IT’S EXACTLY 100 years ago this week that women were finally granted the vote.
On February 6, 1918, The Representation of the People Act passed into law giving the vote to all men over the age of 21 – and to certain women over the age of 30.
Those women also had to meet a property qualification so it would actually be another decade before all women got an equal vote.
Nonetheless 1918 was a political earthquake and historians still debate what won the day.
There were many factors involved including years of suffragette campaigning – both constitutional and militant – plus the need to extend the vote to soldiers after World War One, the pressure to recognise women’s war work, and the exit of figureheads opposed to female suffrage from the political stage.
It’s a common misconception that Britain was somehow an early adopter of votes for women. New Zealand did it first back in 1893 and seven more nations had followed suit before we finally caught up with the times.
Local women played a significant role in making this victory happen, not least Springhead’s Annie Kenney, Chadderton’s Lydia Becker and Werneth’s Marjory Lees (pictured above, left to right).
Kenney was born in 1879 as the fourth daughter of 12 children and started work at a mill in Lees Brook in Lees at the age of just 10. She was employed there as a “tenter”, spending 15 years fitting bobbins and fixing broken strands of fleece. During that time she also lost one of her fingers, which was ripped off by a bobbin.
Determined to better herself, Annie self-studied and began taking part in trade union activity before getting involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in around 1905.
In October that year she made national headlines after attending a Liberal meeting at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall with Christabel Pankhurst.
Annie had the temerity to ask Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey if they believed woman should have the right to vote. Neither would answer. The pair were then ejected from the meeting after unfurling a ‘Votes for Women’ banner. Outside they were arrested for causing an obstruction and a technical assault on a police officer.
Kenney served three days behind bars on that occasion – becoming the first to be jailed for direct action – and this was to be one of 13 spells for her in prison.
Some may look back and say that suffragette violence against property was unnecessary and put many off their cause, but it’s also too simplistic to overlook the level of state violence these women faced.
Rough-handling by police was commonplace, imprisonment was frequent, and there can be few more brutal acts than physically holding someone down whilst force feeding them against their will to end a hunger strike.
Annie Kenney wasn’t the only local suffragette, of course – there were many others – but what was special about her was her roots and influence.
She’s widely acknowledged as the only working class woman to have reached the top of the WSPU (she was deputy by 1912) and there remains a feeling that, compared with the Pankhursts and others, her contribution still isn’t fully recognised.
Oldham Council did install a blue plaque at Leesbrook Mill acknowledging her contribution many years ago and we recently cleaned it. Unfortunately that did not make it look much better so it is being repainted as soon as possible.
This centenary is an ideal moment to ensure we preserve the memories of Annie Kenney’s struggle for future generations, so please visit the website here to learn more about the local efforts to erect a statue of Annie Kenney in Parliament Square.
Back to 2018 and the battle against injustice still continues in many other ways…
This week Oldham Council is supporting workshops, information stalls and activities as part of Greater Manchester’s Hate Crime Awareness Week.
Latest Home Office statistics show that hate crimes nationally went up 29 per cent to 80,393 offences in 2016-17: yet even that doesn’t give us the full picture because so much of it goes unreported.
As an Oldham resident you should not suffer a hate crime in silence. If you’re attacked because of your difference – your religion, sexuality, colour of your skin or disability – then you should report it.
By speaking out you can help send the message that hate has no place in modern society and that perpetrators will feel the full force of the law.
A full programme of what is taking place in each part of the borough until February 9 is here. For more information on hate crime you can also visit letsendhatecrime.com or call the Victim Support Services helpline on 0161 200 1950.
Prejudice, it seems, is always with us – and that’s why we must never stop fighting it.