Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds

Review: Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds by Tina Jackson/(Pen and Sword).

JOURNALIST and writer Tina Jackson’s book ‘Struggle and Suffrage in Leeds - Women's Lives and the Fight for Equality' (£14.99/ Pen and Sword) is a must for every woman of today – and, by turns, every man.

In a time when the #MeToo campaign is prevalent in America and elsewhere, perhaps there has never been a better time to highlight the cause of women and the struggle for equality.

But reading Ms Jackson's first class piece of journalism, one soon realises the current worldwide campaign is just the latest breaking wave in an equality argument which has seen storms and quells for centuries.

Many will be familiar with the story of the Suffragettes, but the book adroitly and always empirically illuminates a history of struggle which predates the events surrounding the famous King's horse incident by decades.

And it is a deep history which is woven into the rich tapestry of the story and success of Leeds.

The skill of any good journalist is always to see both sides of the coin and to take a stand-back approach without demonstrating a prejudice against either party. Within such a potential minefield as the contentious issue of male/female relations, Ms Jackson does this with professional aplomb, never adopting a partisan approach.

But equally that it not to say the account is either aloof nor dispassionate.

Many modern male readers will cringe at the attitudes of their stolid Victorian counterparts in their dismissive attitudes towards women recounted within.

One can only presume the mind-set of men at the time was one perhaps inherited from the demands of a strict hierarchical pyramid influenced by the might of Empire in which men had to be seen to be in charge, as cornerstones of such a social pyramid. Any deviance from such might be seen as being too weak amongst such an ashlar-rigid social cement.

And yet, such assumed values do not forgive the loutishness, abuse, both physical and verbal, and alcoholic distress inflicted on long suffering women, often, but not exclusive to, the lower classes.

Ms Jackson's forensic writer's eye also observes worse than this, documenting horrific crimes among the squalid cramped tenements and alleys of Leeds in which innocent women have their throats slit in their own homes and suffer appalling domestic violence, almost akin to the crimes of Whitechapel.

But perhaps where the book scores wholly is in its fecund treasury of journalistic minutiae with which the author paints an entirely captivating picture of Leeds life especially in the Victorian period.

As a result, modern readers of both sexes can fully conjure up in their minds' eye - whether appreciative of history or not - the daunting  challenges facing a vote less, often penniless, disenfranchised and often ill-educated sex in an overbearing patriarchal society, albeit one ironically headed by a female monarch.

Many women in Leeds in the early 1800s worked in the flax and textile industries and had to endure appalling conditions, in noisy dusty surrounds. Many had to start at the age of 13 and were expected to stop work post 25 when they had married, bringing in a 'little extra' by doing jobs related to the family and with little prospects for any sort of real intellectual, educational or social advancement.

If a man lost his job, often as the main breadwinner, it could bring ruin to a family, and even mean the workhouse for mums.

The author notes how 'for young women who were destitute but virtuous, the Leeds Night Shelter and Home for Girls in St Pauls Street provided a refuge in 1888'.

'Homeless girls were offered care by the Leeds Ladies' Association for the Care and Protection of Friendless Girls which provided a small home for up to 15 children...one 'a child of four, unwanted, neglected and too frightened to speak or eat.' '

A section describes how five children of a slipper maker father would often wait until 10pm to eat, being tossed bread and sips of tea now and again. Bread and tea was a lower class working man's staple diet and 'working man's beef' was a nickname for onions among the working poor.

Women and their families in back-to-backs often shared sanitary amenities with up to eight other dwellings. A cellar might house a family of five and during a cholera epidemic in 1844, seventy five barrows of human waste were removed from Boot and Shoe Yard before being cleared to make way for Kirkgate Market.

It is against such a background that Ms Jackson describes how change was inevitable. Both wars often took many women out of the workaday humdrum of home to the factories and munitions works, a sort of ‘emancipation’ of necessity.

But an underswell of change had long been building. In June 1886 the first mass petition for Votes for Women was presented by John Stuart Mill MP to which there were 1499 signatories, many from Leeds. Ellen Heaton of Woodhouse was one of the redoubtable women, the book accounts, who would form a foundation at grass roots level for change.

'Financially independent, and never married, she travelled in Europe as far as Russia and counted friends among poets artists and critics including John Ruskin and the Barrett Brownings.'

Her petition signatories were, amongst them, the wife of a cow keeper, a charwoman, a laundress and a cloth fettler.

Ms Jackson notes that very petition, brought about by the simple door-to-door canvassing of Ms Heaton, would mark the beginning of the suffrage movement that would lead to women getting the vote. 'From this point, women of Leeds would gather in small pockets of resistance building to a point where a mass demonstration was held on Woodhouse Moor.'

To recount more would be to give away too much of the heart of the work, but the reader can rest assured of an enjoyable and wonderfully rich description of the numerous stepping stones in the women's suffrage movement.

Perhaps Ms Jackson deserves plaudits on two major counts.

Firstly, her work immediately provokes an enlightening reflection on the age-old subject and is sure to provoke dinner party debate.

The more ecumenically-minded might even ponder whether the necessity of biology (in terms of being child bearers) has historically 'encumbered' women through the centuries, or at the very least has acted as a biological barrier to full emancipation or equality. Does the same apply today?

Others might conclude of their own volition that women have for centuries been 'trapped' in a social political and industrially influenced system, even since the days of Christ, which has been skewed towards men.

Some extremists have even suggested the very Fall of Man (no pun intended) is a pseudo-patrio-conspiracy, arguing men have historically throughout literature laid blame at the foot of womankind since the late unpleasantness regarding the serpent and the apple.

Or, as some feminist narratives posit, has even the language itself, being an 'inherently 'male construct', provided an ultimate cage for female ambition and aims?

Adherents to such views must be surely on an enthusiastic fringe, but if nothing else Ms Jackson's work will provide a catalyst for reflection.

Male suffrage itself was a battle in the early 1800s – at one point less than 11 per cent of men could vote.  An observer of the time might thus have argued, what chance might women have stood to have their voices heard in a then very patriarchal society?

And how might those women, in upper class families, seemingly willing to be dependent on the male shilling of their, say, mill magnate husbands, have viewed the radicals in the women's movement? Perhaps as Hamlet has it, ‘with one auspicious and one dropping eye.’

It equally can't have been an easy choice for some women to champion a radical cause, one which - a little like Chartism - both had its roots in the working classes and which had seemingly two wings; a peaceful one which sought to bring about change through intelligent and persuasive argument - and a more militant wing which undertook acts of social disturbance to highlight the cause.

But secondly perhaps the author's greatest achievement might be that - through her gentle guidance down the haunted west wing of the mansion of female resolve - she has produced a work which will steel the determination of many (of either gender) to further empower continued recognition and change.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that despite Ms Jackson's precise history of a given epoch, and despite the often vociferous actions of radical women determined to bring change documented in such, one can't help but wonder whether, for each female firebrand, there must have been thousands of unfortunates, suffering in silence, whose voices were never heard, nor ever will be.

Perhaps more chillingly, one equally wonders today how much things might actually have changed.

Sometimes the waves of alteration come as either Spring or Neap tides. But sometimes that same sea is dead calm and cannot be heard.

Comments