Cambridge Suffragists and Votes for Women


In researching the impact that women had on transforming Cambridge from a patriarchal feudal town dominated by the university into a modern city, Votes for Women inevitably features. But do we know the full story?

TL:DR. No, we don’t know the full story.

The first hint at the role the women of Cambridge in particular played in the struggle for votes for women I got was through Florence Ada Keynes. Again. It’s as if she’s left lots of little clues all over the place for one person and their dragon fairy to hunt for in order to put the real story together.

Normal for Cambridge: Resident dragon fairy Puffles in the county archives

Now, if Puffles can go along to the county archives, you can too! See here on how to do so. They have a box full of leaflets from campaigners at the time.

“What did Florence have to say?”

Just after Florence married John Neville Keynes, Henry and Millicent Garrett Fawcett invited them to a formal dinner – their first as a married couple.

“When we settled in Cambridge, Professor Fawcett, who had always taken a great interest in my husband’s career, was living in Brookside [off Trumpington Road]. The first dinner-party to which we were invited after our marriage was given by Mrs Fawcett; the Professor, who was a famous raconteur, was telling anecdotes about Dr. Geldart [who we named a pub after], Master of Trinity Hall, when Fawcette migrated there from Peterhouse”. Keynes, F.A. Gathering up the threads, 1950. Heffer & Sons, Cambridge. p53.

Parliament is due to put up a statue in Parliament Square – the first dedicated to a woman – of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. I’d like to think that Cambridge also named a primary school after her as well (this one) but there were two other Fawcetts in the town around the same time – her husband Henry, and the architect WM Fawcett too.

Cambridge in the 1880s

This was in the early 1880s in Cambridge – at the start of a huge social change stemming in part from when Cambridge University lifted its ban on fellows marrying. Before then, Cambridge University fellows had to be celibate. Remember at this time Cambridge University still had proctors and university constables running around Cambridge throwing unaccompanied women into prison (The Spinning House) just in case they might be sex workers. It wasn’t until 1894 that the entire system was brought crashing down. Just over a century later for Cycle of Songs, Cambridge women wrote and sang about it. (For the same project, I was one of the backing vocalists on a song about Parker’s Piece).

Thus the picture we have of Cambridge heading towards the turn of the 19th/20th Century isn’t a great one.

Then on 17 March 1886 under the auspices of Anne Jemima Clough of the newly founded Newnham College Cambridge, a group of women including economist Mary Paley Marshall (who was already making the economic case *for* the minimum wage in 1882 to the extent male trade unionists were quoting her work & citing her in public debates) and Eleanor Sidgwick (brother of Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and niece of Lord Salisbury, the last PM to serve from the Lords’ benches) founded an innocuous-sounding organisation called the Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society.


So innocuous that when Florence Ada Keynes presented the manuscripts of the minutes to the county archive, she did so with a cover that would be bypassed by most people.

This was no mere discussion society. This was a revolutionary society – though they may not have known it at the time or foresaw the impact it would have.

In 1892, Mrs Horace Darwin – otherwise known as Ida Darwin, joined the committee. Ida would go onto be a successful and pioneering mental health campaigner in Cambridge – so successful that ***we named a hospital after her***.

The objectives of the discussion society as written by Mary Paley were as follows:

“That a society be formed in Cambridge with the object of bringing together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions”

Remember this was pre-welfare state. In 1906 future member Eglantyne Jebb would publish the first social scientific study of poverty in Cambridge and reveal that the town had an infant mortality rate of 1:8. This is the same Eglantyne Jebb that would later go on to found Save the Children. Where did she get her inspiration from?

The world sent Cambridge the town Eglantyne Jebb, and we gave her the spark with which she created Save The Children. (Taking inspiration from this Cambridge University campaign). While she was here, Eglantyne took part in a number of suffragist marches although news reports from the time don’t show her as a leader of the marches. Understandably she had an elderly mother to look after, a book to write, a job centre to run (set up by Florence Ada Keynes and Mary Paley Marshall for the Cambridge Charitable Organisations Society but run day-to-day by Eglantyne and Florence’s daughter Margaret). That job centre – the Cambridge boys (ie young men) labour exchange was the blueprint for the job centres that we have today. The women made such a success of it that it was taken over and funded by the borough council. The Liberal government heard about it and expanded the scheme nationally.

“What topics were discussed by the women?”

Let’s have a look. (Images courtesy of the Cambridgeshire County Archive – please write to your county councillor and tell them how important such archives are)

Some of the topics they discuss might sound familiar.

Women in municipal government? The Fawcett Society released this very recently. Housing? It’s not been off the news especially since Grenfell Tower. Unemployment? Remains an issue. One area of little-publicised history is the role of women in the work of the League of Nations. The 1924 Rights of the Child was adopted by the League and further adopted by the United Nations – see here. Who drafted it? That’s right, Eglantyne Jebb.

“What’s this got to do with votes for women?”

It shows that the suffragists campaign was not happening in isolation. If activities in other towns and cities is similar to what was happening in Cambridge, lots of similar battles were happening at local levels. They’ve just not been given the publicity they deserve – even though they were front page news in the run up to the First World War.

What happened in Cambridge?

Posh boys ruined everything. Ranging from gatecrashing public meetings calling for votes for women to trashing the gates of Newnham College to not granting women full degree rights until 1948. By that time the councillors elected by the great people of the borough had already elected three women mayors – one of whom was Florence Ada Keynes, our first woman councillor elected in 1914. There was however, one woman who stands out repeatedly as an organiser.

Step forward Clara Rackham

This photo is from 1930 in a feature in the Cambridge Independent, via the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Cambridge Central Library.

300404 Clara Rackham Photo.jpg

This is what winning looks like – taken after Parliament enacted laws equalising voting for men and women.

Clara started off life as a liberal, and became prominent as a campaigner on a variety of social issues in the run up to the First World War. In 1913 she was one of the leading figures on the national march on London. Again, we know this because of the article below from the British Newspaper Archive.

130725 Clara Rackham Suffragist march Cambridge London

One thing that this article includes is a list of organisations that took part in the procession. Banners listed included one for the Cambridge Conservative Women’s Suffrage Association. Much as the Conservative Party and conservative religious institutions such as the Church of England and the Catholic Church opposed votes for women at an official level, it’s not true to say there were no Conservatives and no Christians that publicly campaigned for votes for women. The position of the institutions – the churches – made them a target for the militant suffragettes, with a number of newspaper reports of church buildings being fire-bombed by them. From the British Newspaper Archive again below is one example.

140227 Suffragettes burn down church

Going back to Clara Rackham

As you can see from the earlier article, Clara Rackham walked all the way from Cambridge to London. This was in the days before roads were properly paved. It can’t have been pleasant – not least with the dust. It’s also worth noting that Clara’s husband, Harris, a classicist at Cambridge was one of the leading lights in the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (so would have faced ridicule himself). Clara was part of the delegation that addressed David Lloyd George. I can only imagine her disappointment when he was seen to have ignored the delegation. I concur with the conclusions of the Cambridge Independent – a liberal supporting local paper in their opinion piece I’ve quoted in full here. Their analysis combining votes for women with Lords’ reform makes their piece well worth a read. With the Liberals losing the Cambridge seat by 400 or so votes in both the January and December 1910 elections, I can’t help but feel that the party’s decision not to back votes for women certainly cost them the Cambridge seat.

Prior to that march, Clara was a regular on local marches, protests and meetings where she was a regular speaker. Given her impact on Cambridge alone, I’m surprised there is not high profile biography locally of her.

Mrs Pankhurst arrives in Cambridge

This is what I mean by posh boys ruining everything!

“She looked for something more intelligent than mere noise and she had hoped for something better in the way of questions.”

Does this remind you of the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions? This reflects a number of pro-votes for women meetings being disrupted by Cambridge University undergraduates – who in those days were all young men from affluent backgrounds. In those days secondary education was not completely free in the way it is today. The fate for most young teenagers was to go straight into work – something that Eglantyne Jebb addressed in her 1906 book (digitised here).

There were further visits during the First World War

This from Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia.

190516 SylviaPankhurstheckledbysoldiers

Unlike her mother and the mainstream of the Suffragettes/Women’s Social and Political Union, Sylvia very much opposed the First World War. So much so that the normally liberal Cambridge Independent demanded that her event be banned by the authorities. This from the Cambridge Independent in the British Newspaper Archive again.

160428 StopTheWarPankhurst

Sylvia Pankhurst went onto live a very eventful life on the far left of UK politics before her death in 1960 – her wikiP page is here. Note that Sylvia wasn’t alone in her hostility to the war. This from the Cambridgeshire Collection – noting the presence of Nobel Prize winner Sir Joseph John Thompson at the end.

140801 Cambridge Uni academics against WWI

Labour and votes for women

We know that Dame Angela Lansbury‘s grandfather George Lansbury MP (later Labour leader) resigned his seat to fight a by-election on the grounds of votes for women. He lost. He then shared a platform with Annie Kenney and Flora Drummond, inciting women to take direct action in support of women’s suffrage. Again from the British Newspaper Archive.

130502 GeorgeLansbury charged wAnnie Kenney FDrummond

Lansbury was found guilty and thrown into Pentonville Prison for his troubles.

Clara Rackham quits the liberals to join Labour

Clara’s experiences during the First World War were such that she abandoned the Liberals for the Labour Party in 1919. At the end of the year, while Florence Ada Keynes lost her seat on the borough council (now Cambridge City Council), Clara Rackham and Dorothy Stevenson got elected in her place. Again from the British Newspaper Archive.

191107 ClaraRackham Elected

Around that time, Homerton College-trained teacher Leah Manning had become president of the Cambridge Labour Party. Leah would later become president of the National Union of Teachers and an MP in 1931.

Romsey Labour Club, Cambridge opens - 10 Oct 1928

In 1928 when the Romsey Labour Club was completed, Hugh Dalton MP returned to Cambridge (he was Labour’s MP candidate in 1923) to open the club. This from the Cambridge Chronicle (The local equivalent of the Daily Telegraph – staunchly Tory-supporting) features Dalton – later Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945 under Attlee in the black suite and black hat on the far left. Clara Rackham is the woman at the front first from the right, with husband Harris just over her left shoulder.


The campaign for votes for women didn’t happen in a bubble as far as Cambridge is concerned. The local archives show that many of the women involved campaigning for votes for women were also involved in a host of other campaigns, adopting a wide variety of different methods. Eglantyne Jebb in particular is credited with being the pioneer of campaigning on issues that crossed national boundaries. Every single major non-governmental organisation actively campaigning today has been influenced one way or another by her work.

There are also many local stories in towns and cities across the UK that haven’t been widely shared or publicised to today’s generation. That’s not to say they weren’t publicised at the time – quite often they were on the front pages. For those of you who can afford it, buy a short subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and have a look through the digitised newspapers to see what protests, actions and events took place where you live.


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