Rebel Girls

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Rebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote

Who were the Rebel Girls?

After I moved across to Yorkshire in 1980, I found that tracking suffrage history across this vast region was extremely challenging. It was only many years later that evidence became available ~ notably in 2002 when the census was released (and which could now be searched electronically). I also learnt that that the granddaughter of Huddersfield suffragette, Edith Key, had recently deposited the local WSPU minutes-book.

Such archival treasures revealed the stories of eight rebel girls, all born between 1881 and 1891. Rejecting the deadening conventions of their Victorian elders, the rebel girls demanded new freedoms and new rights. They were rapidly transformed into daring, fearless campaigners taking on Asquith's Liberal government.

In Huddersfield, I learnt how in 1907 16-year-old weaver Dora Thewlis was arrested at Westminster. She was catapulted onto the tabloid front-pages as 'Baby Suffragette', her life was transformed. Adela Pankhurst, the youngest of Emmeline Pankhurst's three daughters, became WSPU organizer for Yorkshire, basing herself in Sheffield and speeding from by-elections to addressing vast crowds.

Adele Pankhurst

Adela Pankhurst, speaking at Grassington, upper Wharfedale, probably spring 1910.

Votes for WomenWho else campaigned in Yorkshire?

Campaigning alongside the rebel girls, were more experienced women. Often they were NUWSS suffragists. To publicize their cause, suffragists staged magnificent processions through London, their silken banners fluttering in the breeze.

Right: Florence Lockwood's banner, Tolson Museum.

They took their suffrage message out to the remotest Yorkshire dales and fishing harbours. The NUWSS ran a caravan tour, starting in Whitby in August 1908. Suffragists parked their van right by the water's edge, alongside fair booths and stalls. A picture postcard shows an Edwardian holiday crowd gathered round, curious to see a Votes for Women speaker in such a remote spot.


NUWSS caravan at Whitby harbour…. The Women's Library.

Rebel Girls on the eve of WarThe census schedule of Henry Brockhouse, West Bromwich. The National Archives.

By late 1911, suffrage campaigners felt bitterly betrayed by Asquith's Government. The WSPU responded with window-smashing raids and later arson. Dancer Lilian Lenton waited till her twenty-first birthday ~ then determined to burn two buildings a week until the Liberal Government granted women the vote. In 1913 she was on trial in the dock in Leeds. The Things We Forgot to Remember: suffragettes. For a riveting interview recorded in 1960 with Lilian shortly before she died - see this BBC page where Lilian Lenton explains the 'Cat and Mouse' Act. Suffragette Leonora Cohen of Leeds lived long enough to see the new fascination with suffrage history. She died in 1978 aged 105.

Right: Leonora Cohen, aged 100, on front cover of Radio Times, 1974, for BBC TV drama Shoulder to Shoulder. Click to enlarge

Leeds Suffrage Stories podcast (2017) features not only Leeds suffragettes Leonora Cohen and Mary Gawthorpe, but also pioneer suffragist Isabella Ford ~ who bravely joined the NUWSS caravan tour in 1909.

Rebel Girls

Rebel Girls: their fight for the vote was published by Virago Press in 2006, and was shortlisted for the 2008 Portico Book Prize.

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Regular terrors - review of Rebel Girls by Alison Light published in the London Review of Books (Jan 2007). For other reviews, go to Book Reviews page .

Dora Thewlis arrest, March 1907

Dora Thewlis arrest, March 1907, was later turned into a picture postcard by Shamrock postcards. Click photo to enlarge it