Sunday, February 4, 2018

Alice Hawkins Unveiled

It's almost exactly a hundred years since some women in the U.K. got the vote, it was 1928 before full suffrage, and however you look at that it's not a long time. Leicester is one of the cities celebrating the centenary in a big way, and one of 3 (also the first) to unveil public statues. Parliament Square is getting Millicent Garret Fawcett (not before time), Manchester will have Emmaline Pankhurst, but Leicester has Alice Hawkins.

She is the first named woman to be represented by a statue in the city (there's a seamstress around the corner, but she's anonymous) and whilst she might not be the best known name in the suffrage movement, she deserves to be better known.

Alice was born in Stafford in 1863, a working class girl she left school at 13 and by the time she was in her early 20's was a machinist in the Equity shoe factory in Leicester (the building is a couple of streets away from where I live, as is the street she lived on, and the market place she spoke in). She saw that working conditions and pay for women were inferior to those of their male counterparts, and that the trade union movement wasn't interested in addressing the issue. In 1907 she joined the W.S.P.U, marched in London, and was arrested for the first of five times (another arrest followed carving 'Votes for Women' onto the green of a local golf course). Undaunted she invited Sylvia Pankhurst to speak in Leicester and started speaking on village greens, outside factory gates, and in the market place. That entailed facing down violent heckling and physical assault. After 1918 it seems Alice returned to 'normal' life, dying in 1946 aged 83. She was buried in a paupers grave.

I read a lot about the Suffragettes specifically and the women's suffrage movement more generally (the suffragettes have far more written about them than the suffragists do) a few years before I started blogging, so it's high time I brushed up on that history and read some of the newer books. As I recall the Pankhurst's got the lions share of the attention in those books, which I hope has changed somewhat. The work they did was important, but the personal sacrifices and risks women like Alice took, women who didn't have the money, education, or influential friends, the Pankhursts did, deserve much more attention.

Alice's determination and bravery in standing up for her cause is inspiring - certainly inspiring enough to draw a crowd of several hundred on a freezing February day to see her statue unveiled, and I'm proud that this city has chosen to honour her (and has done for a few years now in various ways, but principly by making her the focus of one trail of interpretive boards around the city centre). It's right that her voice is remembered, because it's precisely such voices which have all to often been forgotten, and their stories are important.


  1. Embarrassingly (but I am an American) I didn't know the difference between a suffragette and a suffragist! It took American women 72 years to be allowed to vote and if the current administration had its way we would probably have that right stripped..............

    1. Not embarrassing at all, I think suffragette is used almost universally, but the difference was that the suffragists didn't carry out militant action. They did attend the same marches though. It's a shockingly short time women have had the vote.