“While Europe’s eye is fix’d on mighty things
The fate of empires and the fall of kings
While quacks of state must each produce his plan
And even children lisp the Rights of Man
Amid the mighty fuss, just let me mention
The Rights of Woman merits some attention”Robert Burns, The Rights of Woman, 1792
Robert Burns – or as the natives of Ayrshire lovingly call him Rabbie Burns – coined this infamous phrase in the first stanza of his poem The Rights of Woman in 1792. In the final line of his address, he affirmed that the rights of woman will be recognised, by using the phrase ‘ca ira’ – it will come – an ode to the French revolutionary song. The quotation had since been adapted throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to promote the enfranchisement of women in the United Kingdom. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – also known as the Suffragists – formed as an umbrella organisation for all the suffrage societies in England, Scotland and Ireland, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. However, by the start of the twentieth century, their campaign had made little measurable progress in Britain. This would change with the introduction of a more militant-style organisation being founded in 1903 by the Pankhurst’s named the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the organisation branched out across all nations of the UK. Despite much suffrage activity in Scotland taking place in cities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow, there was a consensus amongst members of the suffrage branches that rural communities were vital in promoting the enfranchisement of women. By the end of the nineteenth century, Suffrage societies began cropping up along the Ayrshire coast in the west of Scotland. Although at this point not significant in numbers, these groups showed the initial musings of change in rural society.
An all-male suffrage branch of the Central Committee of the National Society for Womens’ Suffrage was formed in Ayr during the 1870s, however disappeared soon after. By the turn of the twentieth century, in 1902, the Glasgow and West of Scotland Association for Women’s Suffrage was formed. Between 1904 and 1905 branches were set up in Ayrshire communities including Ayr, Ardrossan, Kilmarnock and Saltcoats. As the suffrage movement gained momentum in rural towns, Ayr and Kilmarnock became the main hubs of activity. In March 1907, the Kilmarnock Women’s Liberal Association hosted the annual meeting of the federation, where around two hundred delegates were present from across the UK. Between 1907 and 1912, both the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald and the Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette frequently reported of meetings taking place by local branches of the suffrage movement.
Famous faces visited the towns of Ayrshire to give addresses. One being, arguably the most famous suffragette in British history, Emmeline Pankhurst. She visited Ayr on Friday 10th March 1911 to give a speech advocating “Votes for Women” and travelled to Largs on 24th August 1911 to speak at the Public Hall arguing that women should have the vote, not just BECAUSE they were a woman, but because she was a woman QUALIFIED for the vote. Mrs Flora Drummond – who was a native of Arran in her younger years – became one of the most prominent women within the movement. In September 1908, she gave addresses in both Newmilns and Galston to rally support. On Friday 22ndSeptember 1911, the Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette reported that a suffrage meeting was held in the Art Galleries of Kilmarnock under the auspices of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). A large audience was present, and Miss Barbara Wylie – another notorious English suffragette – spoke to the lively attendees. She stated that women desired the vote because “only by its means could they express themselves as women and protect their interests as human beings”.
The following week on 29th September, the newspaper reported that a meeting was held in the town centre of Kilmaurs to discuss suffrage. Miss Frances Parker – New-Zealand born suffragette who became a militant member of the Scottish movement – addressed a “large assembly”. The paper reported that “she is a fluent, able and impressive speaker, and rammed home her forcible adjuncts on behalf of the cause of women votes”. The report went on to state that there had since been an influx of Kilmaurs members to the Suffragist branch of the movement. This account shows the vital importance of campaigning in towns as well as cities. Although most of the audiences at rural meetings were comprised of upper/ middle class women – as was the case for most of the members of the suffrage movement – there was a recognition that suffrage could speak to all classes of women. From this, speakers attempted to appeal to working class women in their speeches. An example is shown in the 22nd October 1909 report in the Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, when Mrs Charlotte Despard addressed an audience in Kilmarnock. Mrs Despard was both a pioneer of the Scottish suffrage movement as well as a staunch socialist. As president and one of the founding members of the Women’s Freedom League, she addressed a meeting in the Co-operative Town Hall on John Dickie Street. In her speech, she promoted the enfranchisement of ALL women of ALL classes. This declaration was met by emphatic applause from the witnessing crowd.
At times, activity was met with retaliation. The Kilmarnock and North Ayrshire Gazette reported of an incident in Saltcoats on 22nd December 1911. At this time, a local suffrage group held their headquarters at 16 Countess Street, Saltcoats under the auspices of the Scottish Federation of Women’s Suffrage Societies. As a response, the Anti-Suffrage League set their headquarters directly across the street from the organisation and began to protest against them, frequently employing members to protest that ‘Women do not want the Vote!’. From this, the Suffragists retaliated in declaring ‘What we don’t want you shan’t have!’.
Ayrshire witnessed its fair share of militant activism too. On 8th March 1913, telegraph wires were cut between Glasgow and Kilmarnock to cause a distruption in communications. A month later, on 7th April, the Western Meeting Club at Ayr Racecourse was destroyed by fire. This was believed to be an act of suffragettes as pamphlets including Votes for Women and The Suffragette were recovered from the remains. The Dundee Courier reported £2,000 worth of damage whereas the Glasgow Herald reported damage costing £3,500. The arson attack is thought to be the handiwork of Glasweigan Catherine Taylor. By 1914, attempts were again made to attack buildings of significance to both bolster attention and attract support. On 13th March, an attack occurred on the Mansion of Robertland near Stewarton in East Ayrshire. Two suffragettes broke through one of the windows of the house and set the place alight. Although the rear and outbuildings of the house were recovered, the front of the house was burned down. The attack cost £1,600 of damage. The suffragettes left their mark, as postcards stating “We reply to the brutal arrest of Mrs Pakhurst” were found at the scene. There was also an attempt to blow up Burns Cottage in Alloway, South Ayrshire on 14th July 1914. The believed suspect – a ‘Janet Arthur’ was arrested, however the authorities were unsure of her real name.
So… as we can see, the suffrage movement stretched far and wide across Scotland. Ayrshire’s towns became aware of activity closer to home, and many women were attracted to the changes taking place. Pioneers of the movement knew the importance of attracting as much a regional following as national one, and by frequently holding meetings and giving addresses in more rural spaces, some of the women who attended were enlightened of the politics taking place became members of the women’s revolution. Burns was indeed right in declaring that the rights of women will come!
Hollie Watt (MSc student in Historical Studies at Strathclyde University)
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 18th January 1907, “SOCIALIST POLITICS”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 22ND March 1907, “SCOTTISH WOMEN’S LIBERAL FEDERATION MEETINGS IN KILMARNOCK”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 22nd October 1909, “AYR”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 10th March, 1911, “TOBACCONIST BUSINESS”
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 22ND September 1911, “WOMEN’S MEETING IN SUPPORT OF MR MCKERRELL”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 29th September 1911, “KILMAURS”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 22nd December 1911, “WHAT ARE THE PEOPLE SAYING”.
- British Newspaper Archive, Kilmarnock Herald and North Ayrshire Gazette, Friday 27th December 1912, “OCTOBER”.
- Crawford, E. The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey, (Routledge, 2006)
- Valley, J. Struggle and Suffrage in Glasgow: Women’s Lives and the Fight for Equality (Pen and Sword History, 2019)