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MURIEL ETHEL DICKINSON: A WOMAN AHEAD OF HER TIME

Muriel was born in Preston, the result of an affair between a well-born Lancashire gentleman and a barely literate Liverpool shop-girl. Learning of the pregnancy, her father tried to run away but was caught about to board a ship and forced to marry, whereupon his own family cut him off. Muriel was an unwanted child, made to black the hearths, set the fire in the lounge and scrub the kitchen floor before leaving for school, where she excelled in Maths and English and was nicknamed, ‘Dictionary Muriel’. Once home, she had to do the housework and cooking and was treated like a servant by her bullying father and sickly mother.

From an early age, she was fascinated by psychology, an interest which was to save the lives of both her and her mother. Aged 8, she uncovered and foiled her father’s plan to run off with another woman. Three years later, he had a breakdown, took a length of rope and tried to strangle the two females who had ‘ruined his life’, but Muriel, using techniques she had learned from a book, managed to talk him out of it and he was subsequently taken off to a mental asylum.

Somehow, Muriel’s creative genius survived the nightmares at home. She took up the piano, had singing lessons to train her beautiful voice and began writing poetry. Her headmistress thought she was university material and Muriel had her heart set on becoming a doctor, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. At the age of 13, she was forced to go to work. Her red-gold hair, blue eyes and stunning looks won her many admirers. In her twenties, she briefly got engaged but her fiancé refused to wait for her to make the decision to leave her sick mother. In her spare time, she did a correspondence course in journalism and began to sell articles, poems and short stories using pen-names such as Marion Dickson, or her initials, M.E.D.

She also loved sport and it was cycling that brought her together with Lawrence Read. They married in 1938, her mother’s health having improved. They had their first child in 1945 and their second daughter arrived in 1948. Muriel didn’t forget her love of medicine. She took some nursing exams and worked as an unpaid nursing auxiliary at Sefton General Hospital in Liverpool. She was the one friends and neighbours turned to in an emergency or a tragedy and she helped a neighbour nurse her young son through a rare form of cancer whilst nursing her own dying mother. She was, everyone said, an angel.

Her marriage wasn’t a happy one. Her husband crushed her creativity, forbidding her to attend art classes and making her give up a flourishing career as a concert singer. But Muriel kept her successful freelance writing career secret. Lawrence would certainly have disapproved of the sentiments of this article, For Men Only, published in The Bulletin in 1947.

Make no mistake about it, gentlemen, the day is dawning when you must look to your laurels. Merely being masculine will not be sufficient. You will need all the brilliantine, hair brushes, electric razors, shaving lotion and natty ties you can get, not to mention a few daily exercises to fine down that paunch and straighten those drooping shoulders, because we women are slowly awakening.

A SHORT AND DIFFICULT LIFE:

My paternal grandmother Criss Cox had a short but particularly difficult life. She was the third of fourteen children born in May 1888 to John and Harriet Cox in Bristol. Harriet was a tailoress and her husband a mason’s labourer (and reputed to be quite a drinker). In the Census of 1901 Criss, aged 11, was listed as “daughter” but this was crossed out and amended to “son”. This was presumably altered by the supervising enumerator who thought that “Criss” was a boy’s name.

By the time she was 20 Criss had moved to London and was working as a domestic servant in the house of a man who later became deputy Controller of the London Post Office. She became pregnant and her son Edward Arthur (my father) was born in July 1910 whilst she was living at her employer’s house in Cricklewood. By the time the birth was registered two weeks later she and her baby were living at the Hampstead Workhouse.

She returned to Bristol and a year later she married a man named Isaac Reach by whom she had another three children, all daughters, over a period of 4 years. In 1915 Isaac joined the Army but was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, leaving Criss with four children, the oldest of whom was only 5 years old.

Although the tragedy of the Great War was ending, it was followed by the great flu epidemic and Criss was one of many thousands who died in 1918.  The four children, Edward, Lily, Criss and Rose were taken in by their grandparents John and Harriet.

©in the text Mike Cox

Lilian Lenton (1891 – 1972)

We recently paid tribute to Lilian Lenton: suffragette, political fugitive, holder of a French Red Cross medal for her service in the First World War.

[To return to spotlight on click here]

Lilian Lenton was born in Leicester in 1891, daughter of a carpenter-joiner. On leaving school she trained to be a dancer.  However, after Lilian heard Mrs Pankhurst speak she was so inspired that ‘I made up my mind that night that as soon as I was twenty-one and my own boss… I would volunteer’.

In winter 1911-12 suffragettes saw their hopes for Votes for Women betrayed yet again by Asquith’s Liberal Government. Lilian’s twenty-first birthday fell in January 1912 and she wasted no time. The Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) planned a major window-smashing raid, and Lilian volunteered. Going under a pseudonym, she broke windows and was among the long list of women arrested.

Lilian was sentenced to two months, even though this was her first offence. If the aim was to deter such suffragettes, it failed miserably. From early 1913 Lilian took part in arson attacks, firing empty buildings. The political aims were ambitious – as she recalled later: ‘Whenever I was out of prison my object was to burn two buildings a week… The object was to create an absolutely impossible condition of affairs in the country, to prove it was impossible to govern without the consent of the governed.’

In prison, Lilian, like many other suffragettes, went on hunger strike – in protest against women bring denied the vote. Like others, she was forcibly fed in Holloway. But it went horribly wrong. The sloppy prison ‘food’ accidentally entered Lilian’s left lung. Violently ill, she was rushed out of prison. She became a cause celebre, with strongly-worded protest from the medical profession and opposition MPs. To avoid more such political embarrassment, the Government rushed through its ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act in April 1913: hunger-striking suffragette ‘mice’ could be released on temporary licence to recover their health, when the security forces could re-arrest them – if the ‘cats’ could find their ‘mouse’.

Lilian’s speciality was escapes. Disguised on at least two occasions as a boy, she was able to evade detectives tracking her movements. By the outbreak of war in 1914, she was still on the run, hiding away in the English countryside, a political fugitive.

During the war, Lilian served as a medical orderly in Serbia with the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) units, formed by Dr Elsie Inglis, pioneer Edinburgh surgeon. Inglis had had little time for WSPU militants like Lilian Lenton; but as the fighting continued and the SWH needed additional staff, Lilian was recruited – and served so steadfastly she was awarded a French Red Cross medal.

Afterwards, Lilian worked for the newly-founded Save the Children Fund in Russia, and later for equal rights Women’s Freedom League. But it is for her time as a suffragette arsonist and political fugitive, along with her SWH war service out in Serbia, that women’s historians will most want to remember Lilian Lenton.

© In Lilian Lenton text Jill Liddington.

the women’s century: guide to chapters …

Before 1901: A Woman’s Place

gives an overview of women’s status and roles before the 20th century

1900–1914: Deeds not Words

covers the suffragette movement and profiles Annie Kenney and Lady Constance Lytton

1914–1918: On Her their Lives Depend

deals with women’s work in the First World War – it includes profiles of Vera Brittain and Edith Cavell

The 1920s: The Modern Miss

covers the period which saw women gain the vote and an improved status under the law – it includes profiles of Marie Stopes and Lady Astor

The 1930s: Domestic Bliss or Suburban Neurosis

surveys the decade in which women (with a few exceptions) seem to disappear from the scene – it includes profiles of ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson and Amy Johnson

1939–1945: What Did You Do in the War, Mummy?

deals with the enormous contribution that women made to the war effort – it includes profiles of Violet Szabo and Vera Lynn

The 1940s/1950s: From Housewives’ Choice to Rock and Roll

covers the immediate post war years which saw changing expectations, the ending of the marriage bar and calls for equal pay – it includes profiles of Jill Craigie and Rosalind Franklin

The 1960s: Dolly Birds and Double Standards

questions whether the ‘swinging sixties’ really brought women freedom – it includes profiles of Mary Stott OBE and Mary Quant OBE

The 1970s: Feminists or Free Spirits?

deals with second wave feminism and the sexual revolution – it profiles Baroness Barbara Castle and Erin Pizzey

The 1980s/1990s: Having it All?

considers the period dominated by images of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana – it profiles Dame Anita Roddick OBE and Baroness Patricia Scotland QC

Key dates

includes some of the milestones of ‘the women’s century’

Further reading

lists books of interest arranged under author

Index

20th century women’s history: social changes…

The 20th century saw an incredible change in the roles of women in the UK. At the start of the century they were denied a voice and a vote and were told that a woman’s place was in the home. By the end of it their position had changed beyond recognition.
The causes of this amazing transformation (and its effects on the lives of ordinary women) are examined in ‘The Women’s Century: a celebration of changing roles’.
The book is written in an accessible style in order to bring 20th century women’s history to the attention of a wider audience.

Her-stories.co.uk aims to continue this work. This section is based on the book and provides brief outlines of the major causes of change. It suggests further reading for those who would like to know more. In due course other periods of history will be covered but for the moment this section of the site is concentrating on 20th century women’s history.
suffragettes    first world war    the interwar years
second world war    second wave feminism    having it all?
the new feminism    further reading

The Suffragettes:

At the start of the century, women had been agitating for the vote for almost 40 years with no success. Their method was both ladylike and constitutional. It involved writing to and lobbying members of parliament (MPs). Although they won the support of many MPs the government always blocked any move to give women the vote. Women who campaigned for the vote using these methods are known as suffragists.

The 20th century was a mere 3 years old when Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for the vote. With their call for ‘Deeds not Words’, the WSPU shocked society by campaigning in a way thought to be unladylike. Instead of sitting at home writing polite letters or having cosy meetings with sympathetic MPs, these campaigners took to the streets.

They held public meetings, heckled politicians, marched on Parliament with petitions and handed out leaflets in the streets. At the start even these innocuous tactics were considered militant, but before long other women’s suffrage groups became more pro-active and they too organised marches and campaigned in a more vigorous way.

In 1905 Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney served a prison sentence rather than pay a fine after being found guilty of disrupting an election rally. Their prison sentence brought the campaign a great deal of publicity. It was soon after that the press coined the term suffragettes to describe the more militant campaigners.

When most people are asked about the suffragettes the usual response (if they know anything at all) is to mention women chaining themselves to railings and setting fire to letterboxes. They seem know nothing of the police brutality towards demonstrators or of the vicious treatment meted out to suffragettes who went on hunger strike in prison. Doctors’ reports of the time testify to the rough treatment by the police of women whose only offence was to attempt to hand in a petition to the Prime Minister.

When taken to court on charges of disturbing the peace or obstructing the police, many suffragettes chose a prison sentence rather than pay a fine. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners and when this was denied them, several went on hunger strike. The government’s response to the hunger strikers was to force-feed them. Public outrage at force-feeding caused the government to change tactics and they passed a law (known as The Cat and Mouse Act) which allowed them to release starving suffragettes until they were strong enough to return to prison. Often prison authorities waited until a woman was close to death before releasing her.

As news of the brutal treatment of hunger strikers spread, the more militant suffragettes responded with a campaign of violence. While stone-throwing and the smashing of shop windows was widely done, a few embarked on more serious violence with arson and the bombing of an empty house. In justification they argued that they only caused harm to property. The only people harmed during this period were suffragettes and more than one woman died as a result of the treatment she received at the hands of the authorities.

When war broke out in 1914, women called off their campaigns and directed their energies to the war effort. They were no nearer gaining the vote in 1914 than in 1900 and some argued that the militants had set the cause back. Yet within a few years of the WSPU’s rallying cry ‘Deeds not Words’ it had become acceptable for women to be involved in political campaigning. (Even the anti suffrage groups had encouraged women to speak out against the vote.)

The government (that had once considered her public enemy no 1) now called on Mrs Pankhurst to organise a rally to encourage women to volunteer for war work. Women who had been campaigning for years to show that they had a role to play outside the home were only too happy to answer the call.

Suggested Reading:

‘Rebel Girls’ by Jill Liddington draws on new evidence to reveal the untold stories of young suffragettes including that of Dora Thewlis, nicknamed the ‘Baby Suffragette’, whose picture was splashed across The Daily Mirror. Shortlisted for the PORTICO PRIZE FOR LITERATURE and well worth reading.

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The First World War

Suggested reading:

Chronicle Of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Great War Diary, 1913-1917: Great War Diary, 1913-17

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain

The Interwar Years

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

The Second World War

Suggested Reading:

Books about Nancy Wake
(Nancy will be featured soon in the spotlight section of this site)

Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon

Nancy Wake: The inspiring story of one of the war’s greatest heroines
by Peter Fitzsimons

Other books about the women of the SOE

Heroines of SOE by Beryl E. Escott

Second Wave Feminism

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

Having It All?

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

The New Feminism (Third Wave Feminism?)

Suggested reading:

Nina Power: One Dimensional Woman (zero books 2009)

Natasha Walter: Living Dolls – the Return of Sexism (Virago Press 2010)

Further reading: click on title for further information

Titles covering the 20th Century:

Turner, Mary ‘The Women’s Century: a Celebration of Changing Roles 1900 -2000’
(The National Archives 2003)

Mayer, Annette ‘Women in Britain 1900-2000’ (Hodder and Stoughton, 2002)

Bruley, Sue ‘Women in Britain since 1900’ (Palgrave 1999)

Rowbotham, Sheila, ‘A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States’ (Penguin 1999)

events

Jill Liddington, suffrage detective and author of ‘Rebel Girls – Their Fight for the Vote’ will be speaking, on the following dates in 2007:

  • Friday 13th April: Mytholmroyd Methodist Church 7.30 pm
    Mytholmroyd Historical Society Tel: 01422 884980
  • Saturday 14th April: Leeds, The Carriageworks, Millennium Square 12.30pm
    Ladyfest Leeds 2007 Tel: 0113 224 3801
  • Wednesday 25th April: Holmfirth Library 7.30pm
    Kirklees Library Service Tel: 01484 222431
  • Monday 14th May: Calderdale Women’s Centre, Silver Street, Halifax 7.30pm
    Calderdale Women’s Centre Tel: 01422 386500
  • Tuesday 15th May: Walking with the rebel girls: a guided town trail
    Huddersfield, railway forecourt 6.30pm
    West Yorkshire Branch Historical Association Tel: 01484 472452
  • Thursday 17th May: The Leeds Library, Commercial Street 7.30pm
    Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society Tel: 0113 278 5596
  • Saturday 7th July: Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London 11.45 am..
    Title: Rebel Girls: their fight for the vote. Tel: 020 7819 1190.

Mary Seacole

Mary Seacole (1805 -1881) : nurse and heroine of the Crimean War

Mary Seacole was born 200 years ago in Jamaica, the daughter of a Scottish soldier and Jamaican mother. Although few people in Britain knew about her until recently, at around the time of the Crimean War hers was a household name. She was known both for her skills as a nurse and for her bravery in tending wounded and dying men on the battlefield.

Mary first learned her nursing skills from her mother, and then from her own observations and experience. She was an expert in the use of traditional and herbal medicines and had successfully treated both cholera and yellow fever. Her expertise went beyond what we would recognise as nursing today. She not only mixed her own medicines but she also operated on gunshot wounds.

Despite her wide experience in the treatment of cholera, she was turned down when she volunteered to join Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses. Although convinced that she was rejected because of her colour, she was determined to go to the Crimea where the soldiers were at greater risk from cholera than from the enemy. Unable to go as part of the official nursing team, she went out as a sutler (someone who sells provisions to the army) and set up the British Hotel where, as well as providing somewhere for soldiers to relax, she cared for the sick and convalescing.

Military hospitals tend to be away from the battlefields but Mary set up her ‘British Hotel’ close to the front. She thought nothing of venturing out onto the battlefield to tend to the fallen. Her bravery was brought to the attention of the British public by William Russell of ‘The Times’ and later by returning soldiers.

At the end of the war she returned to England in poor health and penniless. But once the press revealed her situation, the military organised a fund raising event (which lasted four days) on her behalf. In 1857 Mary published her autobiography ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ which was a best-seller. It has since been reprinted.

Though famous in her day, by the time she died in 1881, her exploits were largely forgotten. She was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Harrow Road, Kensal Green, London. Mary was voted greatest black briton in February 2004.