Inspirational women from Manchester’s past

International Women’s Day 2021

To mark International Women’s Day, 8th of March 2021 this week’s blog will highlight some of the inspirational women in history that hail from the Manchester area, have studied at the University of Manchester or have connections to Manchester. You may be surprised to learn that some of the amazing women you may have heard about in history or popular culture were born and bred in Manchester, U.K. I have chosen women whose legacy remains imprinted on Manchester and recommend places you can visit to learn more about these great women.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Moss Side, Manchester in 1858. She famously fought hard for equal voting rights for women. Unsurprisingly, she believed that women should have equal rights to men. She formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPV) with her daughters. They became known as Suffragettes, suffrage means to vote and by adding “ette” makes the word feminine. The Suffragettes were proponents of direct action in order to make their case and provoke the powers that be, at the time, to listen to them. As a result many of them were criminalised for their beliefs. Some women died in the fight for democracy. Mrs Pankhurst’s motto was, “Deeds not words”.

In 1914, campaigning was put on hold due to The First World War. In 1918, after the war had ended, some women were given the vote, in that it was limited to women over 30 and various property qualifications remained. In other words, these were privileged upper class women and it was not all women that had the right to vote. That came in 1928.

Whilst in Manchester you can visit The Pankhurst Centre next to The Royal Infirmary and learn more about the life of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters and other Suffragettes. In 2019, finally a statue of this great woman was erected in Manchester so go and seek it out. The only statue of a woman prior to this is of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly Gardens. What does that say? You can also watch the film Suffragette to learn more. Watching films in English is another great way to improve your English. You can watch them with English subtitles.

Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947)

Ellen Wilkinson was born in 1891 in Manchester. She was a Labour politician and a lifelong socialist, feminist and politcian. As a child she was an avid reader and her family instilled the value of education in her. As a teenager she supported women’s suffrage, took part in socialist activities and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In 1909 she won a scholarship to attend Manchester University where she studied history graduating in 1913. She was highly influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and joined the Communist Party in 1920. In 1923 she was elected to Manchester City Council very soon after in 1924 she entered parliament, representing Middlesbrough East, Yorkshire. Aged 33 years old she was one of only 4 female members of parliament. In parliament she campaigned for votes for women and in 1926 she supported the general strike and subsequent miners’ strike.

In 1936 she famously took part in the Jarrow Marches. 200 men set off from Jarrow to march all the way to London (300 miles) to highlight the plight of the poor and unemployed. Ellen Wilkinson joined them in the South and addressed the crowd as they gathered in Trafalgar Square, London. There are famous photographs of her with the lions of Trafalgar Square in the background.

She was known as Red Ellen because of her hair colour and political persuasion. She died aged 55 in 1947 and continues to be a great inspiration for women entering politics to this day. She wrote a number of books such as, Clash which is a novel and The Division Bell Mystery.

In Manchester you can find her old school in Ardwick though it isn’t a school anymore. There is also an Ellen Wilkinson Crescent and an Ellen Wilkinson High School. There is also a building named after her at the Quadrangle at The University of Manchester. A blue plaque records the site of her birthplace in Brunswick. Ellen Wilkinson’s life story is a great advert for the role of education in girls’ and women’s lives.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell, if she were alive today would be an honoury Mancunian. Us Mancunians are a welcoming bunch and are very accepting of talented individuals who make Manchester their home. Elizabeth Gaskell was born in Chelsea, down South. She was a writer of great repute. She wrote novels, biographies and short stories. Famously, she wrote a biography of another great female writer Charlotte Bronte. Some of her best known novels have been adapted into TV series such as Cranford, North and South and Wives and Daughters. This was long before Netflix and Bridgerton were a thing.

Mrs Gaskell settled in Manchester after her marriage to William Gaskell who was a minister. In 1850 the Gaskells moved to a house at 84 Plymouth Grove. This house is open to the public and you can learn so much about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and literature by visiting this beautifully restored house. The volunteers are a wealth of knowledge and tell you interesting snippets about Mrs Gaskell’s literary friends such as the Brontes and Charles Dickens. You can see correspondence between Mrs Gaskell and Mr Dickens. Fascinating!

Mrs Gaskell’s writings were hugely influenced by the industrial backdrop in which she was living, namely the industrial powerhouse that was Manchester at that time. Her novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) documents the difficulties faced by the Victorian working class.

Why not pay Gaskell House a visit next time you are in Manchester, it’s a short walk from The Pankhurst Centre. Elizabeth Gaskell House has a shop, tea room and a nice garden.

Sunny Lowry (1911-2008)

Ethel “Sunny” Lowry was born in Longsight, Manchester in 1911. She was a long-distance swimmer and teacher. It is claimed that she was the first British Woman to swim the Channel.

A keen swimmer from an early age, she joined the Victoria Ladies Swimming Club of Victoria Baths, Longsight, Manchester. She also used to train at Levenshulme Baths, also in Manchester.

Opened in 1906, Victoria Baths closed its doors in 1993 and was left to degrade. Fortunately,  a multimillion-pound restoration project began in 2007 and is on-going.  The building is once again open to the public (though not for swimming) and has been partially restored. It is well worth a visit to learn the history of this amazing building and the story of Sunny Lowry another inspirational woman and Mancunian. Visit it and find out for yourself

Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908)

One of my favourite buildings in Manchester is The John Rylands Library on Deansgate with its stunning interior. I have Enriqueta Rylands to thank for this philanthropic gift to the people of Manchester. Born in Cuba, Enriqueta  came to Manchester when she was 20 as a companion to Martha, John Rylands 2nd wife.John Rylands was a wealthy Manchester merchant. Sadly, Martha died in 1875 but Enriqueta married John Rylands 8 months later.  The latter died in 1888, leaving Enriqueta a sizeable inheritance. She didn’t go on a wild shopping spree and cruise, but built The John Rylands library in her husband’s honour.

The library was opened in 1889 and Mrs Rylands was given the keys to the city of Manchester. The first time the honour had been bestowed on a woman. On visiting the library you can see a full-length statue of the great woman herself in the reading room of the library. She died in 1908 but her legacy lives on in this phenomenal library. It is an impressive neo-gothic building which was 10 years in the making. Drop in next time you are in Manchester, it is truly awe-inspiring.

Reading about things you are interested in in the language you are learning is a great way to improve both your knowledge of the subject and your knowledge of the language. This approach is called CLIL, meaning content learning in language.

Further reading

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst

Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist , Feminist, Internationalist by Laura Beers

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4 thoughts on “Inspirational women from Manchester’s past

  1. Thankyou for this inspirational read on International Womens Day. Strength and endurance is always a good quality to strive for. I will certainly be visiting the places of great interest.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Very interesting. Are there any more recent heroines of Manchester and could you do a piece maybe on Manchester Uni’s famous alumni? I know of Ben Elton and Louis de Bernier. Also Alan Turing worked there.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Great suggestions thanks. Yes, a blog on more modern female Mancunians would be a great follow-up. Many famous Alumni from The University of Manchester, Benedict Cumberbatch and The Chemical Brothers to name a but a few.

      Liked by 2 people

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