A his­toric Cheshire icon

She was the suf­frag­ist from Con­gle­ton who ar­guably did more for women’s rights than any other fem­i­nist of her day – yet she’s been erased from the his­tory books. Now a lo­cal cam­paign group is work­ing to change that

Cheshire Life - - Contents - WORDS: Jes­sica Salter

Ay­oung woman fer­vent about the burn­ing po­lit­i­cal ques­tions of her age, El­iz­a­beth Clarke Wol­sten­holme Elmy, who lived in Con­gle­ton for most of her life, cam­paigned fear­lessly and stood by her be­liefs, de­spite those around her be­ing hor­ri­fied at her, at times, un­con­ven­tional life­style. In many ways, El­iz­a­beth was Cheshire’s Greta Thun­berg of her age. And 2020, lo­cal cam­paign­ers hope, will be the year she fi­nally gets the recog­ni­tion she de­serves.

‘El­iz­a­beth was a very out­spo­ken, pas­sion­ate cam­paigner,’ Dr Mau­reen Wright, author of El­iz­a­beth Wol­sten­holme

Elmy and the Vic­to­rian

Fem­i­nist Move­ment, says. ‘She was a women’s eman­ci­pa­tor, cam­paign­ing for more than 20 sep­a­rate is­sues over her life­time.’ Her cam­paigns in­cluded the right to ed­u­ca­tion for girls, the right to refuse sex in a mar­riage, the right for a woman to keep her own prop­erty and earn­ings when she mar­ried, and per­haps most sig­nif­i­cantly, the right to vote. In­deed, El­iz­a­beth was de­scribed by Moss Side-born Em­me­line Pankhurst as the ‘brains be­hind the suf­fragette move­ment’.

But aside from a small blue plaque on Bux­ton House in Con­gle­ton, where she lived for 54 years, and her name on the bot­tom of Fawcett’s re­cent statue in Par­lia­ment Square, El­iz­a­beth has largely been for­got­ten for the vi­tal cam­paign­ing work she started in Cheshire but then spread across the coun­try. It’s some­thing a pas­sion­ate group of lo­cal cam­paign­ers have started to change. ‘We have man­aged to draw at­ten­tion to her, and peo­ple are get­ting en­thu­si­as­tic about the need to re­dress the fact she has been for­got­ten,’ says Su­san Munro, chair­per­son of El­iz­a­beth’s Group, who are rais­ing money for a statue in her hon­our, as well as other com­mu­nity projects they hope will con­tinue El­iz­a­beth’s work.

It’s mu­sic to Dr Wright’s ears. ‘I think El­iz­a­beth’s com­ing into her mo­ment,’ Dr Wright says.

‘She was ahead of her time in her at­ti­tudes and be­liefs. Now’s go­ing to be a re­ally good time to bring her to more promi­nence.’

El­iz­a­beth’s cam­paign­ing streak all started with ed­u­ca­tion. She was born in 1833, at a time when women had few rights.

Her el­der brother re­ceived an ex­pen­sive pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion and ended up as a pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at Cam­bridge Univer­sity. El­iz­a­beth, equally bright, was only al­lowed to go to school for two years. Out­raged at the in­jus­tice, she founded a pri­vate girls’ board­ing school in Booth­stown, near Wors­ley, when she was just 20, and later moved it to Con­gle­ton. ‘She pas­sion­ately be­lieved in the right for women and girls to a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion,’ Dr Wright says.

The more in­jus­tice she saw, the more she fought to make it right. She worked tire­lessly. ‘At her peak she was writ­ing, on av­er­age, 300 let­ters a day, all by hand and some­times till two or three in the morn­ing,’ Su­san says. And she didn’t tol­er­ate slack­ers. ‘She com­plained bit­terly about peo­ple who didn’t work as hard as her,’ Dr Wright adds. ‘She worked all the hours God sent – not that as an athe­ist she would ap­pre­ci­ate that phrase – and ex­pected oth­ers to do the same.

‘Her most out­spo­ken cam­paign was that of women’s right to choose when they had chil­dren,’

Dr Wright says. ‘Mar­i­tal rape was not un­law­ful, and she started a cam­paign against it in 1880.’ Ac­cord­ing to Dr Wright, El­iz­a­beth was the first woman on record to speak pub­licly against mar­i­tal rape and ar­gue for its crim­i­nal­ity. ‘Un­be­liev­ably it re­mained un­law­ful un­til 1994.’ Of a sep­a­rate cam­paign to al­low women to keep their own money and prop­erty when she was mar­ried, she saw suc­cess in the Mar­ried Women’s Prop­erty Act in 1882.

El­iz­a­beth’s pri­vate life caused a fair amount of scan­dal, even among the pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nists she cam­paigned with. In 1870 she met her part­ner Ben Elmy, a school­mas­ter who de­scribed him­self as a fem­i­nist, a term that few men use even to­day. De­spite so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tions of them, at first they re­fused to marry, but lived to­gether, be­cause of the hypocrisy of the law at the time that meant any money she earned would au­to­mat­i­cally be­long to her hus­band. When she did marry Elmy, in Oc­to­ber 1874 in a civil rather than Chris­tian wed­ding, it caused scan­dal: aged 40, she was al­ready six months preg­nant.

It wasn’t the only point of fric­tion: she also fell out with the suf­fragettes when Christa­bel,

‘El­iz­a­beth can be a great role model for women of all ages and young girls in par­tic­u­lar’

Em­me­line’s daugh­ter, started more vi­o­lent cam­paign­ing tac­tics to draw at­ten­tion to their cause. ‘El­iz­a­beth ob­jected to their mil­i­tant stand when they be­gan set­ting fires and plant­ing bombs, as they were be­gin­ning to en­dan­ger life,’ Su­san says. ‘She fell out with the Pankhursts and was writ­ten out of their story.’

Nonethe­less, one of her fi­nal pub­lic po­lit­i­cal acts was for the women’s right to vote. In

1913 she led the Great Suf­frage Pil­grim­age through Con­gle­ton, a non-vi­o­lent march for women’s right to vote that took place all over the coun­try and ended up in Lon­don’s Hyde Park, de­spite the fact that she was nearly 80-year­sold. ‘It was a re­ally big deal,’ Dr Wright says. ‘She rode her pony, Vixen, through the streets and it was her last no­table pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion.’

She died in 1918, aged 84, in a nurs­ing home in Manch­ester. Among those who spoke at her fu­neral was Mar­garet Ash­ton, fel­low suf­frag­ist, lo­cal politi­cian and the first woman City Coun­cil­lor for Manch­ester. Women were awarded the right to vote the fol­low­ing year.

Along with her death died her mem­ory. Af­ter a life­time of cam­paign­ing, few now know her name. But fast for­ward to mod­ern days and the El­iz­a­beth Group, which formed last In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day af­ter lis­ten­ing to a lo­cal li­brar­ian give a talk about El­iz­a­beth, de­cided to fundraise for a statue to com­mem­o­rate her. The cost of the statue, which will be made by a lo­cal artist, will be around £60,000 and the group has so far raised £20,000.

The El­iz­a­beth Group’s mis­sion has since widened; re­cently they re­ceived a Her­itage Lottery Grant of £10,000 to do re­search and com­mu­nity work. ‘One of the many things our group has been do­ing is re­search­ing her life lo­cally and we have iden­ti­fied a num­ber of sites across the town where sig­nif­i­cant things hap­pened in her life­time,’ Su­san says. ‘We are hop­ing to place plaques at these sites to es­tab­lish an of­fi­cial El­iz­a­beth Her­itage Trail, link­ing to our web­site, so that vis­i­tors can learn about her and what hap­pened there.’

Su­san says there is par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance for the area’s young peo­ple: ‘El­iz­a­beth can be a great role model for women of all ages and young girls in par­tic­u­lar.’

But Su­san says it’s not just about ed­u­cat­ing girls on Con­gle­ton’s pi­o­neer. ‘It was en­cour­ag­ing that at a re­cent talk I gave in a lo­cal sec­ondary school, the boys were just as in­ter­ested as the girls and asked re­ally sen­si­ble ques­tions. We can chal­lenge toxic mas­culin­ity just as El­iz­a­beth and Ben tried to do.’

BE­LOW: Corona­tion

ABOVE: El­iz­a­beth’s Group

BE­LOW: El­iz­a­beth’s Group have at­tracted me­dia at­ten­tion for the cam­paign to get a statue of El­iz­a­beth erected in Con­gle­ton

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.