−−− BY LINZI DAVIES −−−
‘A Woman’s Place?’ is a fantastic exhibition running throughout the year at Abbey House Museum, in which inspirational women who have blazed a trail through history are celebrated. The exhibition is to mark the centenary of women getting the right to vote here in Britain and celebrates not only extraordinary women who shaped our future, but the quiet heroism of ordinary women. For our feature this month, we focus on some of the women who star in the exhibition, from past and present.
Mary Edith Pechey was born in Essex in 1845. Her father was a Baptist minister and her mother was a lawyer’s daughter who was unusually for the time, well educated. Edith’s own father educated her, and she then worked as a governess and teacher until 1869. It was then that things began to change, and Edith started a pioneering journey into medicine.
A woman named Sophia Jex-Blake had been rejected to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, as the sole female applicant. She then advertised in The Scotsman for more women to join her in hope of changing the minds of the men at the University.
The second letter Sophia received was from Edith who wrote, ‘Do you think anything more is requisite to ensure success than moderate abilities and a good share of perseverance? I believe I may lay claim to these, together with a real love of the subjects of study, but as regards any thorough knowledge of these subjects at present, I fear I am deficient in most.’
With this letter, Edith became one of the Edinburgh Seven, the first seven female undergraduate scholars at any British university. In her first year of study she achieved the top grade in the chemistry exam, outstripping her male counterparts. The professor of chemistry, fearing a backlash from the male students awarded scholarships to the men, which Edith had earned by coming top. Citing that ‘women are not part of the university class, because they are separately taught’ as his reason, he then felt unable to issue the women with their certificate of attendance, which was a requirement of the medical degree. He instead issued ‘ladies class’ credits which were useless and referred to by Sophia as ‘strawberry jam labels.’ Following an appeal by the women, they were granted the standard certificates. The women were gaining publicity throughout Britain with the difficulties they faced. The Times reported ‘Miss Pechey has done her sex a service, not only by vindicating their intellectual ability in an open competition with men, but still more by the temper and courtesy with which she meets her disappointments.’
In 1873 the women sadly had to give up their struggle to graduate at Edinburgh. Edith found work at the Birmingham and Midland Hospital for Women despite her lack of official qualifications, apparently her successful studies and the strength of her testimonials was enough. Following this, she did pass her medical exams in Germany at the University of Bern in 1877, being awarded an MD. Later the same year, Irish colleges decided to licence women doctors and Edith passed her exams in Dublin.
Finally achieving her official qualification as a doctor, Edith practised in Leeds for the next six years, focussing on women’s health education, and when the London School of Medicine for Women opened she was invited to give the inaugural address.
Her success in Leeds was noticed, and she was invited to work in India where women were not allowed to be treated by the male doctors. Upon arrival in Bombay in December 1883, she learnt Hindi quickly and began her work as senior medical officer at Cama Hospital for Women and Children. She began a training programme for nurses and campaigned for wider social reform – from equal pay for female medical workers, to ending child marriage. Pechey married Herbert Phipson in 1889. Five years later she was forced to give up her hospital work due to diabetes and ill health but continued with a private practice where she served the wealthy of Bombay.
She returned to England with her husband in 1905 and became involved in the suffrage movement but by 1907 she was suffering from breast cancer. She died from the disease whilst in a diabetic coma in April 1908, but the legacy she left behind continued for many years.
Leonora Throp was born in Hunslet Leeds in 1873. Her first job was an apprentice milliner aged 14 and it was whilst working that she met Henry Cohen, the son of Jewish immigrants who was working as a jeweller’s assistant. They fell in love, but both families opposed the marriage which took place in March 1900 as in the eyes of society, he was marrying below himself.
The couple had a happy marriage, and despite losing their first child Rosetta, before having Reginald two years later, they enjoyed a peaceful life and Henry’s jewellery business flourished.
As Leonora’s father had died when she was just 5 years old, she had seen the struggles her mother had gone through to raise three children alone as a woman. This, combined with campaigns in Leeds for better working conditions for women, made her passionate about women’s rights and her husband Henry was supportive. She joined the Leeds Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909 which was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. Cohen would later act as bodyguard to Pankhurst.
In 1911, Leonora took part in a protest where she threw a rock at a government building window and was arrested. She spent seven days in Holloway Prison for the crime but defended herself in court and was released. Two years later she famously smashed a glass showcase of jewels at the Tower of London in front of gobsmacked school children, for which she became known as the ‘Tower Suffragette.’ The iron bar which she had used to smash the glass had a note attached to it. One side read ‘Jewel House, Tower of London. My protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women but continues to torture women prisoners – Deeds Not Words. Leonora Cohen.’ And on the reverse ‘Votes for Women. 100 years of constitutional petition, resolutions, meetings and processions have failed.’ She was arrested again but released on a technicality. When Prime Minister Herbert Asquith visited Leeds in November the same year, the suffragettes were outraged. Two tried to set fire to the Headingley football stand and there were violent demonstrations at the Hippodrome where Asquith was set to speak. Leonora was arrested yet again and sent to Armley jail where she embarked on a hunger strike and was subsequently released. Despite her misdemeanours, she still had the support of her family, although they lost their friends and received hate letters. Her son was bullied at school due to his mother’s actions.
Her rebellious deeds in the face of political action did not go unnoticed and in 1923 Leonora Cohen became the first woman president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils. She served on the council for 25 years and was awarded an OBE for services to public life. She died at the age of 105 in 1978.
Mary Gawthorpe was born in 1881, the third of five children. Her mother was determined to make sure she finished her education, as despite doing well herself at school she had to leave at 10 to work in a textile mill to contribute to her family’s meagre income. Once she had finished school, Mary worked through the day and studied evenings and weekends to qualify as a teacher, which she did just before her 21st birthday.
Mary began attending meetings of the Independent Labour Party after becoming friends with an active member Tom Garrs. She was a strong supporter of women’s rights and along with friends Isabella Ford and Ethel Annakin, formed a Leeds branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. In February 1906, she met Christabel Pankhurst who told Mary ‘The further one goes, the plainer one sees that men (even Labour men) think more of their own interests than of ours.’ That same year, Mary gave up teaching to become the full-time organiser of the WSPU in Leeds, and in October she was arrested during a demonstration outside the House of Commons and given a two months prison sentence. Following her release, Mary became one of the WSPU’s main speakers at rallies as she had gained a reputation as an excellent public speaker. Following speaking to hundreds of thousands at two rallies in Hyde Park, London and Heaton Park, Manchester, her friend Sylvia Pankhurst said ‘Mary Gawthorpe was a winsome merry creature, with bright hair and laughing hazel eyes, a face fresh and sweet as a flower, the dainty ways of a little bird, and having with all a shrewd tongue and so sparkling a fund of repartee, that she held dumb with astonished admiration, vast crowds of big, slow-thinking workmen and succeeded in winning to good-tempered appreciation the stubbornness opponents.’
Horrifically, Mary was badly beaten on several occasions by the Police and Prison Officers. She suffered severe internal injuries following a beating by stewards as she heckled Winston Churchill in 1909. This combined with hunger strikes and force feeding badly damaged her health and by 1912 she had to retire from active involvement in the Suffrage movement. Around the same time, she resigned from her post as co-editor of The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review which was a notorious publication due to its frank discussions on sexuality, morality and marriage.
Mary Gawthorpe emigrated to New York in 1916 where she was involved in the American suffrage movement. She married John Sanders and became an American citizen. She died in 1973.
**The outbreak of war brought a pause to the suffragette campaigns, but also a change of heart from the government thanks to women like Leonora Cohen and Mary Gawthorpe. By February 1918 women over the age of 30 were finally given the vote, with this reducing to age 21 ten years later.**
Ivy Benson was born in Holbeck, Leeds in 1913. Her father was a talented musician and played trombone for the Leeds Symphony Orchestra, so Ivy was around music from birth. She obviously inherited her father’s talent, learning to play piano from the age of 5. By 8 years old she was performing at working men’s clubs billed as ‘Baby Benson’ and at 9yrs old appeared on BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour. Upon leaving school at 14, she worked in the famous Burton factory, saving some of her wages each week towards her first saxophone.
In 1929 Ivy joined Yorkshire band Rhythm Girls and toured with them until 1935. In the late 30’s she moved to London and formed her own entirely female band. Up until WWII, bands were almost exclusively male, so to begin with people went along to see them perform out of curiosity – never having seen women play trombones and trumpets before. Surprised by the high standard of performance, audiences took to the band and they were soon topping the bill at venues such as the London Palladium and the Palace Theatre Manchester. Of course, as WWII got underway, there was more call for female musicians as men were called up.
Joyce Terry, a singer in the band from 1943 to 1946 remembers “She just thought there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. We were going around the country living wonderful lives. Not depending on any men. We were earning our own living. Doing what we wanted to do and doing it very well too. Men tried to put us down, but we wouldn’t have it and Ivy wouldn’t have it.”
In 1945, Ivy Benson’s Band were the first to be invited to perform at the VE Day celebrations in Berlin, requested by Field Marshal Montgomery. On Christmas Day the same year they performed for a live BBC Radio broadcast immediately after the King’s speech. The band also toured Europe and the Middle East entertaining Allied troops and performed at the London Olympics 1948. The line up of the band changed frequently as many of the musicians left to marry G.I’s they met while touring. Ivy said at the time “I lost seven in one year to America. Only the other week a girl slipped away from the stage. I thought she was going to the lavatory, but she went off with a G.I. Nobody’s seen her since!”
The band played for servicemen overseas until the 1970’s, with Ivy adapting to changing tastes in music by adding pop songs. Towards the end of Ivy’s career, they mainly played at private functions as dance halls declined. Their final performance was at the Savoy Hotel in 1983. Ivy retired to Clacton-on-Sea where she suffered a heart attack and died aged 79 in 1993.
Beryl was born in Halton, Leeds in 1937. She married her husband Charlie in 1955 who introduced her to cycling, and from then on dominated British women’s racing. Living in Morley, she raced for the Morley Cycling Club and just two years after being introduced to the sport, won her first national medal – a silver in the 100-mile individual time trial. Beryl then began competing internationally. She was completely self-funded and without a formal coach.
In 1960 she won the women’s world road race championship which she repeated in 1967. Her track career was prolific as Beryl won world championship medals in her speciality, the individual pursuit almost every year for nearly 15 years! She was crowned champion five times, taking silver three times and bronze four.
Beryl Burton is such a well-known name in the cycling and sport world because of the sheer level of wins, medals and records – all before the advanced technology we see in modern cycling today. She won the British Best All-Rounder competition for 25 consecutive years and in total won 72 national individual time trial titles over her career. Her distance records were unbeaten for an incredible length of time. The 10, 20 and 50-mile records she set stood for 20 years and her 100-mile record lasted 28! The 12 hour record she set though was not broken until last year – a whopping 50 years! As well as the statistics and numbers, Beryl was famous for her comments to fellow riders as she passed them by. Dave Taylor, press secretary at Cycling Time Trials said, “The only experience I had with Beryl was being caught by her in a ‘25’ in Essex. As she passed me she said, ‘Eh lad, you’re not trying’ where upon she disappeared up the road.” On another occasion, during the Otley CC ‘12’, she caught up wit Mike McNamara who was in the process of setting a new men’s national record. As she passed him by she handed him a liquorice allsort from a bag, which he thanked her for and popped in his mouth. Years later his club honoured the incident by presenting Beryl with a giant version of the sweet. Beryl remembered approaching him on the road in her book writing ‘Poor Mac…. his glory, richly deserved, was going to be overshadowed by a woman.’
Beryl was recognised for her sporting achievements being awarded an MBE in 1964 followed by an OBE in 1968. She passed away in 1996 still cycling – socially this time however, suffering heart failure whilst out delivering birthday invitations for her 59th birthday party. Daughter Denise who was also a top cyclist suggested that her mother’s drive and competitive spirit eventually wore her body out.
Nicola Adams, born in 1982 was a sickly child, suffering from a variety of allergies, eczema and asthma. She did not let illness hold her back, and at just 13 yrs old she fought and won her very first boxing match despite getting into boxing by accident! She said “When I was 12, my mum couldn’t get a babysitter one night for me and my brother when she was doing her workout classes, and they had an after-school boxing class. I walked into the gym and it was really old school. I loved it. All the windows at the top were steamed up and everybody was sweating and working out. There were kids in the ring doing technique work and kids in the mirrors shadow-boxing. I just thought, wow, this must have been what it was like for Muhammed Ali in the gym.” Nicola is now Great Britain’s most successful female boxer of all time.
Back then there was no career path for women boxers, in fact, women’s boxing was only made legal 20 years ago as the male boxing authorities claimed that the menstrual cycle made women fighters too unpredictable! Nicola persevered though and in 2001 she became the first woman boxer to represent England. In 2003 she became English amateur champion for the first time, retaining the title for the next three championships. All this was with no funding, her mum having to pay for everything she needed for training camps or matches abroad. Nicola was the first English female to win a medal in a major tournament, taking home Silver at the European Championships in Denmark, repeating her success the following year in China. Unfortunately, in 2009, she had to take several months off to recuperate from a back injury but soon bounced back with a silver again in Barbados, this time at the lower weight of flyweight (51kg).
Still struggling with funding, Nicola paid for her training any way she could, working as a painter and decorator and even as an extra on Emmerdale and Coronation Street. She is a determined young woman.
Of course, Nicola Adams first appeared on most people’s radar in the London 2012 Olympics. She defeated China’s three-time world champion Ren Cancan to bring home the first ever female boxing gold medal and won the hearts of the nation with her enthusiasm and now famous beaming smile. Britain showed its appreciation by awarding her an MBE in 2013. The following two years brought more successes, winning gold at both Commonwealth Games and she was also chosen as Team GB’s flag bearer – a proud honour for her. In 2016 she became the first British boxer to successfully defend their Olympic title for 92 years! That same year she was awarded an OBE. Nicola is the only female boxer in the history of the sport to have won every major title available – Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth.
In January last year, on the back of huge amateur success, Nicola announced that she had turned professional. She won her debut fight by points and has successfully defeated her second and third professional opponents by TKO, one of which was right here in Leeds at the First Direct Arena. Her career continues, and it is surely not the last we have heard of Nicola Adams. She is determined to win a professional title before retiring.
VISIT THE EXHIBITION
The exhibition is well worth a visit to learn about all these women, plus many more and see all the unique items on display which represent their lives. Four of the women in this feature have been honoured with a specially created ceramic set designed by Yorkshire based artist Katch Skinner which will become a permanent fixture in the Leeds collection. Also on display are illustrations by Jacky Fleming and a series of photographs of contemporary Leeds women, each holding a sign saying what their job is to illustrate the breadth of industries in which modern women work.
Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of social history said “Each of these women has played their own unique and important role in challenging and changing perceptions of what women can achieve, in turn helping to inspire subsequent generations. What also unites them is a refusal to accept gender-based boundaries or constraints and a determination to reach their goals in the face of adversity, societal pressure and even arrest. Today the struggle for women’s rights and equality is more prominent than ever and, while we doubtless still have a long way to go, we have women like those we are celebrating her to thank for paving the way. We hope this exhibition and their stories will encourage women and girls who visit to believe in themselves and to never let their own ambitions and achievements be limited by their gender.”
The exhibition can be visited right until the end of the year, and there is a programme of talks, study days and workshops to complement it. Abbey House Museum is open Tues – Friday 10am – 5pm, Saturday 12pm – 5pm and Sunday 10am-5pm. For more information, visit;