No more suffragettes please!

This week contains the 100th anniversary of another important point in women’s history. On 14 December 1918 the general election called by Prime Minister Lloyd George saw the first women in the UK to cast their votes, after the passing of the Representation of the People Act the previous February.

It’s been a great year for women’s history, on the back of these anniversaries.

But I’m going to say something that may rile some people.

I am PIGSICK of the flipping suffragettes.

I have had a gutful of Millicent, Emmeline, Christabel et al. Sorry, and all that, but it’s true.

Does this make me anti-feminist? Does it make me not worthy of calling myself a women’s historian?

I believe not. I believe it’s a very feminist standpoint, and one that shows my commitment to the wider cause and depth of women’s history.

Of course those women were amazing, inspirational and changed lives. I am not arguing with that in the slightest, and they’ll always have my utmost respect. But they’re not the be all and end all of women’s history by a long way.

My view point comes from the suffrage cause being ALL that anyone wants to talk about when women’s history is mentioned. Talk to a history teacher about women’s history and the general response is “Oh yes, we include women’s suffrage in our curriculum now”, with possibly a footnote on women’s rights in the 20th century. Talk a museum curator about women’s history, and one of the responses I’ve received is an apology of “Oh, we’ve not found a suffragist from our collecting area.”

For the past two years I’ve been running The Women Who Made Me project, which has looked at discovering extraordinary women’s history among the ordinary – we’ve profiled nuns, penitents, criminals, divorcees, landladies, social pariahs, farmer’s wives, cooks, women’s officers, prostitutes, social workers, gentry, workhouse inmates, mothers of fourteen, mothers of none, mothers of illegitimate children, artists, musicians, manageresses, matrons, highway women, confectioners, travellers, teachers, factory workers, and someone who recommended do-it-yourself enemas. All important and diverse parts of women’s history. The idea behind the project is to get people to connect with and value their female ancestry, and not dismiss it as not interesting or relevant. Grassroots women’s history research, if you will.

Recently I’ve looked at an 1880s case where a botched abortion led to a pregnant woman’s death and a herbalist locked up for the crime (which it was at the time) was incarcerated for 23 years past the duration of her original sentence because she insisted upon her innocence and was declared insane.

I’ve also looked at female anti-suffragists, many of whom were articulate and intelligent women, as I was fascinated these women could oppose the idea of expanding rights and roles. One of such was Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, who intrigued me greatly, as even when many other opposers had given up in the face of seeing what women were capable of during WW1, she kept up the fight. And she was so vociferous that she didn’t appear on the electoral roll until she’d changed her surname in 1938. There’s loads more to Gwladys, and I urge you to go and read the rest of her story on The Women Who Made Me.

Why would I want to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst again, when I could talk about some of these women instead?

The rule of thumb is if someone has a Wikipedia page then people know about them, and I tend not to touch them. It’s about uncovering and discovering history that hasn’t really been recorded, for whatever reason – because it wasn’t known about, because it wasn’t considered important, because it was disregarded, because history as taught in schools for decades was believed to be about kings and queens and empire and foreign policy and nothing else, because it sits behind a blank box on a census return, because the woman herself didn’t think it was up to much so didn’t talk about it.

Occasionally, rather than talking about the suffragettes, someone will tell me about their grandmother. Invariably she was a “strong woman”, but when pressed on exactly what that means the answer is “Er… she wasn’t a suffragette or anything but she raised us all her children really well and kept going.”

Strong woman is right. What people usually don’t mention is what granny did before she was married, after she left school. What her childhood was like. Who she was as a person rather than someone based around the house and in a nurturing role. When I asked listeners to BBC Wiltshire to tell me about their grannies there were dozens of stories of warm older women who would make great apple crumble and always be on hand to dispense a cuddle when needed. Which is great – the world needs more people like that – but really doesn’t give the full picture of a person and their life.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a grandmother too. But I’m willing to bet that Helen Pankhurst doesn’t get asked about the quality of her apple crumble, because it might be considered insulting and denigrating everything else she achieved. But she may well have been a good cook. It’s about seeing the whole woman, not just part of her life.

It’s really a question of value when it comes to historical women – what we can find out about them, and looking at what we consider as history or an achievement. There’s been an upsurge in publishing of inspiring books for kids over the past couple of years – the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Women in Science are prime examples. They focus on some exceptional women – of the past and the present. However, the reality is, these women are few and far between, and we’d be really lucky to find someone like them in our ancestry.

And, really, are these women’s achievements being judged by ‘male’ parameters – they are making discoveries and achievements in areas that have been traditionally male: politics, science, medicine, engineering.

Therefore, are we valuing and judging them and their achievements against a male-based scale, rather than valuing them as whole women?

Is that too feminist, or too divisionist, or not the case at all?

Maybe, but it’s definitely something to consider as we look at the women in our ancestry and attempt to find out their stories.

Do we disregard them out of hand if it looks like they “just” had children, and didn’t do something that little bit different or out of the ordinary? There’s the “blank box” syndrome, whereby a married woman’s details weren’t recorded on many census returns because she had no identity past that of her husband and children. Even the jobs she did do – for example helping with home-based manufacture, or farming, or running a pub or shop – were attributed to her husband if she was married.

The point is, these women – those who exceeded society expectations, challenged perceptions and broke molds – are few and far between. We’re lucky if we find one in our ancestry, but most of us haven’t got that. The quite frankly excellent recent Back In Time For The Factory on the BBC looked at this – the story of ordinary working class women in garment factories, and ascribing value to their experiences.

What we need to do is re-evaluate the women we do have in our ancestry, and find value in their stories.

The nature of humanity often means that we think ourselves better than those who came before us, because we’ve built on their achievements. But this often means we’ve not experienced what those of the past did – for example multiple pregnancies (unless your name happens to be Helena de Chair), or high infant mortality rates, or domestic work without modern appliances – so our judgement on what to value comes from a blinkered perspective. Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ Maternity, published in 1915, features very frank accounts of working-class motherhood and domestic work from the late Victorian era that are completely alien today.

By its very nature, our family history comes down to us from married people, women who had achieved the “ultimate” and envied position for a woman – that of wife and mother. Society taught people to pity the unmarried woman as she had not achieved this position (look at words like spinster, old maid, dried up, etc, as opposed to bachelor) – but actually the unmarried women are often the most interesting, if you seek them out. But because they have no descendants they tend to be an afterthought in our family history, if they feature at all. It’s all about the lens we see women of the past through – because of how it was recorded.

The question is, should we perpetuate that viewpoint and that lens in how we view our female ancestry?

Or should we challenge it?

The ending of the year of important suffrage anniversaries means that women’s history has quite justifiably had a lot of focus over the last 12 months. What needs to happen now is that interest to be sustained, and to go beyond those obvious figures – looking at more than just the suffragettes.

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Gwladys S’s story

Understanding where someone else is coming from in political matters is hard enough at the best of times, but Gwladys’ position – against the background of a militant fight from women to gain the vote at the beginning of the 20th century – is particularly boggling. She was an active anti-suffragist at the point where the WSPU were at their height.

Today, with 100 years of women having the vote behind us, the idea that an educated woman could somehow oppose the idea of enfranchising herself and her sisters beggars belief. However, this is exactly what Gwladys did. Often vociferously.

Her background appears to have been somewhat small-C conservative. She was the second daughter of a congregational minister and his Welsh wife, born in Wales towards the end of the 1870s. The family had enough money to afford a couple of servants, and spent time in South Wales, London and Kent – as Gwladys’ father’s job moved. Both Gwladys and her elder sister were educated at boarding school, while her brothers appear to have gone to school closer to home.

After school Gwladys became a teacher, holding a position at a school for daughters of the clergy in Bristol. The school building no longer stands, but the school still exists.

In the mid-1900s, she married a South African artist who was living in the UK after the death of his father. A son followed, but the couple separated only after a few years together.

In some cases, after separation in an era when divorce was hard and costly to obtain, and carried considerable social stigma, the estranged husband would often maintain his wife. However, this was not the full case for Gwladys. The 1911 census sees her in London, supporting herself and her son with a job – as organising secretary for the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage – and she states on the form that she is estranged from him.

At this point, the National League had recently amalgamated from the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, and its president was Lord Cromer. The 1911 census is the first readily-available document linking Gwladys to the League, but newspapers have her appointment as honourable secretary of the Hampstead branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League from March 1909.

However long she had been involved, Gwladys came to more prominence under the leadership of Lord Curzon and Lord Weardale, who took over in early 1912. An educated, articulate woman actively opposing something that others of her sex were prepared to fight and be imprisoned for must have been extremely useful for their cause.

She had been an Anti-Suffragist correspondent to a publication called The World, and is mentioned as such in a letter to that publication by Emily Wilding Davison in 1911. She writes:

“To turn to (Gwladys’) second point, which is ‘that all the reforms women might bring about with the vote they can certainly bring about without it.’ No doubt they can do so, but only by an iniquitous waste of energy and time. Here is an anti who probably believes ardently in woman keeping to woman’s sphere, telling us to choose the longer, the more cumbrous, the more nerve-wearing, the more doubtful, method of working, by means of stirring public opinion (which, of course, can be stirred, but it is often a killing process), instead of using the obviously practical, effective, and easy way of the vote.”

Gwladys would often write into publications at the time, stating the anti-suffrage point of view and refuting anything that pro-suffrage supporters said about her activities that she felt was inaccurate.

In 1912, Gwladys wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at least twice. Her letters give a further clue to her reasoning:

“As a typical women householder and rate and tax payer I beg you – a typical man – to take upon your stronger shoulders the burden of responsibility for the safety of the Empire, the Army, Navy, Trade, Shipping, Mining, Railways etc. I am too thankful to pay my taxes in return for your protection, if only you will leave me to look after my home and my child. It is true that I am in the unfortunate position of having to earn a livelihood as well as perform the duties of a mother, but why, why on that account do you want to add still more to my responsibilities and duties?”

The second letter elaborates further:

“The great difficulty in my work has been that people think it is so preposterous to suggest giving women control of Imperial affairs which they do not administer, that there is no danger of “votes for women” becoming law. If woman suffrage is put into the Reform bill the Liberal Government will be wrecked. Are we to lose the Insurance Bill, Home Rule, Welsh Disestablishment, and Land Reform, for the sake of a mere quarter of a million of misguided women who most of them only want to enfranchise the women of property for the sake of the Conservative Party? Are the other 12 ¾ millions of women to be utterly ignored?”

On the back of this growing notoriety, Gwladys embarked on visits to many towns and cities in the UK during 1912-14, setting up and speaking at anti-suffrage meetings. Sometimes she was invited to speak, and at other times she would turn up in a town, advertise a meeting via men with sandwich boards, pitch up in the market place and speak for an hour.

This took place at a time when the suffragette campaign was at its height, and the suffragettes were often targets for her ire, newspaper reports of her speeches indicate.

““We are not asking for votes,” declared the speaker. “we are asking that you will save us from the suffragettes.” Women had their own work, and could not, even those who called themselves sportsmen, afford to take over the risks of men. Women knew nothing of the laws – many suffragettes had never read a single law – and thought they could make them better. Why did they not come forward with some of their ideas on legislation? As to the economic argument, women were not worth as much as men, and so long as men were obliged to support their wives and children they ought to be paid more. Then they said they would bring purity into politics. They had made a good start, hadn’t they? Their methods were the most degrading and debasing the world had ever known. They said they would not take human life – no, because they might get hanged. We were supposed to be a nation of sportsmen, and a sportsman could not hit in the dark, stab in the back, or hit anyone who could not hit back, and the suffragettes did all these things, and what was so disgraceful, they did it in the name of the women of England. The suffrage was a retrogressive movement (Loud applause). The suffragettes were trying to shift the women’s movement on to the wrong lines, just when women were beginning to take their right place. But women were going to advance, and in spite of the suffragettes. They now had the municipal vote, leading them to a useful field. It was so awful to think how the world, whole world was laughing at women. They all knew what was thought of the hen-pecked husband? Then they must not let their glorious nation do down to posterity as the hen-peck nation.”

The Cambridge Independent, March 7 1913

Other arguments she used included that women’s interests would result in too many insignificant and cluttering bills being brought into parliament – like the dangers of flannelette clothing – and that giving women the vote might adversely affect the birth rate at a time when there was a great deal of rhetoric about breeding a strong nation. She felt that women could be more effective in – and improve – society if they were given more control over domestic affairs, and brought up better people by focusing on their children, and that having the vote would distract from this.

The way in which Gwladys appears to argue – from the newspaper reports of her speeches – shows her to be intelligent and articulate, and she states on several occasions that she doesn’t see women’s intelligence to be inferior to men. It is therefore hard, from a modern perspective, to see how she can have arrived at these conclusions about the role of women in society. Her background may have had some bearing on it. So also may have been the fact that her ex-mother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law were prominent suffragettes – the former being jailed for breaking Black Rod’s windows at the Houses of Parliament, and the latter mailing herself to 10 Downing Street – and it is always possible that this, combined with the fact that she was estranged from her husband and former family, added fuel to her fire.

The First World War midway through 1914 brought an effective end to the suffragette campaign, with activists devoting themselves to the fight for the country. As the war went on, women filled many jobs that men off fighting had previously undertaken, and proved that they were perfectly capable of undertaking this work, and public opinion started to change. Many prominent female anti-suffrage speakers drifted away, but Gwladys – perhaps due to economic necessity – stayed loyal and continued to campaign and speak. An article from a suffrage supporter to a publication called The Vote in 1917 makes mention to her still being active in the campaign, at a point where the bill to give women the vote, which came in early February 1918, was being drafted.

With the right to vote in general elections given to certain groups of women – and virtually all men over 21 – in 1918, the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage had lost their impetus and gradually disbanded, taking Gwladys’ job with it. Her son would now have been in his early teens, and still in need of support and care.

She now gave occasional talks on educational subjects, and turned to writing educational books – although her 1939 register entry also calls her a public speaker, so it appears that she still addressed meetings – on language teaching to children. Her books included three on early French teaching, one on German, one on Spanish, and one on Esperanto. The Esperanto book, which included Mary Had a Little Lamb in translation, was intended to create unity of language among the children of the world and thus end war. To that end, free copies were sent around the globe. Some of her books remained in publication until at least 1970.

In the 1920s she wrote a play, Aunt Priscilla’s Will, which was performed in amateur dramatic circles. She was active in local educational circles in Hendon in the 1930s, and stood as secretary for the Golders Green Literary Society too. In the late 1930s she was also involved in the Shaftesbury Society, now Livability, which offered support and services for disabled children.

Just before the Second World War, she changed her surname by deed poll. She resigned the married name she had used during her anti-suffrage days – she does not appear to have ever divorced, so this would have been the next best thing – and instead became known by part of her former maiden name. Around the same time, she appears on the electoral registers – so perhaps had mellowed on her previous stance.

Her son fought in the war, and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. In later life Gwladys moved to Cheshire, close to where her son was employed, and also spent some time in some African counties – possibly accompanying her son, who conducted research into tropical medicine. She died in a nursing home in the mid-1960s.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Bessie G’s story

The name “Miss B Gramlich” is given as a co-chair of the West Wiltshire WSPU, alongside Lillian Dove-Willcox (a prominent member known to have relocated to Trowbridge from Bristol) in 1911-12.

This would appear to be Elizabeth Gramlick, one of several daughters of a wealthy family who at that time were living at the now-demolished grand house of Springfield, on Hilperton Road in Trowbridge.

 

Bessie was born in c1881, at least the fifth child of seven from Bethnal Green-born John Thomas Gramlick and his wife Emily Hornsby. Like most of her siblings (she had five sisters and a brother), she was born in Vienna, where her father made a good living as a plumber, putting in water supplies and indoor plumbing for grand palaces. The family were part of a good number of English people – despite their Germanic surname, John Thomas appears to have been English for several generations back – in the Austrian capital, and seem to have played a big part in that society. He is known to have been a founder of the Vienna Cricket and Football Club.

At some point around the turn of the century, Bessie and her family returned to the UK. Her father appears to have retired from running the plumbing business full time, and left his son and oldest child in charge. It’s unknown where they settled at first – the 1901 census has the family holidaying at a boarding house in Brighton – but by 1904 when Bessie’s mother died the family were clearly well settled in Trowbridge society.

The local newspaper report of Emily Gramlick’s funeral reports on many tributes from local people, and floral arrangements from all daughters including “Little Bess” – a pet name for Bessie.

There are sporadic reports of the family in newspapers of the first decade of the 20th century. The Misses Gramlick appear to have played tennis among other society women, and attended grand weddings – Bessie contributed a fancy cushion as a present to one, while her sisters offered a butter knife. There is also a report of Bessie being a fair amateur actress in a production of Red Riding Hood at Staverton School Room in 1906, which involved various of her sisters. Bessie played the Queen of Sylvania, and reportedly acted it in a “graceful and artistic way”.

Bessie’s name appearing as the co-chair of the West Wilts WSPU in 1911-12 is concurrent with her appearance on the 1911 census. On this document she is 30 and has no profession – like all of her sisters. She’s given by her full name Elizabeth. All her sisters are at home, and unmarried.

A reception for women to discuss votes for women was held by the WSPU at Trowbridge Town Hall on 14 March 1911, but while the invitation came from Lillian Dove-Willcox there was no mention of Bessie’s connection to the movement. There is no further connection of the WSPU to Bessie Gramlick in the newspapers at the time.

Instead, the next record available shows that she volunteered for the Voluntary Red Cross at Trowbridge in February 1916. She worked six hours per week at the Wilts War Hospital Supply Depot, as a member of the BRCS, and was retained until 1919. She was awarded a VW badge for this.

In 1921 it appears both Bessie and her sister Mary married, probably at the same time. Bessie Gramlick became Bessie LeCount as she married Charles J Lecount in West Ham. She would have been 40 years old when this marriage took place, and probably regarded as a confirmed spinster by the society circles she moved in.

However, her father’s will, enacted around six months after her wedding took place, refers to both Bessie and Mary as spinsters. Their married status probably hadn’t had a chance to be updated by the time he died in early 1922. Bessie, Mary and another spinster sister Emily inherited nearly £6,000 and were still given as living at Springfield in Trowbridge.

Bessie and Charles appear to have a son – Charles – in 1922, when she was around 40, and a daughter – Peggy – in 1929 when she was around 48, and lived in West Ham. Her unmarried sister Emily appears to have kept up the family home at Springfield, but used her inheritance to travel – the late 20s and early 30s have her going back and forth between the UK, Italy and Indonesia – while Bessie stayed in Essex with her husband and children.

Bessie Lecount died in 1955 at the age of 73, in Essex. Family trees online give Bessie’s death, unmarried, as 1951 in Trowbridge. However, there is no record that backs up this account.

Amy H’s story

Oral history and collective memory can often add a extra dimension to women’s history, which may not be borne out by the records.

Amy H was the youngest of seven children born to a Bristol-based currier – a leather working specialist – and his wife in the mid-19th century. She lost her mother around the age of five, and she and her siblings were brought up by relatives rather than her father, even after he remarried.

As a young woman she lived with her widowed aunt in the fashionable Clifton area of the city. Her aunt had no profession, and was instead an itinerant, and the household had one servant.

Her aunt died when she was 30, and Amy was the sole executor and heir of her will, inheriting a great deal of money. She never married, and with this money remained of independent means for the rest of her life.

Family legend holds that she was a suffragette in the early 20th century. There is no documentary evidence to support this – no prison or court records show her having been involved in civil action – but as an unmarried, independent woman of means in this period she would have been ideally placed to support this cause. She also had several different forms of her name, which may indicate that she was known by different groups of society in separate ways.

In the early part of the 20th century she lived with her widowed sister, supporting and helping her with her young family. Her sister registered no profession on the census records, perhaps an indication that Amy’s inherited money was helping to support the family.

As women gained the vote in 1918, Amy bought property on the outskirts of the city, thus enabling her to qualify as a property owner and therefore vote in the next general election. This action may also have labelled her as a suffragette, or suffragist – or at the very least a supporter of women’s rights – in the collective family memory.

She remained in that property until she died, a couple of years after the Second World War, leaving a still considerable amount of money to a builder’s merchant.