913, reaches Howfield in Buckingham Road, the home of Agnes Ramsey. (Courtesy of Newham College, Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote, Amberley Publishing)

However, the Suffragettes were only ever a small but determined group campaigning for the vote from 1903-14.  The numbers of NUWSS members (Suffragists) far surpassed those of the WSPU locally (around 500 members to about 20 known Suffragettes) and were led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, whose statue (as seen on the book’s cover) was unveiled on Parliament Square in April this year, 100 years since some women got the  vote.

MiIlicent lived with her husband, Henry at Brookside Cambridge where a blue plaque was at last installed in February this year, to commemorate her contribution to women’s education and to women’s rights in Cambridge at the time. Newnham College, the second female college in Cambridge, was developed with her and her husband’s help along with Henry Sidgewick and others. She also began the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Society despite the untimely death of her husband.

 

 

'Convicts, lunativs and women' could not vote. This poster shows an educated woman to be a disability, with her academic books the other side of the gate. (By kind permission of the syndics of Camridge University Library, Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote, Amberley Publishing)

The society patiently and determinedly campaigned for the vote for about 40 years until 1928 when all women had the vote at 21, on the same terms as men at last.

They held meetings, market stalls and marches including the spectacular Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913 which eventually converged on Hyde Park to show the media that the Suffragists were as determined as the Suffragettes to have the vote, but were prepared to suffer six weeks of hardship to prove their non militant point. Newnham and Girton students and tutors marched alongside the beautiful blue banner with the slogan “Better is wisdom than weapons of War” aptly displaying their pacifist ethos. This banner still exists at Newnham College.

Colourful pageants and plays were also held to illustrate their aims.

“Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote” is illustrated with previously unseen portraits of local Suffragettes and Suffragists taken from the Palmer Clarke glass negative collection held in the Cambridgeshire Collection, Cambridge Central Library.

Recently discovered Suffrage posters at the Cambridge University Library are also included as well as modern day photos showing some of the iconic Cambridge scenes associated with women’s suffrage, which are well known to tourists and students down the ages.

Sue Slack's new book Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote is available for purchase now.