Women have had to fight to be recognised as intellectually equal to men. Misconceptions about women’s abilities have created barriers in education, work and politics that they have had to break down.

Even now, not everyone has equal access to opportunities. Low paid, insecure, and part-time jobs are disproportionately done by women.

In this section we have included items that relate to:

  • The preconceptions about women’s abilities that were being challenged
  • The importance of educating women and girls
  • Women who paved the way for future female politicians and activists
  • The rights of women workers whether it is fair pay or safe working conditions

Armitage Collection
This collection of documents relates to James Armitage, of Armitage and Wight, family butchers of Leeds. Amongst other documents are pages of notes against women having the vote. Armitage was not the only person at the time to hold these views. Anti-suffragists claimed to speak for a silent majority of men and women who feared that valuable gender differences would be diluted by too much political equality.

There was a deep-rooted fear of women becoming ‘masculinised’ and that feminism could eventually disrupt the entire social order by undermining domestic life. Armitage uses typical anti-suffrage arguments such as the biological differences between men and says that the leaders of the suffrage movement ‘shrieked and raved hysterically’ in contrast to how he believes women should behave in public. 

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
Mary Wollstonecraft was a passionate advocate of educational and societal equality for women. She believed that if women were afforded the same opportunities and education they could contribute as much to society as men.

Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is often considered the earliest and most important treatise advocating equality for women. In her work she argued that the educational system of her time deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable. She claimed that an educational system that allowed girls the same advantages as boys would result in women who would be not only exceptional wives and mothers but also capable workers in many professions. Her work was ahead of its time with its claims that equal rights for women would benefit all of society.

Leeds Clothing Strike, Image from Leodis, permission given by the Yorkshire Evening Post (1970)
This was an unofficial strike by nearly 30,000 workers in Leeds to demand equal pay. The strikers, mostly women, marched from factory to factory calling for others to join them. It lasted 4 weeks bringing the clothing industry in Leeds to a standstill. One of the main outcomes was that women realised it was important to take action.  You can read more about this strike elsewhere on the blog.

Alice Mann (1791-1865)
Alice Mann was a book publisher and radical who was born on Hunslet Lane, Leeds in 1791. Alice married James Mann, a prominent West Riding political activist and bookseller, in 1807. His and Alice’s shop in Briggate appeared ‘to be the head quarters of sedition in this town’, the Leeds Intelligencer commented (4 Aug 1819). When James died in 1832 Alice was left with nine children to support so continued bookselling, and added printing to the business. You can read more about Alice elsewhere on the blog.

Basis Yorkshire
Basis has been supporting sex workers in Leeds for over 30 years. They work closely with women, putting their voices and experiences at the centre of their work. Basis recognises and advocates for women’s right to work safely, whilst understanding that some women’s circumstances make them more vulnerable to exploitation. They are committed to challenging the stigma around sex work that leads to women not accessing vital services and resources. Basis support women to exit sex work, but don’t compel them or shame them into that, working alongside them on their personal goals and aspirations for the future.

They have produced two publications that give a voice to some of these women who are so often overlooked and spoken for. These publications, Our Voices and No Longer Visible, will be available to view at Leeds Central Library in the near future.

Catherine Buckton, Food and Home Cookery (1890)
In 1873 Catherine Buckton became the first woman to be elected to any office in Leeds when she was successful in her bid to be elected on to the School Board. She was already an active member of the Ladies’ Council of the Yorkshire Board of Education and she was passionate about social reform and child welfare. She taught evening classes to working women in Holbeck and Wortley on health, food and hygiene. She also campaigned for girls to be taught cookery and gained a national reputation as a leader in health education. The cookery lessons took place every two weeks and printed recipes were provided to the girls, which could then be taken home and repeated. Buckton’s books such as ‘Health and House’ and ‘Food and Home Cookery’ were extremely popular and read across the country.


Isabella Ford, Mr Elliott (1901)
Isabella Ford was a socialist, trade unionist, pacifist, suffragist and a tireless campaigner for reform. She understood that the fight for women’s rights would be more successful if other inequalities in society were also challenged.

Isabella was committed to supporting working women improve their conditions and established the Leeds Tailoress’ Union and took a leading role in the Tailoresses’ Strike of 1889 and the one at Bradford’s Manningham Mills a year later. Her experiences led her to link the fight for suffrage with economic fairness. Isabella helped found the Leeds Women’s Suffrage Society in 1890, and by 1895 Isabella was on the executive committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage Leeds Branch, as well as a member of the Women’s Emancipation Union.

She was also one of the first to join the Leeds branch of the Independent Labour Party and the first woman to speak at a Labour Party conference. One person noted that “she speaks with equal success to an audience of 5,000 working men or 25 clergymen – they laugh and weep as she chooses, and they all love her”. (Common Cause, 3 October, 1913)

The outbreak of the First World War saw her refocus her energies on campaigning for peace. She helped run a demonstration in London in 1914 and was a delegate to the Women’s International League (WIL) Congress. In Leeds she set up a branch of the WIL and of the Women’s Peace Crusade.

Isabella can be seen as the forerunner of other important political Leeds women, such as Bertha Quinn, Maud Dightam – the first woman elected to Leeds City Council, Alice Bacon, Yorkshire’s first female MP and even Rachel Reeves, who became only the second female MP to represent a Leeds constituency and continues to raise awareness of women’s issues.

Mary Gawthorpe (1881 – 1973)
Gawthorpe was a Leeds-born suffragist, organiser and public speaker for the WSPU (women’s social and political union). She was arrested several times during her period with the WSPU and suffered ill health, brought on by sometime violent arrests and beatings.

The issue of force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strike was something she felt very strongly about. She organised a petition in 1912 concerning the force feeding of Mary Leigh in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin and contacted many prominent figures asking for support.

She was well known for her public speaking skills but someone after hearing her speak on suffrage, sorrowfully said ‘but you’re so feminine’ and the meeting report remarks on her having ‘more than her fair share of good looks’. She comments that she could not remember ‘any instance where political speakers of the other sex had been credited with possession or lack of good looks’. This is still an issue that women in the public eye have to deal with.

She emigrated to the US in 1916 where she continued to work for social and political movements. Her personal papers, which include correspondence, newscuttings, photographs, postcards, diaries, were deposited in New York but Leeds Central Library holds the microfilm copies.

Alice Cliff Scatcherd, Scrapbook (1842-1906)
Born in Morley, Alice Cliff Scatcherd was social reformer, champion for women’s rights, two time lady mayoress, animal welfare campaigner, teacher, organiser and public speaker. Supposedly she refused to have the word ’obey’ in her marriage vows and didn’t like to wear a wedding ring. A year after her marriage, in 1872, she joined Leeds Womens’ Suffrage Society. She was very active in the area of women’s rights and helped to found the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. She was also a great believer in animal welfare and helped to set up a national society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

We hold her scrapbook which contains everything from newcuttings about her campaigns, letters to the local press about women’s rights, as well as civic invitations and fashion plates.

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