The militant working-class suffragist

Submitted by Matthew on 2 February, 2011 - 10:28

“Women do not want their political power to enable them to boast that they are on equal terms with the men. They want to use it for the same purpose as men – to get better conditions. Every woman in England is longing for her political freedom in order to make the lot of the worker pleasanter and to bring about reforms which are wanted. We do not want it as a mere plaything…”

(Selina Cooper, Wigan Observer 1906)

A millworker from the age of 12, and daughter of a navvy, Selina Cooper (née Coombe) was born into a big working class family in 1864. She was a trade unionist, suffragist and socialist in the north of England, who began her campaigning life fighting her bosses for better conditions for women in the workplace.

The fight for doors on the toilets and against sexual harassment at work meant more than just taking on the bosses though. The men who ran the female dominated Cotton Workers Union had to be challenged too.

Selina taught herself about history, politics and medicine; studying the latter in order to be able to advise fellow workers who could not afford to pay for a visit to the doctors.

Selina married Robert Cooper, a commited socialist and trade unionist who had been sacked from the Post Office for his union activities. They had three children, two of whom survived infancy.

Juggling family life with work and political activity, she was active in many different campaigns, organisations and groups including the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and the Independent Labour Party (ILP).

In 1900 Selina collected more than 800 signatures for the 29,000 strong petition of women workers in Lancashire calling for women’s suffrage. This meant standing outside local factory gates, knocking door-to-door, persuading women of the need for their support for women’s suffrage.

In 1901, supported by the SDF and the ILP, she was the first working-class woman ever to be elected as a Poor Law Guardian (local administrator of “relief” payments to the unemployed), despite local newspapers campaigning against her. Usually in a minority, Selina was generally out-voted by middle-class “do-gooders” on the committee.

Selina now had a fast-growing reputation as a passionate speaker able to put the arguments across and carry people with her. She made her a home for herself in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which was the dominant campaign amongst women in the north of England and operated in stark contrast to the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, the “celebrity suffragists”.

By 1912 Selina was a paid worker for the NUWSS speaking around the country and lobbying the giant Miners’ Federation to throw its weight behind the demand for women’s suffrage. She won their support in 1913.

Selina and Robert opposed the First World War, swimming against the political tide. They campaigned in support of conscientious objectors and in 1917 Selina led a Women’s Peace Crusade march through Nelson to be greeted by derision and jeers from many caught up in the nationalism and jingoism of the war.

After the war Selina stood for election on the town’s council in Nelson; she stood as Labour candidate but her opposition to the war and her outspoken views on birth control ensured her defeat. After this she concerned herself with campaigning against domestic violence and threw her energy into the movement for birth control. In the hard economic depression of the 1930s she campaigned and spoke passionately for the right of married women to work.

In 1934, when she was 68 years old, she joined the pro-communist (Stalinist) Women’s World Committee Against War and Fascism. In 1940 she joined the People’s Convention (a CP initiative) for which she was expelled from the Labour Party. At 76 she found herself outside of mainstream Labour politics for the first time in fifty years. She died in 1946 at the age of 82.

I would offer no apologies for Selina’s drift towards supporting the Stalinist Communist Party, but it has to be seen in the context of the betrayals of the Ramsey MacDonald and Philip Snowden led Labour Party and the rise of fascism in Europe. It would be wrong to judge her life’s work by that last decade or so.

Selina Cooper is a fine example of a working class woman who educated herself and fought tirelessly — juggling family, work and politics — to improve the lot of working-women. She saw the big picture, and looked beyond the question of the right to vote towards matters such as rights at work, the right to work and birth control. These are shoulders on which we stand.

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