When we think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, or the fight for women’s votes, we tend to think of individuals such as Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, or perhaps Emily Davison, who famously threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby. These women and their organisation the WSPU (Women’s Political and Social Union) are associated with extreme tactics, often violent, with their motto being “Deeds not Words”.
However, it is important to note that there were other campaigners who did not approve of this militancy, who chipped away, often in the background, for many years, in an effort to improve working conditions for women and to secure the right to vote. Millicent Fawcett was a dedicated supporter of women’s suffrage, and was the first woman to have a statue of herself erected in Parliament Square.
The life of Ada Chew
Another advocate of peaceful and legal means was Ada Nield Chew who was born in 1870, the second child of 13. Although she had a limited education, her literacy skills allowed her to teach in a small church school. She was also able to write in a persuasive manner that argued for an awareness of and an improvement in working conditions for women.
Although not as famous as many campaigners, it could be argued that Ada and others like her, were crucial in terms of gathering momentum for the groundswell of public support and for persuading those with influence of the validity of the cause.
As a worker at Compton Bros clothing factory in Crewe, Ada wrote a series of letters to the local newspaper, the Crewe Chronicle. These were highly critical of the pay and conditions of women in the factory, particularly those of the tailoresses, especially in comparison to those of male workers doing the same work. Ada lost her job, but remained determined to highlight the unfairness of conditions and pay for women. Little did she know that in the future, the trailblazers for the Equal Pay Act of 1970 would be machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham.
Ada joined the Independent Labour Party and travelled the country speaking in support of her cause. She also did much to uncover and publicise the dangers of lead poisoning for workers in the Potteries, campaigning tirelessly to find and help victims.
As a natural extension of her interest in and support for women’s equality, Ada became involved in the Suffrage movement, despite initially opposing the 1904 Women’s Suffrage Bill as it favoured wealthy women rather than the working classes.
Later, she rejected the violence and militant standpoint of the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. She probably felt that although violent tactics gained publicity for the cause of Women’s Suffrage, they did little to persuade those who did not already feel strongly in support of the issue. Ada agreed with the labour movement, which was growing in influence and in 1912 she became a paid organiser of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
When the war broke out, as a confirmed pacifist, Ada refused all war work. She later started a mail order drapery business and was a successful businesswoman. She set an example to others of how women should be treated in the workforce and never stopped verbalising her belief in equality at work and in terms of the right to vote.
It is important to remember that the eventual success of the Women’s Equal Suffrage Movement relied on the dedication and determination of many different open-minded advocates and pioneers.