Guest blog: Bernadette Cahill ‘After the Suffrage Victory: A Forgotten Suffragist from Clydebank’

We are delighted to have this guest blog from Bernadette Cahill about her mother Margaret McCann, a working-class campaigner for women’s equality from Clydebank: 


“There are two million surplus women. How can these women have homes if the only home a woman is supposed to have is her husband’s and there are two million men short?”


Margaret McCann spoke often about campaigning with Lilian Lenton. “Madam Lenton would pull herself up to her full height, gather her coat around her and put him in his place,” she said.

Margaret was describing how Lilian dealt with wee Glasgow men in flat caps, firing off with awe-inspiring originality at woman speakers with, “A wummin’s place is in the hame!”

Margaret McCann c 1945 head and shouldersLilian, a professional dancer, taught Margaret how to do it – great training for a new teacher in squashing tiresome toughs in West of Scotland schools. “Nobody knows about the Clyde Coast Campaign now,” she said wistfully in 1984. Margaret (pictured left in 1945)  was from Clydebank, only 21 and newly enfranchised when she assisted Lilian in Rothesay and Dunoon. Leicester-born Lilian, 31, without husband or property, and enfranchised only in 1928, was a former window-smashing, arsonist suffragette force-fed in Holloway. The torture nearly killed her and led to the Cat and Mouse Act. During the War, Lilian worked with the Scottish Women’s Hospitals in Serbia, the French awarding her the Red Cross medal.

Margaret and Lilian (pictured left) worked together for the Woman’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1930. The WFL, unlike the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), had stayed in action even with 1918’s franchise triumph, continuing to work for equal voting rights. Once won, the campaign moved onto equal pay; women’s and wives’ rights to work; equal divorce; mothers’ rights over their children; condemning marital and sexual abuse and the double moral standard; and tackling political questions such as parliamentary representation and political party support for women.

The two were working-class; but if Lilian had a long suffragette history, Margaret – born in 1909 – belonged to a new generation of campaigners. Veteran suffragist Dr. Frances Melville, Mistress of Queen Margaret College recruited her when, against the odds for a working-class girl, she started Uni in 1927.

She helped with meetings of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Society for Women’s Suffrage, which met at the College till 1933 mostly to plan fund-raising. There are indications that she worked with suffragists in 1926, even before beginning to study maths.

With such a solid background in women’s rights, in 1930 Dr. Melville recommended Margaret as an assistant in that year’s WFL campaign in Rothesay, not only providing her with a summer job, but also giving the second daughter of eleven children from depression era Clydebank an unforgettable holiday – for more reasons than campaigning.

“Oh the food! I’d never seen anything like it in my life,” Margaret exclaimed in delight.

Margaret’s summer job in 1930 involved her in what may be the longest-running suffrage – and later equality – campaign anywhere in Britain. Already well-established in 1909, The Clyde Coast Campaign settled on Rothesay as its headquarters in 1911. From 1924 Lilian was its primary organizer and speaker.

Rothesay Pier 1906

Campaigners went to the Pier Head, climbed up on a stool or wagonette and began, “I am here today under the auspices of the Women’s Freedom League …”

“And you’d stop for a minute,” said Margaret:

“And maybe one man, one person would stop – wondering, ‘Is she mad or what?’… And the next one would stop until you finally had a circle of people. And then … a few people would say, ‘Start again.’”

Every summer from at least 1909 until records stop in 1933, “I am here today under the auspices of the Women’s Freedom League,” signaled the women’s Clyde Coast Campaign  – with suffragists travelling by steamer to many of the resorts packed with Fair holidaymakers.

By her contribution to the equal voting victory in 1928, Margaret could call herself a suffragist. She did so proudly. She is one of many of the forgotten final wave suffragists who contributed to winning equality for the half of womankind that politicians deliberately excluded in 1918 because men did not want female voters in a majority.

The Representation of the People Act (1918) celebrated in February 2018 gave all men the vote, but politicians preserved the inequality of women, discriminating by class, age and marital status – excluding single women, women without property, and all women below the age of 30. It left many a suffragette out – like Lilian Lenton.

It ignored the most vulnerable women, doing so when there were significantly more women than men in the population. And it did so in a post-war era when the flower of manhood had been decimated in the carnage and more women than usual would remain unmarried – and, therefore, with no husband through whom they could qualify to vote. There were, indeed, two million surplus women.

Around Margaret’s home in Clydebank, the majority left out were the kinds of women who organized the rent strikes and during the war worked in munitions in Singer’s, or in shipbuilding in John Brown’s and struggled afterwards as war widows to keep the family going.

The centenary of the 1918 Act acknowledged a great achievement when the principle of female suffrage was finally recognized. But it was only the beginning – the start of a period whose ending was then unknown.

This period of further glaring suffrage inequality lasted for ten years until 1928 when the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act received Royal Assent on 2 July. Meanwhile, women still had to campaign both for equality in voting, and the means to win equality, their energy split by the competing demands and made more difficult because so many people thought that women had the vote already.

The outcome was not pre-determined. It required considerable work and many workers both veteran and new: this ten-year period and its campaigners, therefore, should not be forgotten when considering what happened after the suffrage victory of 1918.

Bernadette Cahill  © B. Cahill 2018

Bernadette Cahill and her sister, Dr. Catherine Smith of Stirling are two of the last remaining children of a suffragette in Britain today. Margaret McCann (later Cahill, 1909-1986) was their mother.

An M.A. (Hons) History graduate of the University of Glasgow and an independent scholar, Cahill has delivered four different versions of this story in Britain during 2018 – in Cambridge, Rothesay, Stirling and Clydebank. This work is based on a tape recording she made with her mother in 1984, combined with further research. She is the author of Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party and the Vote: The First Civil Rights Struggle in the 20th Century and Arkansas Women and the Right to Vote: The Little Rock Campaigns, both 2015. Her third book on the vote is about the campaigns in the U.S. for the vote for women during Reconstruction in the mid-1860s. She lives in Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.A.


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