Blog, Event, Women's History

‘Elizabeth’s Group: Bringing a Heroine to Life’ By Dr Maureen Wright, University of Chichester and Susan Munro, Chair, Elizabeth’s Group, Congleton, Cheshire.

We can think of no better way to kick-off women’s history month than hearing about a campaign to commemorate the Vicwardian suffragist and suffragette, Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy.

It gives me the greatest pleasure to introduce this blog by Susan Munro on the campaign to raise funds for a statue of the Vicwardian suffragist and suffragette Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. The statue is to be sited in Elmy’s hometown of Congleton, Cheshire. I had the honour, as Wolstenholme Elmy’s biographer, to be asked to be Patron of Elizabeth’s Group in October 2019 and the campaign is gathering in both strength and momentum, with a substantial sum already raised.

Scholars of British women’s suffrage are, in the 2020s, more familiar with Wolstenholme Elmy’s name than hitherto, for her place, both in historiography and in the public mind received a boost when she was chosen to be one of the 59 women whose portraits were placed on the plinth below the statue of Millicent Garrett-Fawcett in Parliament Square, London in April 2018. This was to commemmorate the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, 1918 which enfranchised almost 8.5 million British women.

One of the most radical women of her generation the humanitarian, atheist-republican Wolstenholme Elmy was at the forefront of the women’s emancipation campaign since its foundation in the mid-1860s. She was not merely a suffragist, however. Her remit encompassed seeking improvements in education (both secondary and higher) for girls and women, the guardianship of children, equal opportunities in employment and a woman’s ‘right to choose’ when she gave birth – all in addition to the important matter of securing national citizenship for half the population. Yet Wolstenholme Elmy’s secularism and feisty attitude brought her few plaudits from either the contemporary or modern historians of the movement, until the work of Sandra Stanley Holton, Elizabeth Crawford and myself brought her to the fore during the 1990s. Wolstenholme Elmy is a woman well worth celebrating for, as she worked in the forefront of over twenty organisations dedicated to fighting the subjection of her sex, she led many of the campaigns that gained women those rights denied to them in the patriarchal Victorian years – including, controversially, a campaign to criminalise marital rape.[1] A controversial figure in her home town during her lifetime, Elizabeth’s Group is now working to secure Elmy’s place in regional, as well as national history. Susan Munro, Chair of Elizabeth’s Group, highlights their work below.

Maureen Wright, University of Chichester, UK. Maureen is the author of: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement: the biography of an Insurgent Woman, (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press 2011, [p.b. 2014]).

Susan Munro, Chair of Elizabeth’s Group, Congleton writes:

On International Women’s Day 2018, when the “Beast from the East” ravaged our town, a group of intrepid women, dressed as suffragettes, marched through Congleton in the wind and snow to commemorate 100 years of some women getting the vote.  It was a fun morning and later we had an afternoon tea with a talk about our local “Suffragette”.  It was then, for the first time I heard the name Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, and the group decided that there should be a plaque to commemorate the fact that she lived in our town for over 54 years.

I arranged a meeting for the following week for anyone interested in taking part and went home to do some research about her.  I discovered that we did not have a local Suffragette at all! What we had was one of the most radical, human rights activists of her age. Fighting for women’s rights not just to vote but to own property, to keep their children after a marriage breakdown and for the right to an education.  She fought against domestic violence and marital rape, she was a pacifist who protested against the Boer War and was even an anti-vivisectionist; in other words, an animal rights activist.  On top of this she was a prolific letter writer and poet and a member of the Free Love Movement.  Elizabeth, I discovered, had been ‘forgotten’ for several reasons and is missing from the suffragette history narrative, even though she joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union from the outset and served on its Executive. Interestingly Emmeline referred to Elizabeth as the “grey matter in the brains of the women’s movement” and Elizabeth was officially honoured with the title “Nestor” or oldest and wisest. Sadly, the two parted company when the Suffragettes became ultra-militant in 1912 and were threatening the safety of the public. ‘How could they be certain’, Elizabeth wrote to her friend Harriet McIlquham, ‘they would not harm the innocent?’ Elizabeth, a life-long pacifist could not condone their actions and resigned from the WSPU, working until her death in 1918 as a constitutionalist suffragist.

When we learned more about Elizabeth and the unfairness of the situation, we decided that we would work to raise her profile and fundraise for a statue of her to be placed in our town centre.  We formed Elizabeth’s Group, registered as a charity and started to work at getting Elizabeth’s name into the community by running events and street stalls and dressing as suffragettes to gain attention.  We have given talks to various groups and schools and written for newspapers and publications.  We have had a letter published in The Guardian, appeared on local radio and on Channel 5 in Celebrity 5 Go Barging, in 2019.

We took part in the unveiling of the Emmeline Pankhurst Statue “Our Emmeline” at the end of 2018 and the sculptor, Hazel Reeves visited us at Congleton and is interested in the commission.  We have received £10,000 from a local charity and several smaller donations from other charities and businesses.  We are the “Charity of the Year:” for a number of local firms and, so far, we have raised £21,000 for the statue.  We need to raise at least the same again, so in 2020 we will be Crowdfunding and applying for further grants. The work of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy is deserving of national recognition so, if you feel you are able to contribute to the cause please click on the links below to make a donation. Thank you in advance for your generosity! Dr Maureen Wright will also be visiting Congleton at the end of May to give a talk on Elizabeth’s life. For information on that event, to be held in the Town Hall, Congleton, please see the website.

The Heritage Lottery gave us a start-up grant of £10,000 to help us with getting our website built and work with people in the community to get Elizabeth known ahead of our statue which we hope to unveil on International Women’s Day 2022. This is a very special year for Congleton as it is the 750th anniversary of our Charter.

Our website is up and running at www.elizabethelmy.com and we have a Facebook page @Elizabethsgroup.You can donate directly from our website or Facebook page or through this link. All money donated goes to the statue fund.

Susan Munro (Chair), Elizabeth’s Group

[1] Wolstenholme Elmy spoke in public on the issue of martial rape as early as 1880, on the platform of the London Dialectical Society. In this campaign, however, she was unsuccessful: marital rape not being classified as a criminal offence until the 1990s.

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.