Lydia Becker (1827-1890): the fight for votes for women

Lydia Becker was Secretary of the Manchester National Society for Womens’ Suffrage from 1867 until her death in 1890. She played a key role in the campaign for suffrage, encouraging women to openly campaign and speak publicly. She laid the basis for the early twentieth century suffrage campaign.

Lydia’s grandfather, Ernest Becker, had come to Manchester from Germany in the late 1790s and made his money from manufacturing acid which was used in the cotton industry. The family lived in Foxdenton Hall, Middleton for about 80 years. The hall survives and there is plaque there now in Lydia’s memory.

Lydia’s chief interest until her appointment had been science, particularly the study of plants, and she had written a book, Botany for Novices, and even corresponded with Charles Darwin. She was also interested in astronomy and wrote Stargazing for Novices, but this not accepted for publication. She was self-taught, as scientific societies in Manchester in this period refused admittance to women, excluding them from the discussion and debate on papers that there were the mainstay of these societies. Frustrated, Lydia founded the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, though this was short lived.

In October 1866 she attended the meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science which in that year was held in Manchester. This was a progressive organization which not only admitted women as members but also allowed them to read papers and attend dinners. Lydia heard Barbara Bodichon, one of the founders of Girton College, read a paper on Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women. A new Reform Bill was in the offing and four months earlier John Stuart Mill, recently elected to parliament, had presented a petition to the Commons. He had asked the women organising the petition to obtain at least 100 signatures. They had gathered 1499, including Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Josephine Butler and Mary Somerville. It was a sign of a groundswell of opinion amongst women in favour of political rights.

The paper was revelation to Lydia, who immediately offered her services to the London committee, and having obtained petition forms, went about gathering signatures in Manchester. She joined a recently formed Manchester Committee, whose members included Louis Borchardt, Jacob Bright, Max Kyllman, Samuel Steinhall, Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Elizabeth Gloyne. She also put pen to paper and in March 1867 an article by Lydia on Female Suffrage was published in the Contemporary Review, which read:

“It surely will not be denied that woman have , and ought to have opinions of their own on subjects of public interest, and on the events which arise as the world wends on its way. But if it be granted that women may, without offence, hold political opinions, on what ground can the right be with held of giving the same expression or effect to their opinions as that enjoyed by their male neighbours.”

Two further petitions were presented to parliament in May 1867 and on 29 May John Stuart Mill made a long speech in favour of an amendment to the Suffrage Bill which would extend the suffrage to women on the same terms as men. The Bill gave the vote to all male adult householders living in a borough constituency and to male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms. This extended the vote to about another 1,500,000 men. The amendment was treated with levity and defeated by 123 votes.

Lydia realised that the cause was not going to be won easily . In June therefore she drew up a draft constitution for a Society whose aims would “to obtain for women the right of voting for Members of Parliament on the same conditions as it is, or may be granted to men.” In August the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage was formally established.

The campaign gained wide publicity over the Lily Maxwell case. Lily’s name had mistakenly appeared on the register of voters in Manchester. She was supporter of the Liberal party, ran her own shop and needed little persuasion when Lydia visited her to talk about suffrage. The two women went to the polling station, accompanied by male supporters, on 26th November 1867, when the election official allowed her to vote. It was resolved to campaign to persuade other women to petition to add their names to the electoral roll.

To launch the campaign on this issue Lydia organized a public meeting in the assembly rooms of the Free Trade Hall on 14 April 1868, a meeting later celebrated by campaigners as marking the beginning of the suffrage campaign. Very unusually for that time women were on the platform and spoke. The meeting was chaired by the Mayor of Salford, HD Pochin, and three resolutions were proposed by women and seconded by men. The first motion was moved by Lydia:

“…that the exclusion of women from the exercise of the franchise in the election of Members of Parliament being unjust in principle and inexpedient in practice, this meeting is of the opinion that the right of voting should be granted to them on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men.”

The other motions were moved by Agnes Pochin and Anne Robertson. Agnes Pochin said that women found themselves “in a state of chronic effervescence, soured by injustice, fretted by the possession of energies which they are required to repress.” It was generally acknowledged in the press that the meeting had been a success and the women had spoken well.

Lydia worked tirelessly in the autumn on the electoral petitions, travelling to meet women and attend hearings across Lancashire. On 30 October 1868 the Manchester Society held its first annual meeting in the Town Hall, chaired by Phillipinne Kyllman, It was packed and even attracted a reporter from The Times.

The report in The Times said:

“…if one supposes it was ever the intention of legislature to give women a vote, and if they do get it, it will be by a sort of accident, in itself objectionable, though in its practical consequences, perhaps harmless enough. On the other hand, if they are refused it, the nation will , no doubt, be formally and in the light of day committing itself, through its judicial tribunal, to the dangerous doctrine that representation need not go along with taxation.”

In November the claims of 5,346 women householders came before the High Court in the case of Chorlton v Lings. The women were represented by Sir John Coleridge and Richard Pankhurst. They argued that women had an ancient constitutional right to vote and cited documents in support of this. This was dismissed out of hand by the judges.

Undaunted, the Society immediately wrote to all 800 parliamentary candidates asking then to support a suffrage bill. When the results of the general election were announced in early December, John Stuart Mill, their firmest supporter in the House of Commons, had been defeated, an undeniable setback for the movement.

In the spring of 1869 Lydia undertook a series of lectures in the north of England. She gained more confidence in public speaking and in dealing with male hecklers, who were invariably present. Never physically strong, she was often exhausted by these trips. Her closest friends were Jacob and Ursula Bright and Richard Pankhurst.

Despite the dogged rejection by the House of Commons of women’s right to vote for MPs, in 1869 women were granted the right to vote in municipal elections with surprisingly little controversy after an amendment was moved by Jacob Bright at Committee stage. The Society sent circulars to women voters explaining their right to vote and how to vote, as at this time it was still done in public and could be daunting.

The following year women also gained the right to vote for, and to stand for election to, the new School Boards, established by W E Forster to run elementary education. Lydia stood successfully for the Manchester School Board as an independent member, receiving 15,000 votes, and she remained a member until her death. Like her suffrage work, her education work gave her a high public profile as she gave speeches and attended the opening of new Board Schools. Laying the foundation stone of a new school in Burgess Street, Harpurhey she said “it was a great mistake to suppose that domestic duties were limited to girls and women, every boy in Manchester should be taught to darn his own socks and cook his own chops.” She regularly visited schools in Manchester to see the progress being made.

In 1870 she and other women founded the monthly Women’s Suffrage Journal which chronicled the progress and frustrations of the national campaign for women’s suffrage with reports on meetings and events organised by local societies and parliamentary debates as well other subjects of interest to progressive women. It also covered events abroad. In her first editorial Lydia wrote that the object was “to extend to every isolated well-wisher the firm grasp of an outstretched hand.” The journal cost 1d.

Lydia travelled the country speaking at public meetings. Despite great hopes, by the end of the 1870s the campaign had not succeeded in getting a Bill passed and the likelihood faded. A National Demonstration of Women was held in the Free Trade Hall in March 1880 during the general election campaign, with the hall was packed with women.

In the summer of 1880 the Society, to its surprise, achieved a notable and unexpected success after Lydia and other women went over to the Isle of Man and campaigned in support of amendment which would grant women the right to vote for the House of Keys. The amendment was carried and when women voted for the first time in March 1881 every woman who did so received a letter of congratulation from Lydia. Surely the House of Commons would follow suit now that a Liberal government had been elected?

In 1881 Lydia moved to London to work for the National Society. Great hopes were placed in a Bill that came before the Commons in 1884 but it was overwhelmingly defeated after Gladstone made public his opposition. Most of the women were campaigners were supporters of the Liberal party and felt bitterly betrayed. But the campaign continued.

Lydia died suddenly in Switzerland in July 1890 having gone for a rest as her health had worsened. The women’s suffrage journal ceased publication on her death with the following notice:

“To all Readers. For twenty years and four months this Journal has received the impress of one hand and one mind, so that its long row of volumes forms one continuous work, and now when that careful hand is laid low and the energies of that far-seeing mind are carried beyond our mortal ken, it would seem the most fitting course to close these pages where Miss Becker left them., so that the journal shall be wholly hers…”

In 1903 Helen Blackburn donated a collection of books on women’s questions to Girton College, Cambridge in memory of Lydia Becker and Caroline Ashurst Biggs. The Memorial Library consists of books, pamphlets, periodicals and newspaper cuttings which relate to the world-wide position of women during the last century. It contains works in Dutch, French, German and Italian, in addition to works in English. The collection was arranged by Blackburn in a mahogany bookcase of her own design and each book contains a bookplate to the memory of Becker and Biggs designed by Edith Mendham and printed by the Women’s Printing Society. A condition of the bequest was that the books should always be kept together and this has been honoured. Manchester Central Library also holds an extensive collection on Lydia and the suffrage campaign, including correspondence and press cuttings.

Article by Michael Herbert

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7 thoughts on “Lydia Becker (1827-1890): the fight for votes for women

  1. I read with interest your overview of Lydia Becker’s life and work. Last month, whilst reading issues of the Women’s Suffrage Journal on microfilm at the British Library, I came across a poem called “A Manly Sentiment” in the issue for 1 November 1871, p. 119. I know the Manchester Central Library is closed for renovation, but I’m wondering whether the Becker archives contain any correspondence regarding this poem and its author “M G B.”

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