Thu 10th Jan
The women's suffrage movement in Swansea / Y mudiad dros etholfraint i ferched yn Abertawe
Swansea was a centre for radical women campaigning for the right to vote in elections, including Emily Phipps and other members of the Womens’ Freedom League. Ryland Wallace, a leading historian of the suffrage movement in Wales, sheds light on the story.
Bu Abertawe yn ganolfan i ferched radical oedd yn ymgyrchu dros yr hawl i bleidleisio mewn etholiadau, gan gynnwys Emily Phipps ac aelodau eraill o’r Women’s Freedom League. Mae Ryland Wallace, hanesydd blaenllaw o'r mudiad etholfraint yng Nghymru, yn taflu goleuni ar yr hanes.
Thursday 10 January 2019 / Iau 10 Ionawr 2019 7:30pm
In Swansea Museum / Yn Amgueddfa Abertawe
Ryland Wallace, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Swansea: summary
Andrew Green paid tribute to Avril Rolph who had agreed to give this talk but had sadly died in 2018, and was grateful to the historian of the suffrage movement in Wales, Ryland Wallace, for agreeing to give the lecture.
Then, in what was the most engaging and entertaining introduction to a speaker probably ever given at the RI, Ryland’s attributes as both as distinguished historian and cricketer were extolled.
In what Andrew later described as an ‘absolutely masterly’ presentation, Ryland explained the place of Swansea in the suffrage movement from the 1860s to 1928, concentrating particularly on the decade leading to the partial introduction of female enfranchisement in 1918. The different roles and tactics of the main suffrage organisations in Britain were explained: the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the militant and sometimes violent Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the least recognised and perhaps most undervalued, Women’s Freedom League (WFL) which was militant in being prepared to break the law in seeking to achieve ‘Votes for Women’, but remained non-violent. Founded in 1909, the strong WFL Swansea branch of over 100 members became a significant centre of WFL activity while the other two suffrage organisations had little lasting presence. With an agenda that was economic and social, as well as political, the WFL was the main local suffrage organisation as it took to the streets, heckling politicians and engaging in campaigns of civil disobedience, including refusing to pay some taxes or complete the census of 1911.
The actions of the most important local WFL leaders were highlighted, including Emily Phipps, and Clara Neal (both head teachers now recognised with blue plaques), the Australian actor Muriel Matters and Mary McLeod Cleeves. While Matters boldly defaced the census form in defiance, Phipps, Neal and others spent census night in a cave on Gower to avoid being in a registered property. The talk also benefited in hearing of Jennie Ross, a local working class woman, whose papers are held in Swansea Museum, who spent that night, with others, sticking posters to all letter boxes across Swansea.
With WFL dominance, Swansea was not exposed to the violence of the WSPU (and in their attempt to burn down Abergavenny Cricket Club in which Ryland was later prominent , one senses that for him the WSPU may in that instance have strayed too far on the wrong side of history). Other forms of suffrage activity in Swansea included a NUWSS branch coming into being immediately before the Great War which quickly grew to having more than 400 members; a Church League for Women’s Suffrage, which was established in 1913 and a non-conformist Swansea Free Church Suffrage League.
With the outbreak of the Great War, some national WSPU leaders became militaristic, suspended their suffrage activity and supported war aims. The WFL continued to campaign on the suffrage issue. The impact of war probably helped achieve partial suffrage in 1918. All men over 21 were given the vote (as well as men in the forces aged 19 and over), while women over 30 with property were granted the vote. Ryland estimated this left 42% of women – 3 million women aged 21-29 years old and 2 million women disqualified through being without property still disenfranchised. Swansea women continued to be prominent in campaigning for full enfranchisement in the 1920s, though not for a further decade, until 1928, were women put on an equal footing with men.
When the vote was won, in Swansea women held a victory dinner October 1928 for those who had successfully engaged in the struggle for the campaign for ‘Votes for Women’. Notably though, long after the vote had been won, the WFL, with its broader social justice agenda continued its work on other women’s issues into the 1930s.
It is often said it is a privilege to have been present at a lecture. In this case all who were in attendance valued the brilliantly stimulating, detailed and evocative talk, as confirmed by the number and quality of questions asked. Ryland is, in effect, a one-person road show, having already given a tailored talk to Newport. With a bespoke presentation forthcoming in Cardiff, that city too will equally be able to count its good fortune, and I for one will be making the 40 mile journey east to learn of the similarities and differences in what happened there compared with what the sisters in Swansea did for the Cause of ‘Votes for Women’