This entire site is the sole copyright of Valerie Wood 2018
'Hull's answer to
BBC Radio 4's Front Row
Award winning author of
novels set in and around
Hull | City of Culture 2017
There have been many brave and determined women throughout history and it would take more than a few pages to describe or eulogise them all. We all have favourites and many of mine have come to my attention throughout my twenty five years as a novelist.
There have been the fisher wives of Hull and Scarborough who worked in icy water with numbed fingers as they cleaned and fileted the local catch; there were the girls and young women working in cotton mills, some as young as eight, shuffling beneath the moving frames to clear the debris; those working in coal mines and we have all heard of the little match girls.
This year of 2018 stands out as the centenary of when women achieved the vote, when suffragettes and suffragists worked tirelessly on our behalf to achieve parity with men. Did we attain it? Most did, some haven’t yet and what interests me as we consider the question is that some stand out because of their tremendous achievements and set the standard for others; some of these brave and strong women are in the recent past of the 19th c. which is my favourite period for creating fiction.
One of these was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who became a suffragist and the first woman physician and surgeon to qualify in Britain; she co-founded the London School of Medicine, a hospital completely staffed by women.
Another was her daughter Louisa Garrett Anderson who qualified as a doctor at the London School of Medicine, became a suffragette, more militant than her mother and spent a brief time in Holloway for throwing a brick through a window. In 1910 the mother and daughter made an appeal to Prime Minister Asquith for women to be given the vote.
During the same period another woman doctor, Dr Mary Murdoch, qualifying at the same hospital, became Hull’s first female house surgeon at the Victoria Children’s Hospital, Hull’s first female general practitioner and founded the Hull Women’s Suffrage Movement. A blue plaque adorns her former home on Beverley Road, Hull.
The list is endless but an important woman, whom I admire greatly and who was not British, was Marie Curie, known for her Nobel Prize in science. She was born in Warsaw in 1867, then part of the Russian Empire and educated by her school teacher parents who believed in equal education for all. Her later education continued in Paris where there were more possibilities for women than in her home country of Poland. Her achievements were many and made at great sacrifice and I will publish a separate essay on her life at another time; amongst her finest accomplishments were those made during the First World War when she invented and developed the first mobile X-ray machine which she personally took to the Front and by her scientific ability possibly saved thousands of lives.
One hundred years ago my granny was alive. Did Granny know of women’s suffrage? Did she ever hear of women acting on her behalf who in 1918 had finally won the vote for some women; but not for all?
Probably not. She was a widow with five children, some emerging from childhood and on the cusp of early adulthood still to be fed and clothed, though two of the boys were already working in the local mines. My grandfather had been a publican and died in middle age, leaving her to fend for herself and their progeny. Which she did; as many women had to during those dark days. She rented and opened a shop, presumably with the little money he had left her in order to make some kind of living and if she had considered the extraordinary events taking place, she might have thought that these women hadn’t done it for her, that it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to her life; and indeed it didn’t, at the age of thirty under the Representation of the People Act she qualified to vote, but was disenfranchised under the Property Act.
You might think I’m a sceptic and perhaps you’d be right, for reading beneath the lines, which I did extensively during the writing of my novel No Place for a Woman, which was set prior to and during the First World War and included the women’s suffrage movement, I had to look carefully at the small print, and found that during 1916-1917 the House of Commons Speaker, Mr James Andrew Lowther chaired a conference on electoral reform which recommended a limited women’s suffrage.
Why now, you might ask? After years of campaigning, when women prior to the Great War, had strongly and sometimes vociferously stormed the Houses of Parliament, chained themselves to railings and suffered extreme indignities, tantamount to torture in prison hospitals, and had withdrawn their suffrage activities but not their beliefs in order to help the war effort, which is another story altogether; and why, you ask again, did it happen at that particular time.
Because there was an election coming up: votes were needed and troops returning from that bloodiest of wars, if they were lucky enough to do so, were not entitled to vote. They too were disenfranchised if they were not property owners, and very few of them qualified under that status.
The politicians therefore were persuaded to allow the Act to abolish all property and other restrictions for men and extended the vote to include all men over the age of twenty-one. Women had to make do with their small victory which meant that 60% of the total of women were still unable to vote. But forgive me that is negative thinking, 40% could, which in real terms was considered to be a huge success.
However, it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women over 21 were able to vote and women finally achieved the same voting rights as men. This act increased the number of women eligible to vote to 15 million.
There are women who consider that they have still much to achieve regarding complete equality, especially in the work place. Some contemplate that they are as equal as they wish to be. Women are rarely tied to the kitchen sink nowadays, most, though not all, can make choices about their lives, and women have more freedom than many would have thought possible a century ago. Women do not have to pioneer businesses or patent inventions under their husbands’ or fathers’ names as they once did – read Deborah Jaffe’s Ingenuous Women for examples. Their own names are sufficient. They are free to be scientists, builders, electricians, or fly to the moon if they are clever enough or brave enough. Or be Prime Minister. Now there’s a thing.
And as for my stoical granny. She would have been astonished.