It is said that what Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow. Whilst this was originally a statement about the city’s place at the leading edge of the industrial revolution, it applies equally to its revolutionary women.
The women of Manchester have changed the world over and over again throughout history. Here are some of our personal favourite stories…
We’re pretty sure it’s illegal to start an article about women who have impacted Manchester anywhere else than with the Pankhurst family.
Emmeline Pankhurst is one of the most important names in the history of the global suffrage movement. Born to a politically radical Moss Side family in 1858, Pankhurst would live up to that legacy and go on to found the Women’s Franchise League, and later the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia.
Members of the WSPU would go on to become known as the Suffragettes, and through direct action they forced the establishment of the time to grant women the vote – firstly women over the age of 30 in 1918, and then all women over the age of 21 with the Representation of the People Act (Equal Franchise) 1928.
However, it is important to note that the Pankhursts were not the first Mancunians to play a big role in the fight for civil rights. This city has a long and proud history in the global Labour movement, and women have led for hundreds of years.
Other important local figures include Mary Fildes who was the president of the Manchester Female Reform Society as well as being a key speaker at the Peterloo Massacre where she was attacked by the cavalry. She would go on to establish the Female Political Union of the Working Classes in 1833, an organisation which influenced the Chartist movement and fought for women’s enfranchisement.
Later, Lydia Becker would emerge as the next important Mancunian figure in the national fight for women’s rights. Becker convened the first meeting of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1868 – a precursor to the 20th century movements led by the Pankhursts – and was a main speaker at the first public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage where she argued that women should have the same voting rights as men.
Local women carry on the fight for civil rights justice in the modern era. For example, the late Louise Da-Cocodia MBE, who arrived from Jamaica at the age of 21 in 1955 and rose to become Manchester’s first black senior nursing officer. Decades of campaigning for equality in education, housing and health services followed, as well as appointments to the Manchester Magistrate’s Bench and the position of Deputy Lieutenant of Manchester.
The Moss Side and Hulme Women’s Action Forum Da-Cocodia co-founded in 1994 continues its work today, supporting women – particularly black minority ethnic women – in fulfilling their potential by accessing education, training employment, advice, guidance and supporting their social needs.
Dr Erinma Bell MBE is quite simply one of the best Mancunians in history. A community peace activist, Bell grew up in Moss Side and has been instrumental in breaking the cycle of violence in the area
After witnessing the shooting of a close friend, Bell set up CARISMA in 2002, a charity dedicated to providing young people positive alternatives to street and gun crime in South Manchester. It is no exaggeration to say that her work has saved dozens of lives, and not for nothing did Bell become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Manchester Town Hall.
Maries Stopes was another woman who made her name in Manchester and left an incredible legacy, following a career which can best be described as ‘controversial’. Having founded Britain’s first birth control clinic and become the first female academic at the University of Manchester, today her name is associated with Marie Stopes International, a charity which provides safe abortion services in almost 40 countries around the world.
The literary history of Manchester is long and distinguished – and women have played a major part in that. Elizabeth Gaskell is one of our most interesting 19th century authors, and she was drawn back to Manchester throughout her life. Novels such as North and South and Mary Barton invite you into the filth and fury of day-to-day life in Victorian industrial Manchester, forcing the reader to bear witness to the price paid by the poor in the name of progress.
Another local author who took the appalling conditions of inner-city life for inspiration was Frances Hodgson Burnett. Unlike Gaskell, Burnett would not write as directly about the appalling quality of life in the city, but novels like A Little Princess and The Secret Garden were no less powerful for that. Burnett’s anguish at the lack of gardens, greenery and life in the city centre was expressed in the creation of landscapes filled with faeries, magic and wonder which allowed readers to escape for a time – and that still resonate today.
The most influential literary figure currently working in Manchester is undoubtedly Carol Ann Duffy. The former Poet Laureate has lived in Manchester for 20 years and has been the professor of contemporary poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University since 1996. Her collections have earned every award worth winning in the world of poetry, and by addressing issues such as gender, oppression and violence it is fair to say that she is firmly in the tradition of great Manchester women who have made it their business to stand up for the downtrodden.
The women of Manchester also have a longstanding reputation in the world of theatre. Annie Horniman was born in London but did her most important work in Manchester. The purchase of the now-defunct Gaiety Theatre allowed her to bring both classic and locally written plays to the working classes of Manchester, and she would also use this venue to encourage a new generation of playwrights which included the likes of W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. She would also found Britain’s first regional repertory theatre company and provide a stage for what would become the Manchester School of Dramatists.
On the other side of the writer’s room, Shelagh Delaney is one of our most famous local playwrights. A prodigious talent, Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in just 10 days at the age of 19 and put herself on the map. Tackling issues of class, race, gender and sexuality, Delaney used a local backdrop to create the archetypal ‘kitchen sink’ play, a genre that revolutionised British theatre in the 1950s and 60s. She would return to these themes throughout her career, with works including The White Bus and Dance With A Stranger cementing her legacy as a modern great.
Film and television are came to dominate the entertainment landscape over the 20th century, and when you think of Manchester women who have thrived in the medium, two names spring to mind: Victoria Wood and Caroline Aherne. Their careers share a sense of place which informed who they were and what they made – that place is Manchester.
There is simply not enough time to dive too deeply into all they achieved. However, it is inarguable that their influence on the national culture – both independently and collectively – is enormous.
The likes of Wood’s Victoria Wood as Seen on TV, Dinnerladies and Housewife 49 and Aherne’s work on The Fast Show, The Mrs Merton Show and The Royle Family showcased their incredible talents for the world to see.
Both Wood and Aherne were working class, female and based outside of London, something all too rare in British comedy which made their work unique. Whilst the situations depicted may have seemed unremarkable on the surface – a factory canteen, a working class Manchester home – they were shot through with so much warmth, compassion and love for their subjects that they became something more than that.
By reflecting regular life through the lens of their irregular genius, Wood and Aherne elevated supposedly ‘ordinary’ people above the stereotypes and put them centre stage where they belong.
The women of Manchester have made their mark on the city and the world over the centuries. And the best part? This article only scratches the surface. The history of Manchester is in many respects the history of its women, and the current generation are busy writing the next chapter.