Working Class Heroines #2: Dora Thewlis

Dora Thewlis suffragette

This piece will probably be a lot shorter and less extensive than last week’s, firstly because I’ve only just discovered Dora myself, and secondly because she was only “famous” very briefly, so even the internet doesn’t know much about her. But she’s worth writing about, I think, because the obstacles she faced aren’t a million miles away from those that working-class feminists face today.

Dora Thewlis and the patriarchy.
Dora Thewlis and the patriarchy.

She had a lot to lose
All suffragettes were putting themselves on the line by being activists. Adela Pankhurst was nearly trampled to death by angry men after a protest march. Others were force fed. Emily Davison lost her life for the cause.

But working-class women such as Dora did not have comfortable houses replete with servants to retreat back to after their marches and arrests. They also had to balance their beliefs against earning enough money to feed themselves.

Dora was born in 1890, one of seven children. Money was tight, and Dora and her sister were both factory workers, part of an industry where collective protest and trade unionism was condemned by employers. Workers who voiced their political beliefs were laid off. On top of this, the UK’s justice system, as it does now, came down far heavier on the poor. So declaring herself a feminist was bloody risky for someone like Dora.

This didn’t stop her or her parents: she was a voracious reader of socialist newspapers and joined the WSPU as soon as she was able to, aged sixteen. Only a few months later, she was part of a large group of Yorkshire factory workers who traveled to London to take part in a protest at the Houses of Parliament to stage a “women’s parliament.” Dozens of policemen met them there, and amidst police brutality and scenes of chaos, seventy five women were arrested. Dora was one, and the world woke up to see her photo splattered over the front page of the Daily Mirror.

She was patronised for being political
The press christened her “the baby suffragette”. When she appeared in court, the judge was outraged. Dora was both poor and young – how could she have the independence or brains to be arrested for political beliefs? Only able to see her eyes peeking at him from above the top of her stand, he spat:

The Times reports on Dora's parents' pride at their daughter's actions.
The Times reports on Dora’s parents’ pride at their daughter’s actions.

“[She] cannot be a delegate or anything else! She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

A pompous arsehole, he went on to say she had clearly been “enticed” to London, implying that she had come to do some “enticing” herself – of young men. He remanded her in custody and wrote a stern letter full of patronising bollocks to her parents, unable to believe they – good, working-class stock who should know their place – would condone her behaviour.

Legends that they were, they were incandescent with rage and wrote back to him stating they had brought her up in a socialist tradition and supported her actions all the way.

She was abandoned by her sisters
Reports from the time state that Dora became disheartened whilst in prison. She was only there for a week but for a young girl relatively new to the struggle of activism, separation from her friends and mistreatment by the guards was too much to bear. When she was released, one headline was “Young Huddersfield Suffragette tells of her torture in prison”. She said:

“‘They tortured me. I can see it all now. They tried to break my spirit, and they succeeded. They held me up to ridicule as a ‘baby’ and a ‘child’.”

Her mother had written her her a letter whilst she was in prison stating how proud she was of her, but Dora became convinced she had been forgotten by the WSPU. She was proved right.

When she got out she was pursued by the press, who followed her around, calling her “baby” until she broke. ““Don’t call me the ‘Baby Suffragette,” one reporter noted her pleading.”In May next year I shall be eighteen years of age… surely that is a good age for a girl?”

Despite being stalked by journalists, assumedly beaten up in prison, her photograph being turned into novelty postcards and her broken health, the WSPU did nothing to make sure she was okay. In fact, a few months later their Huddersfield group wrote a letter to the Thewlis home asking them to “behave” in meetings or else leave.

Minutes from the time don’t say why they were misbehaving, but historians have made an educated guess that the working class Thewlises were tired of giving time – and prison time –  to an organisation who did not want them to have the vote: the WSPU only wanted votes on the same terms as men: people who had land qualified, no others did. In short, the middle-class WSPU had the same problem with a gobby working-class lass as the judge and press did. There’s probably a fair few feminists reading this today who recognise that failure to understand the working class in our own movement of 2015.

She was forgotten
Whatever the cause of her expulsion from the WSPU, the formerly belligerent, socialist writ-reading, proud feminist firebrand never returned to political activism. Before the start of the first world war, she emigrated to Australia, in search of an easier life away from the factories.

She married and had four children, and that – despite her briefly being the face of a whole movement – is just about we know of her, apart from a conversation researcher Jill Liddington had with her daughter Mabel nearly a hundred years after Dora’s arrest. Mabel was then in her eighties and, despite her mother’s experiences, had been inspired by her to carry on her own fight for equality.

So: a sort of sad tale, but as I said, one I’ve written about because I think there’s something in it to give us food for thought today. There were hundreds and thousands of Doras who each played a part in gaining women the vote but who we barely remember now, thanks to both elitism in the suffragettes’ time and ours. There are undoubtedly even more modern Doras who might end up suffering the same fate. The Focus E15 mums, for example, whilst lauded by the press, are nowhere near championed by feminists as much as “middle-class” figureheads and campaigns are.

I’ve come across a few other working-class suffragettes whilst finding out about Dora, and if I manage to keep this project up, I’ll write about them soon.


3 thoughts on “Working Class Heroines #2: Dora Thewlis

  1. This series of writing is just perfect. I always struggle with my working class roots, unsure whether to be proud or ashamed. But this helped clear that issue up. I am completely overwhelmed/inspired by these women


  2. Just a few bits of extra info…

    A couple of contemporary newspaper reports mention that Dora was suffering from tonsillitis at the time of her arrest, which I suspect would have made her stay in prison even more miserable and helps to explain why she was keen to return home.

    The 1911 Census has Dora (aged 20) renting a room with her older sister Evelyn (25) in Huddersfield (near to where the university is now), where they both worked as woollen weavers.

    Dora sailed to Australia in 1912 with Evelyn, arriving into Melbourne in October. The following year her brother James William Thewlis and his wife Mary Hannah emigrated. Dora’s parents appear to have emigrated in 1920, along with Dora’s sister Mabel (after whom Dora’s daughter was named). Dora’s sister Amy had married plumber Thomas Woods in Lancashire, and they also emigrated to Australia.

    I can only speculate as to why Dora and nearly all of her immediate family emigrated, but it’s worth noting that it meant she was registered to vote on the Australian Electoral Roll as early as 1919.

    Dora’s mother Eliza Elizabeth (née Taylor) sailed back to England aboard the “Moreton Bay” in the summer of 1930 but sadly died of a heart attack whilst the ship was approaching the Suez Canal. It seems she was travelling without her husband (who died in 1942) and I’ve not been able to find out what happened to her body — her death was noted in the ship’s register, but not recorded in the UK register of deaths. Perhaps she was buried at sea or at Port Said?

    Dora remained a staunch Labour supporter throughout her life and died aged 86 at Ascot Vale, Victoria, Australia, in 1976.


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