The Vote Before The Vote - Leeds women and the 19th century march towards the vote

Mary Gawthorpe

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Mary Gawthorpe was born at 5 Melville Street, Meanwood, in 1881, the third of five children. Her father was a factory foreman and an election agent for the local Conservative Party. Her mother worked in a textile factory.

Mary was educated at St Michael’s Church of England School. At 13, she won a scholarship to Leeds Higher Grade (Secondary) School but couldn’t accept because the award did not include her living expenses. Her father arranged for her to be a pupil-teacher at St Michael’s, teaching younger pupils during the day and receiving training in the evenings and on Saturdays. She qualified just before her 21st birthday.

In 1901 she became friends with Thomas Garrs, a compositor on the Yorkshire Evening Post, who introduced her to socialism. Mary joined the Independent Labour Party, serving a term as Vice-President of the Leeds Branch, and the Labour Church, and was an active member of the National Union of Teachers. Isabella Ford recruited her to the Leeds Suffrage Society, where she developed a reputation as a popular, quick-thinking, public speaker, using her background to connect with audiences.

At 21, Mary moved to Hunslet, taking her mother and younger brother with her to escape her abusive father. She was a delegate from the Labour Women’s League to a meeting in the Town Hall to discuss charitable relief for malnourished, underprivileged schoolchildren, and helped start the school dinner project.

By 1905, disappointed by Labour’s failure to engage with the women’s movement, she became a suffragette and left teaching to become a paid WSPU organiser and agitator. Imprisoned several times for her militant activities, she was badly beaten up in 1909 after heckling Winston Churchill at a public meeting. She was seriously assaulted again six months later and attempted to bring charges against her attackers, but the magistrate dismissed them. Her cumulative injuries were so great that she was forced to resign from the WSPU. She worked as a journalist in London for a time but in 1916 she and her brother emigrated to America. Here she took up suffrage work again and became an officer of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. She died in America in 1973.