The Working Class Suffragette
Annie Kenney was the most prominent working class woman in the suffrage movement. Born in Yorkshire, Annie was a mill worker and Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) campaigner. For most of her WSPU career, Annie worked as an organiser in Bristol.
She was born near Oldham in 1879. The fifth of eleven children, she did what was normal for children growing up in her area and started work in a local cotton mill at the age of ten. She worked mornings, and in the afternoon, attended school.
In 1905, when she was 26, Annie went with her sisters to a meeting in Oldham where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking about voting rights for women. Not long after, Annie herself became an organiser and speaker, and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which Christabel had recently helped form.
She and Christabel attended a Liberal rally at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in October 1905. There they stood up and asked Winston Churchill ‘If you are elected, will you do your best to make women’s suffrage a government measure?’ When they received no reply, they unfurled a banner with the slogan ‘Votes for women’ - and were thrown out of the meeting. In the ensuing struggle, a policeman claimed the women had kicked and spat at him. They were arrested and charged with assault.
In her lifetime, Annie went to prison 13 times. Recently, a letter she wrote during one of her incarceration periods was found. She wrote: ‘The law may be stronger than I am, but if I may not change the wicked law that holds in bondage the smitten womanhood of this country, I will at least die in the attempt to change it’.
It’s hard to imagine the campaign for women’s suffrage not eventually being successful. But to think of the sacrifice that Annie and other women like her made, risking their lives when they did not know that the movement would be a success, is amazing. They were willing to go against the expectations that others had of them, to shock their friends, partners, and families, and to break the law to do what they believed was right and to try to create a law that represented greater gender equality. The fact that Annie was not from a background that was wealthy enough to provide some level of immunity from the law, or a financial cushion when things went wrong is an even greater testament to her courage.
In 1912, Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris to avoid arrest, and Annie Kenney was put in charge of the WSPU in London. This made her the only working-class woman in a position of authority in the organisation.
What the suffragettes eventually achieved perhaps in part reflects the lack of socio-economic diversity in the leadership of their organisation. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to: women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities. Those who failed to meet those criteria continued not to have a voice.
Annie Kenney is an inspirational figure who shows that even in the 1800s, being born a working class Northerner doesn’t mean you can’t take part in shaping history, even though the power to do so is perhaps not going to be handed to you as it might be to others. But her willingness to sacrifice her freedom and even her life for a movement that advanced the rights of only privileged women shows the ability of reformist movements to take the work of marginalised activists – women, people of colour, working class people – and use it to their own ends which shift the needle a little, but do not radically challenge the intersectionality of oppression that these demographics tend to face. We want to take this opportunity to celebrate Annie Kenney but also to shine a light on the need for gender equality movements to look at where different identity groups meet, how gender, race, and class interact, for example.
One of the difficult things that International Women’s Day highlights is that feminist movements are so often devoured by capitalist frameworks and, to become known and popular, feminists and feminist ideals so often have to be commodified. And indeed some women would argue that there’s nothing wrong with that and that feminism and capitalism can comfortably go hand in hand. As long as 50% of FTSE100 CEOs are women, as long as the Time Rich List is not dominated by men, as long as the gender pay gap is closed then there are no further grievances. But if a system can be summarised in the metaphor of a see-saw – for someone to go up and become wealthier, someone else must go down as capital is transferred – can it really be the right system to perpetuate any kind of equality? And is the attitude that upholds women who make the most money as the epitome of empowerment just a contemporary version of the ideas that only women with a certain level of wealth and education had the right to vote; isn’t it just another situation in which it is accepted that those who are better off have access to more power than those who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds?
We want to honour the work of Annie Kenney and other working class women by challenging overt sexism – the comments, the behaviour, the attitudes - but also by challenging any system which privileges rich women over poor women, white women over women of colour, able bodied women over disabled women, cis-gender women over trans-women, young women over old women, old women over young women…and we want to, in our small way, be part of the fight to level the playing field for all women.
For more on Annie Kenney:
The Life of Annie Kenney by C. M. Talbot
Memories of a Militant by Annie Kenney
For more on working class feminism:
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
Where We Stand by bell hooks
Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis
The Grounding of Modern Feminism by Nancy Cott