Biography, Women's History

Women’s History Month: Mary Gawthorpe

On the 12 March 1973,  Yorkshire working-class suffragist Mary Gawthorpe died at ninety-two, after a decade of widowhood, in a nursing home in New York (borough of Queen’s). In England she had been generally supposed to be already dead for some years. Her memoirs describe a childhood of material deprivation and eager self-education in Leeds. When she won a scholarship to high school her family had no option but to decline it because no maintenance grant was attached. She became a pupil-teacher instead, and a student at night, and soon afterwards a labour activist, a suffragist (the word used for the militant wing of the suffrage movement), and a paid itinerant organiser for the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Attending a London demonstration she was arrested and sentenced to two months in Holloway Prison, where hunger-striking seriously affected her always fragile system. (Her elder sister was healthier; she wrote that it was usual for the eldest child to be the strongest in families pinched by want.) In October 1909 she received “grave internal injuries” when she was struck by one of the stewards at a political rally she was disrupting. (The candidate was Winston Churchill.) This violence was reported by a young newspaperwoman, Cicily Fairfield (later better known as Rebecca West.), but a charge of assault brought by Gawthorpe and another woman injured at this rally was dismissed in court.

Gawthorpe’s sister emigrated to the USA, and Gawthorpe (who as a known radical would have been refused entry as an immigrant) protracted a visit to her sister until she married an American and became eligible for US citizenship by that route. There she resumed her work both as a labour activist and as a suffragist, though her American career is not widely known. Her autobiography, Up Hill to Holloway, which covers only her early years, was published in 1962 by a small local press at Penobscot, Maine. It too deserves to be far better known than it is.

This information is provided by Dr Isobel Grundy, University of Alberta, and comes from Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, Cambridge University Press, by subscription. For more information see here.

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