15 March 2023
Discover more about the incredible life of the ‘unofficial’ leader of the British women’s suffrage movement in the later 19th Century.
In the 1868 general election women achieved a victory: a legal loophole allowed up to a thousand women across the country to cast their vote. This surprising event occurred due to the feisty and single-minded dedication of Lydia Becker.
It gave rise to the belief amongst campaigners that women would soon be enfranchised. But in fact, it would be another half-century before that goal was achieved. Lydia’s life became a series of triumphs and setbacks. For over twenty years she was the moving force behind ceaseless campaigning and publicity.
Brought up near Manchester in a middle-class family as the eldest of fifteen children, she broke away from convention, remaining single and entering the sphere of men by engaging in politics. Although it was considered almost immoral for a woman to speak in public, Lydia addressed innumerable audiences. Not only on women’s votes, but also on girls’ education, the position of wives, the abuse of women, and their rights at work. She kept countless supporters all over Britain and beyond informed of the many campaigns for women’s rights through her publication: the Women’s Suffrage Journal.
In every area there were setbacks. But relentless battling did begin to move society and politics towards a new perception of women by undermining the accepted orthodoxy of ‘separate spheres’.
Steamrollering her way to Parliament as chief lobbyist for women, Becker influenced MPs in a way that no woman had done before. In the 1870s giving women the vote was compared in the Commons to ‘persuading dogs to dance’; it would be ridiculous and unnatural. By the time of Lydia’s death in 1890 there was a wide acceptance that the enfranchisement of women would happen sooner or later.
But she did not live to see the achievement of her goals. The torch was picked up by others who built on the foundations she had laid. These included Lydia’s younger colleague on the London committee, Millicent Fawcett, and a woman she had inspired as a teenager: the iconic Emmeline Pankhurst.
Local historian and author Joanna Williams studied History at the University of Manchester at undergraduate and postgraduate level. After lecturing for the Department of Extra-Mural Studies, she taught History at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. Her fascination with the nineteenth century was inspired by the enthusiasm of her A level students.
She published a life of Abel Heywood, Manchester’s Radical Mayor, in 2017 and followed that up with The Great Miss Lydia Becker (2022). She is currently researching the life of Richard Pankhurst – a former member of the Manchester Lit & Phil – for a further, long-overdue, biography.