Today in radical herstory, 1899: working class Suffragist Jessie Craigen dies

Jessie Craigen (c.1835-99) was a working-class activist and public speaker in the earlier phases of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Craigen’s background was relatively unusual, in a movement which was at the time dominated by middle and upper-class activists. She was also a freelance (or ‘paid agent’) speaker in the campaigns for Irish Home Rule and the cooperative movement and against vivisection, compulsory vaccination, and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

 Her background is somewhat obscure. Her father was said to be Scottish, possibly a seafarer, who died when she was an infant; her mother was sometimes described as an Italian actress, and she was described in a newspaper of 1866 as a ‘Scotch lady’, though a few years later she claimed to have been born in London.

As a child, after her father’s early death, under her mother’s influence she apparently appeared on the stage from the age of four, which may have helped her acquire the skills and the confidence for her later career in public speaking.

She began in the late 1850s giving readings from plays and recitations, before moving onto delivering orations at temperance meetings, and was described on one such occasion in 1861 as a ‘clever Quakeress’ Craigen moved around the UK, living variously in Retford, Nottinghamshire and Bristol in the 1870s and ‘80s. She made a living as a paid ‘Lecturer on Social Subjects’. 

By December 1868, she was addressing suffrage meetings. A newspaper reporter wrote in 1869 at Alnwick, Northumberland, that her talks were well attended, but added with typical male snobbery, that this was because a lady lecturer was a novelty, and he recalled Dr Johnson’s comments on the subject,
… a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Even by the standards of late nineteenth century England this was misogynistic, as well as increasingly inaccurate.

“The earliest published reference so far found regarding her association with the suffrage movement refers to a series of meetings she held at the end of 1870, in the north of England.  Such speaking tours were a recent innovation, for few suffragists had yet found the courage to undertake public speaking of such a kind and on this scale. She was not, however, a regular employee of the suffrage movement, nor, at this point, did she take direction from any suffrage society. This was work which she herself initiated and managed, travelling the length and breadth of Britain, accompanied only by her dog, Tiny. During these tours she held impromptu, outdoor meetings as she saw fit, and collected petitions which she then sent to London headquarters, requesting only the occasional five-pound note to cover her living expenses. By such means, she was able to reach audiences not usually addressed by the middle-class leadership of the movement during its set-piece public meetings in the halls of the larger cities.” (Sandra Stanley Holton)

She is recorded as speaking on behalf of women’s rights between 1868 and 1884. Her main supporters were the radical suffragists Priscilla Bright McLaren, Lilias Ashworth Hallett and the Quaker sisters Anna Maria and Mary Priestman, all part of closely knit family and political networks which were highly influential in Liberal circles.

Although the womens’ suffrage movement had largely arisen from individuals of the well-to-do classes, a number of these had come to realise the necessity of gaining support from the working classes.

Feminist and campaigner for women’s rights, Helen Blackburn described Jessie Craigen as a ‘strange erratic genius’ who spoke with a tone like a ‘mighty melodious bell’, recalling that she planned and carried out her tours by herself, travelling all over the kingdom from John O’Groats to Lands End, accompanied only by a dog. Blackburn also attributed Craigen’s renown as a speaker to her ‘magnificent voice’, with which she was able to gather audiences and hold them riveted, ‘from miners in Northumberland… and fishers in Cornwall… to agricultural labourers in the market-places of country towns’… “Lecturing always in the open air, at the pit’s mouth, in market places”, her method was to hire a bellringer to attract an audience and then “mount on a chair, a cart, or barrel” to speak. She found her audiences “amongst the miners in Cornwall, the agricultural labourers of Dorsetshire, the colliers of South Wales, the factory hands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, the miners of Durham and the north”. She became one of the first advocates for women’s suffrage – if not the first – to be arrested for publicly speaking out for the cause.

Descriptions of Jessie Craigen focus relentlessly on her appearance, and all agree that by conventional standards of beauty dominant at the time (and today) she was not physically attractive (unsurprisingly few accounts of men spend anything like a similar amount of time calling attention to their physical attractiveness…) Jessie was called ugly, short, stout, and badly-dressed in old and unfashionable clothes. However, pretty much everyone agreed that she was a fantastic public speaker.

The early Marxist writer and politician Henry Hyndman wrote (in his usual patronising posh way):

“Jessie Craigen was ugly, self-taught, roughly attired, and uncouth in her ways. Yet all this was soon overlooked when once the lady began to speak…She came forward, dumped down on the table in front of me an umbrella, a neck wrapper, and a shabby old bag. Then she turned round to face the audience. She was greeted with boisterous peals of laughter. No wonder! Such a figure of fun you never saw. It was Mrs. Gamp come again in the flesh – umbrella, corkscrew curls and all. There she stood with a battered bonnet on her straggling grey hair, with a rough shawl pinned over her shoulders, displaying a powerful and strongly marked and somewhat bibulous physiognomy, with a body of portly development and as broad as it was long… In two minutes the whole audience was listening intently; within five she had them in fits of laughter, this time not at her but with her. A little later tears were in every eye as she told some terribly touching story of domestic suffering, self-sacrifice, and misery. So it went on. This ungainly person was producing more effect than all the rest of the speakers put together.”

 By 1879 Craigen was appearing on platforms with the principal figures of the suffrage movement. She had, at this point, been taken up by a network of radical suffragists, formed by the kinship and friendship circles of women of the Bright family. An upsurge in suffrage campaigning began at the end of the 1870s in anticipation of a new Reform Bill, she organised meetings in the market squares and outside the local works of the small towns and villages of the north, in preparation for a major demonstration in the Free Trade Hall, Manchester in February 1880. Lydia Becker reported to Priscilla Bright McLaren a meeting that Jessie Craigen organised in one of the poorest wards in Manchester. It attracted an audience of some 600-700, “all poor working women”, who responded to the suffragists in ways to which Lydia Becker was quite unaccustomed: “If my eyes had been shut I should have fancied it was men who were cheering and clapping; the applause was as hearty and strong as at a men’s meeting”. This contact with working women took on something of a conversion-experience for Lydia Becker: “to see them look at me – oh, it was really sacred – awful; it was as if I received a baptism”.

On 3 February 1880 Craigen spoke at a ‘Great Demonstration of Women’ in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, alongside such luminaries as Mrs McClaren, Lydia Becker and Josephine Butler. One eye-witness recalled it as “a night never to be forgotten”. The dense crowd wishing to take part was almost entirely of women, some of whom were said to have walked 10, even 20, miles to attend. An overflow meeting had to be organised nearby, with Margaret Bright Lucas presiding, and even then thousands, it was claimed, were turned away. Priscilla Bright McLaren chaired the main meeting and reminded her audience that they were present in a hall built “in the cause of freedom”. Jessie Craigen’s contribution came at the end of the meeting, when she roused the audience to new heights of enthusiasm, “sending forth a voice that pealed like a sonorous bell over the vast multitude … till every one had risen from their seats in one united burst of cheering”.

Subsequently, she became one of the attractions in a series of major demonstrations which was organised in each of the larger cities around the British Isles by Priscilla Bright McLaren and her friend, Alice Scatcherd.

Craigen was also associated with the beginnings of the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1874, forming a women’s union among the jute-workers of Dundee which survived for several decades. She also helped organise opposition for the Contagious Diseases Acts among working-class women, and she remained active on animal rights until the end of her life.

Coming from a very different social backgrounds to many of the speakers and organisers she was associating with seems to have caused awkwardness; women like Craigen, who took payment for her lecturing, were generally looked down on and considered on the same terms as personal servants by the middle-class activists who dominated the suffrage movement. Class position was everything at the time, and the attempt of suffrage activists to break down barriers barring women from playing a part in public life did not mean that similar barriers for the working class were necessarily intended to also be challenged. Sandra Stanley Holton observes that Craigen “entered a movement formally committed to autonomy and self-realisation for women, yet met among some there with destructive expectations as to her own emotional and political subordination.” Her middle class allies found Craigen’s attitudes to money embarrassing – ie , they did not need to struggle to survive financially as she did – but her need for money also made her more dependent on wealthy backers. Her unconventional appearance led to her being increasingly seen as a liability by women who wanted their movement to present a more respectable and conventional face. 

The problems with her appearance reflect the superficial demand for a woman to present as attractive and well-dressed and to dismiss her if she does not conform to that – not exactly a dead dynamic today, but all-consuming in her era. Jessie Craigen was ‘unladylike’ – “large, ungainly, and, by the standards of many in the suffrage leadership, she dressed unsuitably. She was unrestrained in her expression of passions, both political and romantic.”

However, her undoubted abilities as a speaker and affinity with the ‘lower orders’ meant she was a valuable asset to the movement. The tension between these two perceptions of her led to what seems like farcical attempts to give her a makeover: certain of her middle-class sponsors attempted to spruce up her appearance, and it was to this end that she was kitted out in stately silk dresses and lavender kid gloves during her brief heyday as a suffrage speaker.” Others, however, felt that adopting these accoutrements would alienate the very plebs Craigen could appeal to,  making them feel she wasn’t like them (so presumably her shabby appearance should be encouraged? It’s difficult to know which group to feel greater contempt for here.)

In the early 1880s, Jessie Craigen was also heavily involved in the Ladies National Association, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation which allowed police officers to arrest women suspected of being prostitutes in certain ports and army towns. The women were then subjected to compulsory checks for venereal disease. If a woman was declared to be infected, she would be confined in what was known as a lock hospital until she recovered or her sentence finished. Many of the women involved in the suffrage movement were also active in opposition to these laws, on the grounds that they in effect legalised prostitution under police control. The opposition was based on a blending of morality – prostitution was sinful and should not be condoned by the law – and concern for the women involved, as the Acts opened them up to abuse and exploitation by male policemen. Their campaign was ultimately successful, and the Acts were repealed after three years of operation. Its basis in moral superiority aside, the campaign was one of the fist widespread successful political campaigns organised by women in Britain.

In 1881-2 Craigen formed a romantic friendship with the feminist and suffragist Helen Taylor, the daughter of Harriet Taylor Mill and stepdaughter of liberal theorist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. Taylor was heavily involved in the Irish Land League, often hosting Irish MP and activist Charles Parnell to her home, and she drew Craigen into this movement, to the point where Craigen dropped out of the suffrage movement for a while to work on Irish causes. Visiting Ireland, she in fact began to espouse more radical views on Irish freedom than Taylor, and the pair fell out (this seems to have been partly due to Taylor’s outrage that Craigen was thinking and acting independently from her influence…)

In the 1880s the women’s suffrage movement suffered splits and splintering of forces. Jessie Craigen was involved in fierce arguments as to whether married women should be included in the proposals for women to get the vote under the upcoming Reform Bill. More cautious and moderate elements suggested leaving married women out of any proposals; Craigen and other ‘radicals’ demanded married women not be excluded. Although with her involvement the radicals largely carried the day, in te end no women were enfranchised under the Reform Bill at all.

The movement’s failed to win any measure for women’s right to vote under the Third Reform Act of December 1884 led to a sharp decline in activity. Jesse Craigen’s position, as a paid agent speaker, became more difficult and she gradually faded from the women’s rights scene.

She continued to protest on behalf of other causes however, contributing an article to the Nineteenth Century Review against proposals to build a Channel Tunnel, and when speaking at an anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination demonstration in Chelsea, in April 1894, she was described (in the usual misogynist terms) as ‘a stout, elderly lady of dark complexion, with a stubby beard and a strong moustache…’  The mingling of  the anti-vaccination movement and animal rights sentiments here is interesting –progressive social views could also merge into quackery and anti-scientific hokum… However, of course, these days, such crossovers have died out. Oh wait…

The Local Government Act 1894 had created a system of urban and rural district councils, and had permitted women to be councillors. By this time Jessie Craigen was living in Ilford in East London. In December 1894, she stood as the only woman candidate in the election for Ilford Urban District Council, on behalf of the Women’s Liberal Association. She was unsuccessful, coming fourteenth out of seventeen candidates.

She died in her lodgings 2, Grove-villas, Ilford Lane, Ilford, Essex on 5 October 1899: local newspapers described her as a ‘well-known old maiden lady’ and ‘miser’, who had shared her house with fifteen dogs. Her obituary in the Zoophilist declared that “as a woman of the people, she exercised a great influence over the working classes… We shall miss her courageous and outspoken advocacy… her racy and eloquent speeches”.

Despite Jessie Craigen being a well-known figure in her time, no known photographs or even drawings of her survive; a reflection on her class background as much as her sex. Many lesser-known activists from more affluent backgrounds, and many more men, were recorded for posterity.
This lack of any pictorial record led illustrator Kate Taylor to do some sketches of how Jessie may have looked.

A point that Kate Taylor makes in her appreciation, “People who don’t fit a certain mold rarely make history books, no matter how much heavy lifting they do” is interesting and pertinent. Jessie Craigen spread the idea of women’s suffrage extremely effectively, to many people, using the skills and talents she had evolved; however, one undoubted aspects of the ethos of a large part of the ‘suffragist’ movement was a kind of cult of beauty. Great emphasis was placed in the art, imagery and pageantry of the movement on classically beautiful figures, expressing also a myth of feminine purity and radiance: mirrored by the vicious anti-suffragette propaganda which generally caricatured activists as ugly, overweight shrieking harpies with twisted features. Whether unconsciously influenced by the male depiction of them as ugly or not, much of the mainstream message of the suffrage movement was focussed on beauty. Jessie just didn’t fit the notions that many in the movement were trying to project, despite the attempts to pretty her up. She lived a bit too early for the later suffragette photo-art and tableau used in their printed propaganda – she probably wouldn’t have been allowed in. Were her unrespectable origins – part proletarian but even worse, part bohemian theatre (horror!) also a reason for her part in the movement herstory to be played down? Orthodox accounts of the movement, generally written after some women achieved the vote in 1918, barely mention her. Many of these also leave out or play down the importance of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft – too radical, in both her personal life and her revolutionary ideals, to fit in to the respectable image many in the suffrage movement wanted to build for feminism. Maybe, as Kate Taylor writes, they felt she “her “masculine” appearance gave critics evidence of what women would become if they gained the right to vote: unladylike, messy, unrestrained.”

Jessie Craigen’s name is recorded on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London, unveiled in 2018.

Sandra Stanley Holton’s essay on Jessie Craigen is well worth a read.

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