Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: the Story of Catherine Matshall by Jo Vellacott. £17.99
Catherine Marshall was one of the key women in the movement to gain women’s suffrage. She was born in Middlesex – her father was a schoolmaster at Harrow, but the family spent their holidays at Keswick. Her uncle owned a house on the Derwent Island and her father bought Hawse End on the shores of the lake. There Catherine spent the holidays of her teenage years. She seems to have been a lively, energetic, forceful girl, a natural leader amongst her peers - “a very managing type”. Away from Harrow, “She rejoiced in a tomboyish, vigorous outdoor life, scrambling over the hills, playing tennis, going for long walks, canoeing, swimming and diving in the lake.” The cousins divided by the lake would make their plans using megaphones to shout between the island and the shore.
When her father retired, the family settled permanently at Hawse End, and in those years, Catherine, then in her twenties, became very active in the suffrage movement. She was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, an organisation that was opposed to the militancy of the Suffragettes. They felt the vote could be obtained by rational persuasion, by using such political avenues as were open to women, and in many ways, they might well have succeeded if the First World War had not intervened.
On May 18th 1908, “ a few ladies known to be in favour of women’s suffrage met at Hawse End”. The Keswick Women’s Suffrage Association was formed. Further meetings were held in villages around the area. Catherine, who was 27 at the time, remembered walking through the woods on her way to address the first of her open-air meetings – the crowd would have included men as well as women - “with a feeling of terror”. Their basic platform was: “That a woman who possesses the qualifications which would enable her to vote . . . were she a man, shall not be debarred by law . . . simply because she is a woman.”
In July the “suffrage caravan” came to Kewick. “Swarms of suffragists came running up to meet” them and they were overwhelmed with kindness and offers of accommodation. There was “hearty support” for a meeting in the market place. Much of this success was due to the work and enthusiasm of Catherine Marshall.
She became closely involved in national activities, but she was an important voice in ensuring that the movement remained widely rooted throughout the country rather than being London dominated, This meant the movement garnered wider support, both geographically and socially.
Between 1911 and 1914, the tall, well-dressed, dynamic Catherine was a strong presence in the movement in her role as honorary parliamentary secretary. The Labour Party gave their support to women’s suffrage and Catherine worked tirelessly to secure the support of members of the ruling Liberal government.
Catherine’s policies of wide involvement and the peaceful securing of the vote found themselves in conflict with the views of the president, Millicent Fawcett, and Catherine chose to resign.
Jo Vellacott argues that Catherine played a central role in the NAWSS and that her lobbying and her dynamism were critical in the development of the movement and the political impact it was having by 1915.
Catherine Marshall’s role at this time has been largely overlooked. This much revised and extended version of Jo Vellacott’s biography seeks to redress that balance. The thorough research has produced a supremely detailed biography which offers a sympathetic view of Catherine Marshall’s life as a suffragist and an interesting picture of what was happening in Cumberland as women fought for the right to vote.