A century of women's achievement in Kent
PUBLISHED: 11:10 04 December 2018 | UPDATED: 11:10 04 December 2018
Thomas Alexander Photography
Celebrating the centenary of women being allowed to vote in a UK General Election, we look at leading Kent ladies, then and now
On 28 November 1893 women voted for the first time in a national election, in New Zealand. It would be another quarter of a century before women in Britain gained the same privilege.
I find it extraordinary that women had to fight until December 1918 before they were finally allowed to vote in a UK General Election. I think it even more extraordinary that women must continue that fight for a fair deal in the workplace.
One hundred years on I wanted to learn more about the part played by Kentish women of the time (Kent being a rebellious county), but also about the lives and philosophies of Kent’s female achievers of today, who may have been inspired by the struggles of a century ago and, in turn, will help galvanise the women of the future.
First, some history. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed in 1897. These ‘suffragists’ campaigned for women’s suffrage (the vote) through peaceable means, but alienated those favouring militancy (‘suffragettes’), who formed the Women’s Suffrage & Political Union (WSPU), under Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel in 1903.
Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), born in St John’s Road, Sidcup, was this nation’s first true female composer and the first awarded a Damehood (or DBE) in 1922.
She was also a published author and suffragette and composed the WSPU’s battle hymn (for its campaign was likened to fighting a war), launched at the Royal Albert Hall in 1911, with Ethel conducting.
All women embracing militancy made sacrifices. Ethel’s own career mothballed for two years as ‘the cause’ took priority.
As the suffragettes’ frustration grew they hit the authorities where it hurt: they attacked property. Ethel gave Emmeline Pankhurst instruction in stone throwing, then spent two months in Holloway for breaking windows herself. Attacks on property included the slashing of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914.
Victoria Pomery OBE
I had the attack on Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in 1914 in mind when speaking to Victoria Pomery OBE, Director of the Turner Contemporary since 2002. Victoria has found a real home in Kent, where two of her passions, the arts and regeneration, coalesced in Margate.
“Turner Contemporary opened in 2011 and is a startling example of cultural-led regeneration,” she tells me. “Margate had been in decline, as changed holiday habits decimated the traditional seaside break.
“The belief that a gallery could change a town’s fortunes was ambitious but an opportunity that was glimpsed and embraced by local people. Some were sceptical, of course, and many thought the money could be better spent, so it was a challenge to take an idea, that seemed crazy to some, and make it a reality.
“Margate still has grand old buildings, and I like to think we’ve added an amazing structure that ranks alongside the past’s best. JMW Turner himself had a relationship with Margate; he made frequent visits here and some of his greatest works feature Margate and the North Kent coast.”
She adds: “I certainly saw Margate’s potential and wanted to play a part in its transformation. A raft of people helped turn Margate around, but Turner Contemporary has been the catalyst. Artists and creative entrepreneurs are moving to what is a ‘happening’ town.
“I believe passionately that the arts should be at the heart of society because of its ability to change lives. Art can invoke conversation, debate and controversy, and we aim to achieve all this at Turner Contemporary. Since 2011 we’ve had 2.7 million visitors, contributing more than £60 million to the local economy.
“I love Kent. It’s a fantastic county full of history and diversity. I feel we owe those campaigners of 100 years ago so much. Getting the vote for everyone was vital, and I’m pleased women are active in politics today. There is still plenty to do, however, to ensure equal opportunities for all!”
I didn’t have the courage to ask Victoria what she thought of a suffragette vandalising an art treasure. While we agree they were fighting a just cause, perhaps we cannot condone all their methods.
Shakespearean actress Ellen Terry moved to Kent in 1900, spending the rest of her life at Smallhythe Place near Tenterden.
One of the highest-earning ladies of the 19th century, Terry achieved an independence denied most women of the time and declared herself an ardent suffragette, although she too thought their methods antagonistic.
Both Ellen, and her daughter, Edith (Edy) Craig were members of the Actresses’ Franchise League, which sought to assist the other groups campaigning
for women’s suffrage.
Next, it was time for me to meet up with a lady also advocating
a ‘partnership’ approach as the way forward.
Amanda Cottrell OBE
When I interviewed Amanda Cottrell OBE, resident of Challock, past-High Sheriff of Kent (2006-07), JP, Patron of Visit Kent, Trustee of Canterbury Cathedral and Patron of Produced in Kent, I mused on the unlikelihood of her ever ending up behind bars.
Amanda, who settled in Kent in 1966, has developed a true county focus and aims to bring disparate groups together for its benefit.
“I love my adopted county, so promoting it comes easily,” she says. “It’s strategically placed in the south east, a gateway to the nation, so with a reputation for welcoming those coming in.
“We are blessed with extraordinary people who believe passionately in what they do, for example, those who’ve driven a ‘foodie-revolution’ here. We’ve always been ahead of the game too, with some of the earliest girls’ grammar schools.
“We have a unique county where 87 per cent of it is still rural and we have more castles, historic houses and woodland than most others. I believe Kent’s future will prosper from partnership, with different groups working together for the greater good.
“Tourism benefits from this and its importance to Kent is manifest: it contributes up to £3.5 billion to the local economy each year.
“I’m also a great believer in future-proofing; we are temporary custodians of this wonderful place and must ensure its narrative continues in the future.
“Would I have joined the suffragettes? I’m not sure. I do admire, however, the fight those groups put up to achieve the vote. It played its part in enabling later generations of women to make their mark.”
Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) was a novelist, vegetarian, anti-vivisectionist and suffragette. Born in Ripple, she dedicated herself to serving the poor and became a social reformer and pacifist. She joined Smyth in being imprisoned.
Having met Gandhi in 1909, Despard adopted his tactics of civil disobedience, which prompted a fracture with the WSPU, which preached not disobedience, but violence.
Despard stood in the 1918 General Election on a platform of equal voting rights, employment rights and equal pay: she was ahead of her time. I’ve no doubt Charlotte’s causes would have appealed to my final interviewee.
Sandra Matthews-Marsh MBE
Sandra Matthews-Marsh MBE has Kent in her heart and a determination to prove that working-class origins and being a woman should not deny you success.
“Supportive parents, who urged me to be the best I could be, counted for a lot. I was the first in my family to go to university. I’m a great believer in meritocracy and hiring the best for the job, irrespective of gender.
“In my experience, men and women working together is beneficial at all levels, but particularly at the top where most decisions are made.
“It’s been a massive privilege to take a small enterprise (Visit Kent) and turn it into the well-respected, sustainable organisation of today. I’m proud to be leaving it in its current state after 14 years.
“Tourism is now recognised as a proper career, plus an economic driver: without tourism, and our visitors, we wouldn’t have the assets we possess in Kent.
“It’s the people and places that inspire me. I’ve been fortunate to meet so many individuals who care passionately about the sites they administer, and that’s everyone from zoo-keepers to stately-home owners! They ooze enthusiasm and love what they do. Kent’s tourism offering is constantly improving as our visitors become more discerning: there’s 65 million a year.
“I adore Kent; a county that has everything. There is such variety; so much to see and do. I can’t imagine living anywhere else and wouldn’t wish to. Oh, and I always vote. My Mum would never speak to me again if I didn’t!”
For the suffragettes and suffragists, the fight for the vote was long and bitter. Kent’s women played their part, attending meetings graced by famous suffragettes, including the Pankhursts.
They listened, absorbed and acted. In Gravesend, suffragettes were abused, but refused to back down. There were large groups in Sevenoaks and Tunbridge Wells. In Gillingham, suffragettes boycotted the 1911 Census (‘If we don’t count we are not going to be counted’). On Census night some 40 Medway women lodged in a hall to avoid being counted.
When the Representation of the People Act received its Royal assent in February 1918 it was a partial victory. Only women over 30 could vote, if they satisfied certain criteria, like being a property owner. All men over 21 could vote.
On 14 December 1918 some women went to the polls. The tide was turning. Janet Stancomb-Wills became the first lady mayor of Ramsgate (1923-24), and in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act finally treated women voters the same as men.
It was long overdue.