Long before the Daily Mail coined the term “suffragette” in 1906, women campaigned for equality, including the amateur scientist Lydia Becker. Despite establishing a centre for the suffrage movement in Manchester and founding the Women’s Suffrage Journal, Becker does not get nearly as much praise as the women who followed in her wake, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett.
Lydia Ernestine Becker was born on 24th February 1827. Her father, Hannibal Becker, arranged a typical home education for his daughters. Intellectually curious, Becker continued her studies as an adult in botany and astronomy, earning a gold medal for an 1862 scholarly paper on horticulture. Becker did not receive any support from her father during these studies, but an uncle encouraged her interests, which spurred her to form the Ladies’ Literary Society in 1867.
Becker’s interest in botany and science led to regular correspondence with the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82). The two scientists frequently spoke about their respective work, and Becker contributed to Darwin’s research by providing samples of plants growing in Manchester. In 1864, Becker published a short book called Botany for Novices, particularly focusing on bisexual and hermaphroditic plants. These plants did not follow the sexual and social order enforced by society, which Becker later used in arguments about women’s equality with men.
In the late 1860s, Becker won prizes for discovering a method of retaining the original colours in dried flowers. She also presented a botanical paper at the 1868 meeting of the British Science Association. Becker became a respected scientist in biology, but her work for women’s suffrage soon took over. Nonetheless, as part of her campaigning, she promoted scientific education for girls and women.
In 1866, Becker attended the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Social Science, where Barbara Bodichon (1827-91) presented a paper called Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women. Inspired by Bodichon’s views, Becker established the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee the following year. Women and men attended the first meeting, including a man Becker described as the red doctor. Doctor Richard Pankhurst (1834-98) was “a very clever little man with some extraordinary sentiments about life in general and women in particular”. He devoted his life to women’s suffrage and married one of the movement’s leaders, Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928).
By the late 1860s, Becker was fully devoted to the women’s suffrage movement. In 1867, a local woman, Lilly Maxwell (1800-76), discovered her name on the register of voters in Manchester. Seeing the error as an opportunity for publicity, Becker encouraged Maxwell to utilise her vote and escorted her to the polling station at Chorlton Town Hall on 26th November. Expecting the returning officer to refuse them entry, the women were pleasantly surprised when the officer found Maxwell’s name on the list and let her into the building. Maxwell cast her vote for Jacob Bright (1821-99), a Liberal politician in favour of the suffragist cause.
Buoyed by Maxwell’s success at voting, Becker encouraged the women of Manchester to petition for their names to appear on the register. Jacob Bright, who won the election, added to the excitement by citing Maxwell as one of the reasons for his success. Speaking directly to the women, Bright said Maxwell was “a hardworking, honest person, who pays her rates as you do.”
Becker encouraged 5,346 women to petition for their names to appear on the voting register. Richard Pankhurst and John Coleridge (1820-94) presented the claims at the Court of Common Pleas on 2nd November 1868, but the court dismissed the case. Britain’s first female voter, albeit by clerical error, never voted in an election again. Instead, she suffered financially and spent her final years in the Withington workhouse.
In November 1867, Becker established the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which held its first official meeting on 14th April 1868. It was the first national group in the United Kingdom devoted to women’s suffrage. The first meeting occurred at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, with Becker and two other campaigners giving speeches. Becker argued that women should have the same voting rights as men and inspired other women to set up branches of the group in other cities, such as Edinburgh.
Throughout 1868, Becker toured northern cities, gaining support through a series of lectures. After participating in many protests, Becker and her fellow campaigners successfully secured the vote for women in local elections in 1869. The following year, Becker campaigned for women to sit on school boards and became one of the first women elected to the Manchester School Board.
In 1870, Becker and her friend, Jessie Boucherett (1825-1905), established the Women’s Suffrage Journal. They initially called it the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage Journal, but its readership quickly spread to other cities. The magazine focused on news affecting women’s lives and provided encouragement and guidance about presenting petitions to the House of Commons.
The Manchester MP Jacob Bright suggested the creation of a London-based branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which could petition on the doorstep of the Houses of Parliament. The new unit, known as the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, first met on 17th January 1872 and grew to include members such as Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929), who went on to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897. For some time, Becker remained in Manchester but eventually became the chair of the Central Committee in 1881.
In Manchester, Becker organised speaking events about women’s suffrage, the first of which fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst attended in 1874. Inspired by Becker and the other speakers, Pankhurst began campaigning for the right to vote and established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Unlike the campaigns of Fawcett’s NUWSS, the WSPU used militant tactics, earning themselves the nickname “suffragettes”.
Becker published many of her speeches and letters in the Women’s Suffrage Journal. She also included comments and speeches from Members of Parliament for and against women’s rights to vote. Becker encouraged women to support certain MPs and chastise or avoid those who voted against the women’s proposals. Over time, the Journal became a documentation of Becker’s attempts and successes during her campaigns, prompting historian Roger Fulford (1902-83) to declare, “The history of the decades from 1860 to 1890 – so far as women’s suffrage is concerned – is the history of Miss Becker.”
In 1880, Becker and other women unexpectedly secured women’s voting rights on the Isle of Man for the House of Keys elections. The House of Keys is the lower house of Tynwald, the High Court of the island. Those elected can make minor decisions on behalf of the Houses of Parliament.
Becker travelled to London in 1881 to chair the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Although the two main factions of the cause had yet to be established, Becker differed from many suffrage campaigners. Whilst Becker’s main aim was to gain voting rights for women, she wanted to rid the world of male and female stereotypes. Becker argued that the female intellect did not differ from men and that the British education system should be non-gendered.
Another concern for Becker was unmarried women and widows. She believed they deserved the vote more than married women because they had no male representative to speak on their behalf – not that women needed one. Unfortunately, this opinion made her the target of ridicule in newspapers across the country.
In 1890, Becker visited the spa town of Aix-les-Bains in Southeastern France. During her stay, Becker contracted diphtheria and passed away on 18th July, age 63. Immediately following her death, the Women’s Suffrage Journal ceased trading. Its final edition included a message from the editor, which said, “For twenty years and four months this Journal has received the impress of one hand and one mind so that its long row of volumes forms one continuous work, and now when that careful hand is laid low and the energies of that far-seeing mind are carried beyond our mortal ken, it would seem the most fitting course to close these pages where Miss Becker left them.”
Becker passed away long before women gained the right to vote, but she inspired the women who devoted their lives to the cause, particularly Fawcett and Pankhurst. These women receive praise and respect for their campaigns and success, leaving Lydia Becker forgotten in the background. Nevertheless, Becker is listed on the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery with others who impacted society and the future, such as Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Fry, John Ruskin, William Morris and John Stuart Mill. Becker also features on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue in Parliament Square.
Whilst Becker may not receive adequate praise for her contribution towards women’s voting rights, she is remembered for her attitude towards women’s intellect and her interest in biology. In 2018, the University of Manchester launched the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation. The university chose her name due to Becker’s connection with Charles Darwin and her belief that women were intellectually equal to men and deserved the same opportunities.
Becker’s writings and speeches on a variety of subjects are kept in the Women’s Library at the Library of the London School of Economics. Her 1864 book Botany for Novices is available online, as are snippets of her other works. Becker’s most notable articles include Female Suffrage (1867) and On the Study of Science by Women (1869), both published in The Contemporary Review; Is there any Specific Distinction between Male and Female Intellect? (1868), published in Englishwoman’s Review of Social and Industrial Questions; and The Political Disabilities of Women (1872), from The Westminster Review.
Lydia Becker is a woman who changed lives, yet her personal life remains unknown. A biography by Linda Walker describes Becker as “Physically stout from early womanhood, her broad, flat face, wire-rimmed spectacles, and plaited crown of hair were a cartoonist’s delight, and she was much lampooned in the popular press.” She lacked oratorical flair but had a statesmanlike mind, which enabled her to persuade and draw large crowds. It appears Becker never married, but she had plenty to say on the topic: “I think that the notion that the husband ought to have the headship or authority over his wife is the root of all social evils… Husband and wife should be co-equal. In a happy marriage, there is no question of ‘obedience’.”
Ultimately, Lydia Becker was the women’s suffrage movement’s key strategist, helping to kick-start a new chapter in the history of Britain and shape the world today. Whilst the militant actions of the suffragettes overshadow the work of others, Lydia Becker is a name that should never disappear from history. By influencing Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst, Becker set off a never-ending chain of events that continues to this day.
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