Sarah Gavron’s depiction of the movement told through the accounts of three East London women still only focused on the suffragette scene in the capitol. Though we all know the movement spread far and wide across the nation and across the globe, few are aware that some very prominent figures which came to carry the torch for the cause hailed from Sussex.
Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon eventually became a leader in the 19th century women’s rights movement, and was also talented as an educator and artist. She was the love child of the militant abolitionist, William Smith – who was married – and a milliner named Anne Longden. Once Longden became pregnant, Smith hid her away in a tiny village named Whatlington which is just by Battle in East Sussex. Longden was known as ‘Ms Leigh’ while she was there, the same name as a close relative of Smiths, so not to cause any suspicion which led back to him. Nevertheless, the birth of Barbara still caused a scandal as her mother was unmarried and many still knew Smith was the father. Then, illegitimate children carried a heavy social stigma, so Bodichon was exposed to the inequalities of life as a woman almost from birth.
Smith continued his affair with Longden, and they even produced a second child together before they all jumped across the pond to the US where they built a life and remained for four years. Once they returned to Sussex, the four of them lived openly together and Smith and Longden had two more children.
Even as a young girl, Bodichon’s path as a social activist and philanthropist was clear. She was always described as strong willed and a force to be reckoned with, which is extraordinary considering the time period she grew up in, when children were seen and not heard and women were expected to be meek, mild and quiet.
She often met up with friends from London to discuss the future of women’s rights as a young woman and they became known as ‘The Ladies of Langham Place’. With humble beginnings, little did they know that their group would become the first organised women’s rights movement in the UK, with causes such as the property rights of married women at the forefront.
She married French physicist Eugene Bodichon in 1857 and began to spend her winters with him in sun-kissed Algiers, though she still spent much of her time leading the cause for women in Britain, even from thousands of miles away. By the time she was a year into her marriage, she’d produce the English Women’s Journal which served as a platform for serious discussion concerning equality and employment rights for women and reform, particular employment in the manual labour industry and where operating dangerous machinery was required – something that was depicted in a hugely compelling manner in Gavron’s Suffragette.
In collaboration with Emily Davies, she pushed through early reforms to extend university education to women, with their first experiment taking place in Hitchin which later became Girton College in Cambridge. She poured a lot of her own money into this scheme as she was determined to see it succeed at all costs.
Another Sussex woman from history that deserves her story told to the masses is the Brighton-born Clementina Black who was one of eight children born to town clerk, David Black and his wife Clara. Eventually, David lost the use of both his legs and Clara tragically died one day from a rupture caused by trying to lift him. Once of age, Clementina moved to Fitzroy Square in London and became a lecturer in 18th century literature.
Clementina quickly began moving in Marxist and Fabian socialist circles and became a close friend and confidant of the Marx family. She became deeply invested in the trade union movements and the working-class women’s rights movements of her time, and gained the title of honorary secretary of the Women’s Trade Union Association in 1886, later known as the Women’s Industrial Council.
If you know Clementina Black’s name at all, it’s most likely that it will be in association with the Fabian Movement, a socialist cause that pioneered the concept of gradual reform rather than revolutionary reform, digging the foundations for what is now known as the Labour Party, influencing the policies of many British colonies, some of which are still in force today in places such as India. Interestingly, the idea of gradual reform is the opposite of the archaic way the suffragette movement eventually began to voice their cause, yet Clementina had a way of seeing the benefits of both and assisting both opposite strategies with her life’s work. She was concerned with making society fairer for all, not just for women, but particularly for the working class, her efforts still echoing through modern liberal policies today.
For all the many iconic moments in suffragette history, Clementina was often among those that were at the helm, including the Bryant and May strike of 1888. By 1895, she was the editor of Women’s Industrial News which encouraged middle class women to speak up for working class women and the conditions they were unfairly subjected to.
We could all take a leaf out of the books of these two fearless Sussex women who selflessly dedicated their lives to the advancement of the women that came after them. And all women of Britain today have benefited from the trailblazing of these two women in one way or another, which leaves us with food for thought, what legacy will we leave the women of generations to come? ■