Sheffield was first to call for women’s right to vote

Sheffield has many claims to fame, but perhaps one of the least well known is that the first-ever petition for women’s suffrage came from the town in 1851, writes Matthew Roberts

This was organised by the Women’s Rights Association (WRA) – a bold name in itself.

In defiance of the Victorian convention that a women’s place was in the home, these pioneering women declared: “We have found that we must organise independent of our brothers, and fight our own battle.”

The WRA was set up by a group of Sheffield working-class women. They were Chartists – members of the mass movement for democratic and social rights that swept Britain in the late 1830s and 40s.

The chair was Abiah Higginbottom, the wife of a comb maker living in Pond Street. With the help of Anne Knight, a prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, the Sheffield women organised the first petition on women’s suffrage.

What is remarkable about the WRA is its broad-ranging interests; this was no single-issue pressure group. The women also raised money for refugees fleeing persecution in Europe, penned letters of support to European revolutionaries, campaigned for ‘rational dress’ for women (the right for women to wear trousers), for temperance (abstinence from alcohol) and organised a petition for the abolition of the hated ‘taxes on knowledge’.

These were the taxes that the government put on newspapers so that working-class people could not afford them.  

Unsurprisingly, the WRA’s petition for women’s suffrage fell on deaf ears. Although they succeeded in having it presented in the House of Lords by the Earl of Carlisle, nothing came of it. The response of the Lords was telling: ‘“Hear!” and laughter’.

While the impact of the WRA in its own time might appear minimal, in the longer term it was an important milestone on the road to female enfranchisement.

An article in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph recognised this in 1925, as did the Sheffield Independent in 1919.

The Independent declared: “Sheffield, so frequently dubbed backwards by ignorant newcomers from pretentious places, can claim to have been in the vanguard of women’s struggle for political recognition” (Dec 11, 1919)

The Telegraph took the WRA as evidence that “there must have been a community of impatient souls who yearned for something beyond placid domestic bliss.” (June 8, 1925).

In this, the centenary year of votes for some women, we should not forget that the suffragettes stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. The WRA was one of the most important assertions of working-class feminism in the 19th century.

If you want to find out more about the WRA and the remarkable women who led it, come along to a talk at Regather Works on Sunday, September 16 at 7pm. Further details at: regather.net/event/sheffield-first-womens-suffrage-suffragettes/