Guest Post – Jessie Stephen: Suffrage Pioneer

Anabel Marsh, aka The Glasgow Gallivanter, graduated in History almost 40 years ago, but didn’t give it much further thought until she retired a few years ago. She now volunteers as a women’s history tour guide with both Glasgow Women’s Library and Maryhill Burgh Halls and is enjoying discovering all the wonderful women who weren’t on the curriculum in the 1970s. Jessie Stephen is one of her favourites.

Anabel will be speaking at Maryhill Burgh Halls on the 21st February 2018 with her talk entitled “What About the Women?” .

Jessie Stephen MBE

Jessie Stephen is one of the few working class Scottish Suffragettes about whom much is known. She was born in England in 1893, the oldest of 11 children, but her family moved first to Edinburgh, then to Glasgow in 1901. She went to North Kelvinside School, where she was bright enough to win a scholarship, but left at 15 because her father, a tailor, was unemployed and she had to work as a domestic servant to help the family budget.

Jessie’s interview in the Spare Rib.

The whole family was politically active. Jessie was selling Labour Woman outside St Andrew’s Hall in Glasgow aged 12, joined the Independent Labour Party in Maryhill at just 16, and quickly became its Vice-Chair. She also joined the Women’s Social and Political Union, the Suffragettes. According to Jessie, the WSPU had many working-class members, but most had to protect their anonymity so we know very little about them. She has left her mark on history because she remained an activist throughout her long life, and because she was interviewed by Spare Rib in 1975.

Jessie’s class worked in her favour: she was able to enlist dockers from the ILP to deal with hecklers at WSPU meetings, and when the campaign to destroy the contents of pillar boxes began in 1912 she found her maid’s uniform was the perfect disguise, telling Spare Rib:

I was able to drop acid into the postal pillar boxes without being suspected, because I walked down from where I was employed in my cap, muslin apron and black frock….nobody would ever suspect me of dropping acid through the box.

When war broke out in 1914, the Suffragettes split between those, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, who wished to drop all campaigning and support the government, and the pacifists, such as her daughter Sylvia. Jessie was in the latter camp and, in Glasgow, was involved in the Rent Strikes and   Women’s Peace Crusade before being recruited by Sylvia Pankhurst to work with her in the Workers’ Suffrage Foundation by establishing new branches in England.

Jessie & Anabel at Maryhill Burgh Halls.

When the war ended in 1918, the franchise was extended to all men over 21 and women over 30 who satisfied certain property qualifications. This didn’t include Jessie who was still only 25 – it was 1928 before all adults over 21 could vote. However, Jessie saw the vote as a means to an end to improve women’s lives and continued to campaign for better jobs, housing, matrimonial law, birth control and public health.

A few of her achievements:

  • 1917 ILP organiser for Bermondsey.
  • 1918 Secretary of domestic workers’ section, National Federation of Women Workers.
  • 1919 Vice-Chair of the catering trade for Ministry of Reconstruction.
  • 1919-1925 Served on Bermondsey Borough Council.
  • 1924 and 1926 Lectured on socialism and trade unionism in Canada and the US.
  • 1927 Elected to standing committee of women’s organisations involved in the domestic women’s charter.
  • 1944 First woman area organiser of the National Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union for South Wales and Western England.
  • 1952 First woman president of the Trades Council and a City Councillor in Bristol.
  • 1955 received the TUC Gold Badge
  • 1977 received an MBE

Alongside all this, Jessie also trained as a contralto for two years at the London Guildhall School of Music (to which she attributed her vocal talents as a speaker) and gave recitals of Hebridean folk songs. She sounds wonderful! She died in Bristol in 1979 where there is a Blue Plaque at her home.

Although after the First World War Jessie never again lived in Glasgow, her political life started here and I think we can count her as one of our own. When I heard about the Suffrage Pioneers project, run by the Women’s Local Government Society, I immediately thought of her. The project’s aim is to identify and celebrate the lives of one hundred previously hidden women, and supportive men, who were active in the campaign for votes, and who used their extended rights to citizenship in a positive way locally, such as serving as elected councillors, joining local committees or leading new local organisations. I’m pleased to say that my nomination of Jessie Stephen, on behalf of Maryhill Burgh Halls, was accepted and we are now actively seeking ways to celebrate her throughout the rest of the year. So far, she has featured in a couple of talks I gave at the Halls on women’s history, and we are thinking about an exhibition. If any readers have other ideas, or would like to become involved, please leave a comment on this post and the History Girls will put us in touch.

Find out more about Jessie

Canning, Audrey (2004). Article on Jessie Stephen in ODNB.

Leah Leneman (2000). The Scottish Suffragettes.

Spare Rib, 32 (1975).

Spartacus Educational



4 Comments Add yours

  1. Anabel Marsh says:

    Thank you, History Girls, for allowing me to share the wonderful Jessie on your blog.


  2. Fascinating to learn more about Jessie Stephen – great article. Good luck on your upcoming talk!


  3. Terrific article, Anabel. You have a talent for sharing research in an engaging story. Your anecdote about the destruction of the pillar boxes gave me a sense of Jessie and, not surprisingly, had me seeing different things in the photo of her – more mischief and a sense of fun.


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