Ahead of our upcoming Suffrage Centenary Celebration at the People’s Palace Museum (26th and 27th May 1-4pm), the TLW team have been posting weekly blogs about inspiring women who fought for suffrage. Today’s blog focuses on Annie Kenney.
“As I was one of the leading actors in the first play, so I was one of the leading actors in the last.”
— Annie Kenney, Memories of a Militant
Kenney was born in 1879 to a working-class family near Oldham, and Marie Roberts describes her as “the most readily identifiable representative of working-class women” in the Women’s Social and Political Union (xi). One of eleven children, Kenney went to work in a local cotton-mill when she was ten years-old. Starting out as a ‘half-timer,’ she would work in the morning before going to school in the afternoon. At thirteen years-old she switched to full-time employment in the mill, undertaking shifts as long as twelve hours. It was in this role as a weaver’s assistant that Kenney had one of her fingers torn off.
Kenney continued to work in the mill for 15 years, during which time she helped fellow workers to read, and take an interest in literature. She became involved in the trade union movement, and throughout her life was heavily influenced by Robert Blatchford, the English campaigner and journalist who launched an affordable weekly socialist newspaper called The Clarion.
In 1905, as a member of the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club, Kenney heard Christabel Pankhurst speak. This inspired her to join the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by the Pankhurst family in 1903. In the same year that Kenney joined the WSPU she attended a Liberal rally in Manchester with Christabel, where they repeatedly interrupted Sir Edward Grey to question whether women would be given the right to vote. The two women were removed and later imprisoned for the alleged assault of the police officers who ejected them from the rally. Kenney was imprisoned for three days, the first of thirteen prison sentences throughout her life. In 1913 she was sentenced to a lengthy 18-months which was temporarily interrupted by her release under the Cat and Mouse Act.
Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris in 1912 to avoid imprisonment, and Kenney was placed in charge of the WSPU in her absence, demonstrating the high degree of influence which she held in the organisation. When the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918 it granted women over the age of 30 the right to vote if they passed certain property and education requirements. After partial suffrage had been won, Kenney dropped out of political life. She married and gave birth to her son in 1923, and published her autobiography the following year.
Many feel that Kenney’s efforts in the fight for the vote have been “undeservedly neglected,” (Roberts, xv) and this often relates to a further belief held by some that working-class efforts for women’s suffrage have also been overlooked. Krista Cowman voices this in her 2018 article for the New Statesman, stating that “When women finally got the vote, the stories of many working class suffragettes were quickly forgotten. Few of them had the time or contacts needed to publish autobiographies and most could not afford to travel to London for the meetings of the Suffragette Fellowship, a militant old girls’ association that tried to preserve their campaign’s history. As we celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that gave votes to at least some British women in February 1918, we should remind ourselves of the sacrifices made by many ordinary and anonymous women, who risked their livelihoods and reputations alongside their more affluent companions in the fight for equality and citizenship.”
In exploring the various women to cover for the Suffragette Spotlight series, Kenney seemed a particularly fitting figure as she is an inspirational woman both within and without the context of female suffrage. For a generation of young women today, many of whom have experienced a setback in the age that they can hope to reach traditional life-milestones such as starting a career, a family, or buying property, Kenney is an example of someone who refused to let her age, class, gender, or finances, restrict her aspirations and achievements in life. She became a member of the WSPU when she was in her mid–twenties; arguably her greatest life achievement of helping win women’s suffrage was reached when she was in her late thirties, and she was in her early forties before she married and started a family. Despite having to start work at only ten years-old, she succeeded in educating herself through self-study and correspondence courses – encouraging fellow working-class women to do the same – and reached leadership status in the predominantly middle-class led organisation of the WSPU. She experienced the physical consequences of the dangerous working-conditions in Britain in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, but also helped ensure that future generations would have the opportunity to change these conditions by voting for their chosen representatives in government. Kenney exists as both a historical hero who was willing to sacrifice a great deal for a cause she believed in, but also as a rousing reminder that if a woman from her humble background could achieve so much, over a century ago, women today need not let their own goals be limited by the societal expectations which are often imposed on them.
Keep an eye on our website for more blogs like this one, or follow us on Twitter @transatlanticladies using the hashtag #TLWsuffrage. And if you want to learn more about ground-breaking suffragettes, make your own rosettes, and learn about women and the vote, join us at the People’s Palace for an afternoon of crafts, talks, and a look at Glasgow’s suffrage collections!
References and further reading
Kenney, Annie. Memories of a Militant. London, Edward Arnold & Co., 1924.
Roberts, Marie, and Tamae Mizuta. Perspectives on the History of British Feminism. Routledge/Thoemmes, London, 1994.
Cowman, Krista. “Let’s not forget the working class suffragettes” in New Statesman, 6 February 2018.
Information on Kenney can also obtained from the Working Class Movement Library.
The British Newspaper Archive gives access to articles which mention Kenney.
The Annie Kenney Project is an ongoing campaign to have a statue of Kenney erected in Oldham town square.
Picture courtesy of LSE Library.