The Cheshire women's rights activist and her lifelong fight for equality - Cheshire Live

2022-06-18 19:26:06 By : Ms. Stacy Zhang

Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy helped to achieve ground-breaking advances in gender equality

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Up until her statue was unveiled in Congleton town centre, many people hadn't heard of the name Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Yet she can be counted among the pioneers of the women's rights movement in the UK.

Spending much of her life in the Cheshire town, she fought for better girls' education, worked on legislation to improve property ownership rights and spoke out on marital rape at a time when such a concept was completely alien. She also founded the Women's Emancipation Union (WEU) and was later described as 'England's oldest suffragette', though it is said she was actually a suffragist.

Fast forward to today and the Congleton-based Elizabeth's Group is now on a mission to ensure her work becomes more widely known. As well as the erection of the statue in March, there are also roads named after her - Elmy Avenue at Miller Homes' Turnstone Grange development in Somerford and the Congleton Link Road, now called Wolstenholme Elmy Way.

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Sue Munro, of Elizabeth's Group, said to Cheshire Live: "We want people to remember this wonderful woman, to talk about her achievements and just to love her as much as we do.

"I think it's very important that girls from this generation know where we came from and what the women in between have fought for. The suffragettes built on what Elizabeth did and now we are standing on her shoulders."

Born in 1833, Elizabeth spent much of the first part of her life around what is now Greater Manchester. She became headteacher of a girls' school in Worsley and spoke before the Taunton Commission in 1853, helping to persuade Parliament to grant girls an education up until the age of 13.

She also worked with Josephine Butler on the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act. The law had been passed in 1864 in a bid to control sexually transmitted diseases and meant women, particularly prostitutes, could be forcibly examined.

Sue said: "They worked together and got that act repealed. That was a major piece of work she did that she isn't remembered for at all."

Sue said Elizabeth started her school in Worsley 'because of the sorry state of education for girls at the time'. She would remain at the school until 1867 when she moved to Congleton and met her future husband - feminist Benjamin Elmy.

The couple would go on to work on a number of pieces of women's rights legislation. This included the Married Women's Property Act.

Sue said: "If any woman had any property or money and she married in those days, it all became the property of her husband. They literally lost everything.

"That was a major piece of legislation - it opened the way towards equality. Once a woman could get married and still own her property - it was a major step forward."

Then Elizabeth and Ben 'almost bankrupted' themselves when they campaigned for the Guardianship of Infants Committee, which led to the Custody of Infants Act 1874. The law gave women greater rights, including access, over their children.

Sue said: "Before that, children were, again, owned by the man of the family. If a marriage broke down, a woman could be left completely destitute and children would automatically go with the husband. Some women never saw their children again."

As she was also one of the most well-known atheists in the country, Elizabeth would also court controversy. This includes the time she had stones thrown at her in the street in Congleton when she brought prominent atheists Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh to give a talk.

Sue said: "After that, it was the fight for the vote, which they tried time and time again. Of course it got filibustered out of Parliament. She became the first woman to actually work for the Women's Movement. She lobbied Parliament - wrote hundreds of letters a day.

"She was known as the scourge of the commons. They all knew who she was and they had a bill (on voting rights) that was put before the house, which was talked out. Elizabeth virtually gave up then, she was quite old and went into a retirement that didn't last very long because in the 1890s she came out of retirement."

Elizabeth also spoke out about the famous Clitheroe Case in 1891. It involved a man called Edmund Jackson who kidnapped his wife Emily and demanded his conjugal rights (sexual rights or privileges).

Sue said: "Elizabeth got up in public and spoke about marital rape, which was a really shocking thing in those days because it wasn't English law then. It wasn't possible for a man to rape his wife - it was his legal right to do so.

"But Elizabeth fought this famous case and won it. So she set the precedent that a woman's body is her own body."

She and Ben, described as 'amazing pacifists', also campaigned against the Boer War. At one point, they barricaded themselves in their home in Buglawton in protest.

Following the dissolution of the WEU in 1899, she began working with her friend and colleague Emmeline Pankhurst as part of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the forerunner of the suffragette movement.

She appeared on stage with Pankhurst and Labour's first leader Keir Hardie at Trafalgar Square in 1906. Elizabeth later quit the WSPU, reportedly when the group's activities began threatening human life.

Elizabeth died on March 12 1918, 12 years after her husband. Sue believes she got dementia and was moved to a care home prior to her death.

Sue added: "She just did amazing things. Well ahead of her time. She did so much and she has either been forgotten about or deliberately written out of history."

On what Elizabeth would've thought about the state of gender equality today, Sue said: "I don't think she would think that the job was done by any means."

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