AS THE WORLD’s first great industrial city, Manchester has long been central to a number of radical political movements, figures and notions. This month we are celebrating Manchester’s hidden feminist history.

In anticipation International Women’s Day – next Wednesday, 8th March – cultural institutions in and around the city have been working to organise events in celebration of Manchester’s rich radical history: focusing, in particular, on that of the great Mancunian feminists.

Most will recognise familiar local names such as Emmeline Pankhurst, the Moss-Side-born revolutionary who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 to fight for women’s voting rights.

Although Emmeline and her fellow suffragettes famously helped to make goal this a reality, it wasn’t until a quarter of a century later (in 1928) that women were finally given the right to vote.

“Our Manchester Women”: A celebration of Feminist History
“Our Manchester Women”: A celebration of Feminist History

But, as with any social movement, it took a whole host of women to achieve the levels of near-equality that women enjoy today.  So who were the underdogs? According to Helen Antrobus of the People’s History Museum, many of them were based in Manchester, and shouldn’t be forgotten.

She said: “Women’s activism and the fight for women’s rights didn’t start and end with the suffragettes – I think it’s important that we keep that conversation going, about the continued work that women are doing to fight for social equality.

A lot of that stems from Manchester – there are so many women that we should celebrate that aren’t really spoken about, like Betty Tebbs.”

Tebbs was an avid campaigner for equal pay and, following the horrific bombings of Hiroshima in during the second world war, Nuclear disarmament and peace.

In a similar vein of humanitarianism, novelist Elizabeth Gaskell is another Mancunian feminist icon destined not to be forgotten: books such as Mary Barton (1848) and Ruth (1853) tackled challenging themes such as Manchester’s devastating poverty, as well as frighteningly rigid gender roles and the vicious shunning of single mothers that occurred at the time.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell

Other prominent figures include Eleanor Keeling and Julia Dawson, who worked as columnists for the Socialist newspaper the Clarion in the 1890s before it moved to London’s Fleet Street.

Helen went on to explain: “If it wasn’t for a lot of these women, fighting for all kinds of social and political rights, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I think it’s really important for us to tell those hidden stories.

“Of course, it all fits in with the other stories we (the museum) are trying to tell at the moment – we have an exhibition on the fight for democracy over the last 200 years, as well as the continuing fight for LGBT+ rights- I think women are so prominent in both of those cases.”

The Museum is set to play host to a number of workshops, presentations and events throughout the month in support of both International Women’s Day and Manchester’s Wonder Women festival.

According to Helen: “One of the most important events we have is on Thursday (1st March) and it’s called ‘dear friend’ – it allows women to come together and write a letter to inspirational women of their past, or even those who are still alive today.

“That sums it all up, really – exploring the past, present and the future of activism, both for women and LGBT+ people.”

Alongside events People’s History Museum, other groups around the city are organising their own celebrations of Mancunian feminism.

The range is gargantuan: Craft groups such as the Manchester Stitch Collective – meeting at Shudehill’s Wonder Inn between 14th and 20th March – aim to explore a history of women’s rights through both traditional and non-traditional stitching methods, whilst Transgender charity Sparkle are set to present an empowering event for trans women at Richmond Tea Rooms on the evening of March 22nd.

For a full run of events taking place across the city, see the map below or visit the Manchester City Council website here.

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