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International Women's Day - Preston's Heritage

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The 8th of March marks International Women’s Day; this year the day is particularly important as it also coincides with the 100th anniversary of women having the right to vote in Britain. As a proud Prestonian, Lancastrian and Northerner, I like to think our local ancestors played their part in the Suffragette movement of the 20th century which played a major part in women gaining the right to vote in Britain at this time.

The Suffragettes were a militant group who were associated with the political party called “Women’s Social and Political Union” (WSPU) founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 in Manchester. The group had become frustrated with the slow progress which had been made with regards to women’s rights despite progress in other countries, most notably New Zealand, who had granted women a vote in 1893. The party’s motto would be “Deeds, not words” and in 1906 they would use a phrase intended to ridicule them as a name for members of their party; the “suffraGETtes”, they would GET their vote.

The Suffragettes’ link to Preston is strong and their link to Winkley Square (where Service Care Solutions is based) is even stronger; a Suffragette called Edith Rigby lived here. Edith Rigby was a strong proponent of social justice; she questioned class differences and was well known locally for her criticism of the treatment servants by her neighbours. She set up a school in 1899 which aimed to continue the education of women and girls who worked in local mills past the age of 11.

In 1907 Edith founded the Preston branch of the WSPU and went about recruiting members. In 1908 she marched in London alongside Christabel Pankhurst (Emmeline’s daughter) and was arrested along with over 50 other women. During this time, Edith refused to eat, starving herself in protest until she was forcibly fed; this is a pattern she would repeat 7 times in total during her involvement in the movement.

Edith went on to be involved in some of the most remarkable instances of activism during this period including planting a bomb in Liverpool Corn Exchange (for which she was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment with hard labour) and setting fire to Lord Levershulme’s bungalow at Rivington Pike which destroyed valuable art, total damages reported to be £20 000. Edith was unapologetic stating “I want to ask Sir William Lever whether he thinks his property on Rivington Pike is more valuable as one of his superfluous houses occasionally opened to people, or as a beacon lighted to King and Country to see here are some intolerable grievances for women”.

During the first world war much of the activism with regards to women’s rights were curtailed (Edith did not agree with this policy, although she did grow vegetables and fruit in her garden to aid the war effort) to bolster the war effort. This meant the end to hunger strikes in prisons and other activism; this led to an amnesty in which the government released Suffragettes from prison. The focus on the war effort and the demonstration of the value and abilities of women during this period gained public favour and ultimately led to a partial women’s right to vote in 1918, limited to women over the age of 30. It would be another decade before this right was extended to women over the age of 21 and finally had equal rights to those of male voters.

Edith lived out the rest of her life in North Wales where she moved after the death of her husband in 1926. She lived out her days bathing in the sea, fell walking and meditating until her death from Parkinson’s disease in 1950. I am sure there are hundreds of stories similar to Edith’s but this one is personal as we walk past the plaque installed to commemorate her each day on Winkley Square. Without these activists it is hard to believe that we would be marking 100 years of women’s votes in Britain on this International Women’s Day!

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