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The Great Miss Lydia Becker (Hardback)

Suffragist, Scientist and Trailblazer

Military > Biographies P&S History > British History P&S History > By Century > 19th Century Women of History

By Joanna M Williams
Imprint: Pen & Sword History
Pages: 328
ISBN: 9781399014809
Published: 14th January 2022



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Fifty years before women were enfranchised, a legal loophole allowed a thousand women to vote in the general election of 1868. This surprising event occurred due to the feisty and single-minded dedication of Lydia Becker, the acknowledged, though unofficial, leader of the women's suffrage movement in the later 19th century.

Brought up in a middle-class family as the eldest of fifteen children, she broke away from convention, remaining single and entering the sphere of men by engaging in politics. Although it was considered immoral for a woman to speak in public, Lydia addressed innumerable audiences, not only on women's votes, but also on the position of wives, female education and rights at work. She battled grittily to gain academic education for poor girls, and kept countless supporters all over Britain and beyond abreast of the many campaigns for women's rights through her publication, the Women's Suffrage Journal.

Steamrollering her way to Parliament as chief lobbyist for women, she influenced MPs in a way that no woman, and few men, had done before. In the 1860s the idea of women's suffrage was compared in the Commons to persuading dogs to dance; it was dismissed as ridiculous and unnatural. By the time of Lydia's death in 1890 there was an acceptance that the enfranchisement of women would soon happen. The torch was picked up by a woman she had inspired as a teenager, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Lydia's younger colleague on the London committee, Millicent Fawcett. And the rest is history.

This meticulously researched biography of Lydia Becker sheds new light on someone who worked tirelessly for women’s suffrage as well as a host of other campaigns for women’s rights but who has been largely overlooked and indeed forgotten in the years since her death. It is time that she was rehabilitated and this book does just that. Lydia Becker was one of those remarkable women who have all too often been written out of history but now she can take her rightful place amongst other campaigners. Finally her position as one of the great leaders of the suffrage movement is acknowledged. Her biography is also a history of the suffrage movement more broadly and it is obvious what a trailblazer she was. She was sometimes a controversial figure even amongst her peers and often managed to alienate them, which hasn’t helped her reputation. Her own work has been largely overshadowed by the later suffragettes and their more radical tactics. But Lydia Becker deserves to be remembered and celebrated and this biography helps us do just that... this is an important book and a valuable addition to women’s studies.

NetGalley, Mandy Jenkinson

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have previously written for a newspaper on Lydia Becker so was very interested to read this. She really was a remarkable woman and this book amply does her justice.
I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in women’s history or women’s suffrage.

NetGalley, Rebecca B

I can honestly say that since reviewing books for Pen & Sword Books, I have learnt so much more about history and individuals and in particular women’s history and the roles of women throughout history and the importance they play. Having learnt a lot about history at university, I am learning so much from Pen & Sword books like this one about The Great Miss Lydia Becker. Lydia Becker who might have gone unnoticed had she not moved to Manchester was a staunch supporter of women’s rights and suffrage in the mid-1800s from employment, to equal rights, to living & working conditions, to voting eligibility for women. Lydia Becker and her like in the women’s suffrage movement were all strong motivated women who would stand their ground and demand their rights. What comes through in this book is how much women from the north have been undervalued, and yet they are some of the strongest and most determined women you could find. This is a really well-written book by the author Joanna Williams, I’ve enjoyed the whole book and the bibliography at the back is an excellent one I shall be following up on and reading further. A very good book indeed.

Read the full review here

The History Fella

Sometimes it's refreshing for an author to uncover and introduce you to a personality from history that you've never heard of, but whose life was inspirational and who affected the lives of so many other people.

Books Monthly

As featured in: Bookshelf


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

As a woman I owe so much to the amazing Lydia Ernestine Becker leader of the early suffragettes
With out people like Lydia our lives would be very different.
This book honours Lydia and all the work she did for women.
She isn't as well known but now I will continue tell people about her and her memory will live on.

NetGalley, Karen Bull

As featured in

Manx Independent

There is—fortunately!—a steady stream of books these days restoring the rightful place of women in history. These include neglected figures in the women’s suffrage movement in the US and the UK. The story of Lydia Becker is among the latter, and I am very pleased to have made Becker’s acquaintance, however belatedly.

Before there was Emmaline Pankhurst or Millicent Fawcett, there was Lydia Becker. Or more accurately, because there was Lydia Becker, there were Emmaline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett. And the enfranchisement of British women.

Becker was a gifted orator, writer, administrator, publicist, propagandist, strategist, and politician. She was the leading British suffragist of her day—a celebrity of international stature. Her prominence and power are evident, in part, in the degree to which she was publicly attacked and ridiculed in newspaper cartoons and other forms of invective. You have to be a household name for that type of thing to find an audience. (There was also a race horse named “Miss Becker.”)

She was the first woman elected to a school board in Britain, and served in that capacity in Manchester for two decades. She actively advocated for more equitable expenditures for girls’ education; a more equitable curriculum, rather than the domestic training (or “training for servitude”) that was the norm; pay equity for women teachers; and educational opportunity for the poor. She was also a self-taught and accomplished scientist—a frequent correspondent of Charles Darwin who early advanced the view that there is no difference of intellectual capacity between genders.

In recounting Becker’s story, Williams also provides a fast-moving history of the British women’s suffrage movement from the mid-1860s to Becker’s death in 1890. This includes the tensions, schisms, and compromises that inevitably attend any such struggle. (Marital status was to the UK movement what race was to the US movement, with married women the ones left behind for political expediency.)

Becker, while “formidable,” was gradually overwritten by her more “flamboyant” successors in the suffrage movement. Williams has done us all a service by reconstructing Becker’s fascinating story.

NetGalley, E W Parker

About Joanna M Williams

Joanna M Williams is a native of the Manchester area and studied History at the University of Manchester at undergraduate and postgraduate level. After lecturing for the Department of Extra-Mural Studies, she taught History at Altrincham Grammar School for Girls. Her particular fascination with the nineteenth century was inspired by the enthusiasm of her sixth form students, and she has previously published a biography of Abel Heywood, Mayor of Manchester.

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