It is a hundred years since some women were given the right to vote, so we decided to mark this event by inviting Bob Ricketts, who many may know from the Bedford Architectural, Archaeological and Local History Society and the Historical Association to come to talk about the women’s suffrage movement in Bedfordshire. Bob started by testing our knowledge about women’s suffrage both nationally and locally and then detailed the progress women had made in terms of economic status and representation by the early twentieth century but not in terms of being able to vote in parliamentary elections. Women were well represented in teaching, though they had to resign on marriage and in the post office, a considerable employer, and they could help administer the Poor Law and be active in local government. It was the right to elect MPs and sit in Parliament that was lacking.
Bob showed that the suffrage movement had its roots in the North of England during the nineteenth century. However, it was well established in Bedford by the early twentieth century, and the women who supported the suffrage came from teaching such as Amy Walmsley and Margaret Stansfeld, and medicine such as Dora Mason.
The meetings that they held were not uneventful. Bob described one meeting at which Dora Mason was the speaker, where unruly youths from the town caused trouble. Dora had to retreat into Bank Buildings (near the Swan Hotel) and then make her escape from the roof wearing the long skirted fashion of the time! In the period 1909 – 1913, Bedford was not an easy town in which to hold meetings. The women frequently faced insults and garbage being thrown at them by local youths.
Bob’s researches have shown that the suffrage movement in Bedford was largely based on the suffragists, the followers of Millicent Fawcett, who believed in making their point by non-violent means. The Duchess of Bedford lent them her support. There were not many suffragettes, the members of Emmeline Pankhurst’s WSPU (The
Women’s Social and Political Union) who advocated more violent tactics. However, Christabel, Emmeline’s daughter, did come and speak in Bedford.
Bob did not have any information about the suffrage movement and Biddenham. He did say that the suffragists often became early members of the Women’s Institute. Biddenham had a Women’s Institute in 1922, which was early in the movement’s history, so it would be worth doing some research into these early members of the WI to see if they had a link with the suffrage movement.
Bob’s talk was very stimulating and has opened up other areas for research. It should also inspire us to visit the Women in Bedfordshire Exhibition which is at the Higgins until September.
The next meeting of the Biddenham History Society will be on Monday, July 2nd . We will meet at the Church Barn at 2.30pm and then have a walk to the War Memorial to reflect on Biddenham one hundred years ago, in 1918. We will then return to the Barn for refreshments. I hope you will be able to join us.