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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

October 19, 2018


Finding the Lost Women 1 minute read

Esther Roper. Image Courtesy of Women's Library at LSE
Elsie Duval.  Image Courtesy of Women's Library at LSE
Ada Neild Chew.
Annie Kenney. Image Courtesy of Women's Library at LSE
Lillian Lenton. Image Courtesy of NPG

“They were brilliant strategists and experts at media manipulation, planning stunts such as arriving at a suffrage meeting on a stretcher direct from prison and emaciated from a spell of hunger-striking, as Annie Kenney once did – it made the papers the next day, who wrote it up very sympathetically…”


Olivia Gagan

Author Olivia Gagan

Think of the suffragist movement and you might think of the Pankhursts, of Emily
Davison desperately throwing herself under the King’s horse, of wealthy society women
writing earnest letters to newspapers. Spirited, a new exhibition at Manchester’s Portico
Library, aims to revive the stories of the young suffragists whose work wasn’t
immortalised in statues or textbooks.

Women like Esther Roper, who along with her partner Eva Gore-Booth, dedicated her
life to fighting for working-class women’s rights. Or Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, the
daughter of an exiled Indian Maharaja and a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. She sold
suffrage newspapers outside Hampton Court Palace and flung herself at Prime
Minister’s Asquith’s car, causing a royal scandal. Elsie Duval, who died aged 27 from
complications arising from having been force fed in prison. She never got to vote.

Marginalised women – including women of colour, working-class women and women who did not own property – were largely left out of the mainstream British suffragist movement and few of their stories have been told.

Spirited investigates some of the underreported women who became activists in their
teens or twenties and their “incredible acts of courage, creativity and cunning in the face
of brutal repression, and repeated betrayal by a government they had little power to
influence,” exhibition spokesperson Catherine Riley says.

Researching and finding the women meant painstaking work examining archives
including the Women’s Library at London School of Economics, and trawling through
photographs and newspaper articles. With the exception of Annie Kenney and
Christabel Pankhurst, whose names made the history books, the other women in the
exhibition have largely been forgotten.

Many were fighting for a vote they knew they were unlikely to have for themselves. “Some of the women of Spirited did not qualify to do so when the Representation of the People Act was finally passed in 1918. Either they were too young – the Act had an age qualification of 30 for women – or else they didn’t meet the property ownership qualification. One, cruelly, died the year after the Act was passed, three years before she would have been old enough to vote,” Riley says. 

Most of all, Riley says, Spirited is meant to be a reminder “that change is possible, and that we can all play a part in it. We hope the stories of our women, and the stories of all the brave and bold women and men who demanded their right to be counted, will act as a provocation. Think about what you want to be different; consider how you can challenge inequality; find your way to make positive change.”

Spirited runs from 19 October – 24 November at The Portico Library, Mosley Street, Manchester. More information can be found here. Backer Spirit of 2012 has also commissioned a digital archive, so the stories of the women the exhibition highlights aren’t lost again.