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One hundred years ago, women in Britain could not vote in national elections: half the population was excluded from having any say in how they were governed. Some women from the North West, including Lancaster, were actively engaged in the struggle to give women the vote. While the momentum of the suffrage movement was eclipsed somewhat by the start of the First World War in 1914, the war also created conditions for change in the lives of women and girls. Many local women were able to find work and opportunities that had previously been denied to them and others became leading figures in the anti-war movement, building on the experience and networks established during the suffrage campaign. Some of these activists went on to build political careers in the years following the war, as women were finally given the right to participate in elections. These stories remind us of the distance we have come in seeking gender equality, while highlighting the distance still to go, particularly for women and girls elsewhere around the world.  >> READ MORE

Selina Martin

Lancaster’s Selina Martin was a pioneer in the movement for women’s suffrage who suffered for our political rights. This is her story....

Anne Elizabeth Helme 1874-1963

Annie Elizabeth Helme was a Suffragist and political activist, who made an enormous contribution to the role and status of women in society and who devoted her life to public service in Lancaster. ...

The Suffragist Movement in Lancaster

The Suffragist movement in Lancaster was formalised in 1911 when the Lancaster Suffrage Society was founded. Chris Workman gives an account in this article of some of the activities of Society members...

North West Women Speaking for Peace

From 1916 until the end of the war a growing group of women, many of whom had been active in the suffrage movement, began to promote peace through the Independent Labour Party (ILP). They travelled ar...

Caroline Marshall (1853-1927)

Caroline Marshall is not as well-known as her daughter, Catherine Marshall, a prominent suffragist and pacifist. Yet Caroline was an active suffragist, who founded the Keswick branch of the National U...

Girl Guides in Westmorland in World War One

As a Guide myself, I was interested to find out about how girls and women in the local community were involved in guiding during the war years. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any archival records...

Belgian Refugees in Lancaster in World War 1

During World War 1, Belgian refugees came to Britain to escape the conflict at home. One of the refugees was called Irma Daems, who came from Antwerp and attended Lancaster Girls' Grammar School. In t...

Catherine Marshall (1880-1961): Suffragist

Catherine Marshall became prominent in suffragist and peace activism, significant national movements in the last century. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was established at ...

The Women’s Peace Crusade in the North West

There had been opposition to the First World War, both before its outbreak and during. But from 1916, and particularly after the Somme, until Armistice in 1918, a Women’s Peace Crusade movement spre...

Munitions factories in Lancaster and Morecambe

Women played an important role on the home front in World War 1. They took on jobs traditionally held by men so that the men could join the armed forces. An increased demand for munitions in 1915 led ...

Catherine Marshall (1880-1961): Peace Activist

Catherine Marshall became prominent in suffragist and peace activism, significant national movements in the last century. She was involved in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage  (NUWSS) from 19...

Our Flight to England by Irma Daems

Irma Daems was a Belgian girl who fled her home city of Antwerp when it came under bombardment in 1914, at the beginning of the First World War. ...

Ali Cottally

Ali Cottally first got involved in women's peace activism when she joined the Sellafield Women's Peace Camp in 1993. The camp aimed to draw attention to the link between nuclear power and the military...


Across the country during the early part of the twentieth century the campaign to bring about women’s suffrage (the right to vote) gathered pace. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had been founded at the end of the nineteenth century but experienced a split in 1903 when the Pankhurst-led Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) broke away, believing more militant action was needed. Thenceforth, members of the WSPU were known as ‘suffragettes’, while those in the NUWSS, who engaged only in lawful and non-violent protest, were referred to as ‘suffragists’.


Women from Lancaster were involved in the suffrage campaign in different ways. Some, like Hilda Burkitt and Selina Martin, joined the WSPU and took part in direct action that led to their arrest and imprisonment. Like many suffragettes, Hilda and Selina went on hunger-strike and were force-fed in prison. Selina’s case in particular contributed to the introduction of the infamous ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ – the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health Act) – passed in 1913. In response to the large numbers of suffragettes on hunger strike, this act meant that women could be released from prison when they became ill, only to be re-arrested when their health improved.


Both Selina’s and Hilda’s suffragette activity took place outside Lancaster; there does not appear to have been any militant activity in the town. Instead, the suffrage campaign in Lancaster was dominated by the more moderate suffragists who established the Lancaster Suffrage Society comparatively late in 1911. The 1913 ‘Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage’ to Parliament in London, organised by the NUWSS, passed through Lancaster en route from Carlisle and the event was widely attended and reported.

These stories remind us of the distance we have come in seeking gender equality, while highlighting the distance still to go, particularly for women and girls elsewhere around the world.

One prominent Lancaster suffragist from this period is Annie Helme. Annie’s political career provides a neat illustration of the changing status of women in public life through the early twentieth century. In 1911, as a 36 year old woman who was unable to vote, she became joint secretary of the Lancaster Suffrage Society; in 1919, a year after woman over 30 were enfranchised and allowed to stand for parliament, she was elected as the first woman Councillor on Lancaster Borough Council. In 1932, aged 57, Annie became Lancaster’s first female mayor, four years after women had finally been given the vote on the same terms as men.


Beyond Lancaster, an important suffragist family were the Marshalls from Keswick. Caroline Marshall founded the Keswick branch of the NUWSS and her daughter, Catherine Marshall, went on to become a member of the national NUWSS organising committee.


At the outbreak of the First World War, the WSPU immediately ceased all action, although the NUWSS continued to lobby for women’s suffrage. Some suffragists who had become ‘activated’ through their work in the suffrage movement, shifted their attention to getting behind the ‘war effort’. Others, like the Marshalls, drew on their experience of organising and campaigning to become key figures in the peace and anti-conscription movement. In 2016 Global Link received Heritage Lottery funding for a new project called Women, War and Peace, which researched stories of North West women’s activity on the home front and in peace activism during World War 1. Volunteers wrote up accounts of women’s work in the local munitions factories in Lancaster and Morecambe and the experiences of local so-called ‘Munitionettes’ who, for various reasons, were brought in front of the Munitions Tribunal. Students from Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School (LGGS) used their school archives to research the response of LGGS staff and pupils to the war and the experience of Belgian refugees in Lancaster. Another student explored the wartime activities of the local Girl Guides.


Other volunteers on the Women, War and Peace project researched the role of local women in the peace movement during the First World War, including public speaking against the war and organising and attending demonstrations such as the Women’s Peace Crusade.  The end of the war saw a wave of peace activism across the country in response to the horrors of the conflict and there were No More War demonstrations in Lancaster in the 1920s. One Lancaster woman who played a role in organising this demonstration was Muriel Dowbiggin, another prominent local suffragist who, like Annie Helme, moved from involvement in the suffrage movement to wider political activism, becoming Lancaster’s third woman mayor in 1940.


The founding of the new Lancaster University in the mid 1960s, a period of rapid and radical social change, helped provide the focus for a new generation of women’s activism in the city. ‘Second wave’ feminists engaged with a broader and more complex range of questions around the inequality of women than the single issue of women’s suffrage that had occupied the women’s movement earlier in the century. From the early 1970s women’s studies courses were proposed at the university and by the 1980s the Centre for Women’s Studies (now Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies – CGWS) had been established. The feminism of many staff and students at the university in the 1970s often intersected with other forms of political engagement, such as lesbian and gay politics and social justice campaigns. The CGWS remains an important hub for feminist research and action, locally, nationally and internationally.

In 2016 Global Link received Heritage Lottery funding for a new project called Women, War and Peace, which researched stories of North West women’s activity on the home front and in peace activism during World War 1.

Recent decades have seen various forms of women’s activism in Lancaster including: the Reclaim the Night marches to mark International Stop Violence against Women Day; local women’s involvement in establishing women’s refuges; women-only events such as theatre workshops, discos, comedy and cabaret nights such as the Lavender Lounge; and the production of local publications written by women for women such as Gutter Girls.


International Women’s Day, held every year on 8th March, reminds us that gender equality is still a global priority. Around the world many women and girls face discrimination on the basis of their gender. As a young girl, Malala Yousafzai wrote a blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban in Pakistan and her hopes and ideas for girls’ education. In 2012, aged 15, she was shot in an assassination attempt on her way to school. Since her recovery, Malala has become an international ambassador for the right of girls to have an education and in 2014 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is part of a new generation of activists who are standing up for equal rights for men and women and, in doing so, are seeking to create a more just world for everyone.