The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909

Votes for Women, you say? Today is the perfect time for me to share some extracts from The World of an Insignificant Woman by Catherine Thackray, which is a biography of my great-grandmother Hilda Marjory Sharp (nee Ingle).

Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27,  she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.

What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.

You can buy The World of an Insignificant Womanonline as hardback or paperback, or download a free eBook in EPUB, Kindle, or PDF format.

Womens Suffrage

It was not in her nature to wish to be part of the militant suffragettes, though she admired their courage, but the more respectable National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was extending its work and was requiring paid organisers. She applied and was appointed Organiser for South East London.

She was required to open up new branches of the Society in given localities and would set about it in the following manner:

I would seek out a vacant shop, in the main street if possible, rent it, insure the windows and supply it (inside and out) with posters advertising the Society and its methods. Handbills would be piled on the counter. Headquarters would send volunteers who could act as shop assistants, answer enquiries and distribute handbills to well-wishers, advertising our presence in the neighbourhood.

Margaret Bonfield
Margaret Bonfield: “The finest speaker she ever heard”

She also had to find speakers for Town Hall meetings, one of these, Margaret Bondfield (later the first woman Cabinet minister) she thought was the finest speaker she ever heard, another woman of great ability who often worked alongside her in the shop and was to become a famous nonconformist preacher, was Maude Royden. At NUWSS Headquarters in Victoria Street she often met Mrs Ramsay Macdonald (wife of the future Labour Prime Minister) and was very attracted by her ‘gentle presence’.

Marjory had to be prepared to act as a stop-gap if a speaker did not arrive for a meeting but this did not worry her for

I had the best possible training in public speaking during my skirmishing work, when I would take a chair to a street corner and, mounting it, begin to address empty space, till a small crowd gathered. Or two or three of us might charter a lorry, from which we talked loudly to the workers coming out of the factory gates. If it was an evening job there would always be the pub. There I enjoyed speaking from a stool to a relaxed and bantering knot of people – even though it could only be called entertainment in their eyes.

She was in the position in which she felt happiest – on her feet in front of an audience and, as in the School Debating Society, she was stimulated by being in the minority. There were other types of meetings which held little attraction for her, drawing-room meetings, usually held in the house of a sympathiser. Often she found these audiences ‘patronising and difficult to arouse’. It was far too circumspect and probably totally female whereas she liked the excitement of debate and interruption and recalled

an open-air meeting in the market-place at a large suburb. There were only two of us – the other speaker was Mr Rackham of Cambridge. As one finished speaking, the other jumped on the chair and began. The crowd was particularly good, and asked no silly questions (such as ‘What have you done with the baby?’ or ‘Does your husband know you’re out?’) but appreciated our good intentions. When we were both hoarse, the meeting came to an end.

Most women in the suffrage movement, paid or unpaid, had had no experience of political work and needed detailed instructions on every activity. No doubt Marjory followed the advice given on open-air meetings which included:

a wall behind helps greatly to throw out the voice. It ensures one’s audience being in front instead of all round, and it discourages the throwing of missiles as they are nearly always thrown from behind.

It is better for the speaker to have the sun in her eyes than in those of her audience, if the latter is uncomfortable it will go away.

It is useless to wait for an audience to collect before beginning to speak, as in many cases this would result in not beginning at all. The Speaker who takes the Chair, must begin, if necessary, to the vacant air.

It is useless to ask the audience when it does appear ‘to come a little closer’. Such a suggestion merely makes it go away. The speaker must keep on a little while and then stop and ask for questions. Questions come very easily from an open-air crowd and nearly always bring the people close up to the speaker. Collections have a dispersing effect upon an audience.

Speakers were warned about the ‘trials of small boys and drunken men’ and advised to ‘make friends with biggish boys to control the others as no one else can’. When one remembers the protected middle-class background of most of these women one is awed by their bravery. The Men’s League of Women’s Suffrage who also held open-air meetings commented that they did not have to face anything comparable to ‘the disgusting ribaldry which a woman speaker has to stand from young men.’

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