Our December yarn, the final yarn in our suffragette sock club, is named for Lydia Becker, an early campaigner for votes for women.
Born in 1827, to Hannibal Becker, the owner of a chemical works in Manchester, and Mary Duncuft, Lydia was the eldest of fifteen children. Like the rest of her sisters, and most girls at that time, she was educated at home. After the death of her mother in 1855, Lydia had the responsibility of looking after her younger siblings.
In 1866 Lydia heard Barbara Bodichon give a lecture on women’s suffrage at a meeting in Manchester. She was immediately converted to the idea that women should have the vote and wrote an article on Female Suffrage for The Contemporary Review magazine. Emily Davies and Elizabeth Wolstenholme were two of the women who read the article and later that year they joined Lydia Becker to form the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee. Wolstenholme then arranged to have 10,000 copies of the article printed as a pamphlet.
In 1967, Becker founded the Ladies’ Literary Society in Manchester, which despite its name was intended as a society to study scientic matters. She began a correspondence with Charles Darwin and soon afterwards convinced him to send a paper to the society. In the course of their correspondence, Becker sent a number of plant samples to Darwin from the fields surrounding Manchester. She also forwarded Darwin a copy of her “little book”, Botany for Novices (1864). Becker is one of a number of 19th-century women who contributed, often routinely, to Darwin’s scientific work. Her correspondence and work alike suggest that Becker had a particular interest in bisexual and hermaphroditic plants which, perhaps, offered her powerful ‘natural’ evidence of radical, alternative sexual and social order.
She was also recognised for her own scientific contributions, being awarded a national prize in the 1860s for a collection of dried plants prepared using a method she had devised so that they retained their original colours. She gave a botanical paper to the 1869 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science about the effect of fungal infection on sexual development in a plant species Botany remained important to her, but her work for women’s suffrage was the central role in her life. Her involvement in promoting and encouraging scientific education for girls and women brought these two aspects together.
In autumn 1866 Becker attended the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Social Science, where she was excited by a paper from Barbara Bodichon entitled “Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women”. She dedicated herself to organising around the issue, and in January 1867 convened the first meeting of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee, the first organisation of its kind in England.
Several months later, a widowed shop owner, Lilly Maxwell, mistakenly appeared on the register of voters in Manchester, which was a good opportunity for publicity. Becker visited Maxwell and escorted her to the polling station. The returning officer found Maxwell’s name on the list and allowed her to vote. Becker immediately began encouraging other women heads of households in the region to petition for their names to appear on the rolls. Their claims were presented in court by Sir John Coleridge and Richard Pankhurst in Chorlton v. Lings, but the case was dismissed.
On 14 April 1868, the first public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. The three main speakers were Agnes Pochin, Anne Robinson and Becker. Becker moved the resolution that women should be granted voting rights on the same terms as men.
Becker subsequently commenced a lecture tour of northern cities on behalf of the society. In June 1869, Becker and fellow campaigners were successful in securing the vote for women in municipal elections. Having campaigned for the inclusion of women on school boards, in 1870 she was one of four women elected to the Manchester School Board on which she served until her death. In the same year Becker and her friend Jessie Boucherett founded the Women’s Suffrage Journal and soon afterward began organising speaking tours of women – a rarity in Britain at the time. At an 1874 speaking event in Manchester organised by Becker, fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst experienced her first public gathering in the name of women’s suffrage.
The Journal was the most popular publication relating to women’s suffrage in 19th-century Britain. Roger Fulford, in his study of the movement Votes for Women: The Story of a Struggle, writes: “The history of the decades from 1860 to 1890 – so far as women’s suffrage is concerned – is the history of Miss Becker.” The Journal published speeches from around the country, both within and outside of Parliament. Becker published her correspondence with her supporters and her opponents, notably in 1870, when she chastised the MP for Caernarvonshire after he voted against a proposal offering women the vote.
In 1880, Becker and co-workers campaigned in the Isle of Man for the right of women to vote in the House of Keys elections. Unexpectedly, they were successful and they secured for women voting rights in the Isle of Man for the first time in the elections of March 1881. Becker became the chair of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. This organisation had been formed in 1871 to lobby parliament. Other committee members included Helen Blackburn, Millicent Fawcett, Jessie Boucherett, Eva McLaren, Margaret Bright Lucas, Priscilla Bright McLaren and Frances Power Cobbe.
Becker differed from many early feminists in her disputation of essentialised femininity. Arguing there was no natural difference between the intellect of men and women, Becker was a vocal advocate of a non-gendered education system in Britain..
In 1874 William Forsyth MP announced he was willing to promote a bill that would grant single, but not married women, the vote. Becker, who was unmarried, created a controversy in the suffrage movement when she supported this proposal. Although Becker only suggested this as a short-term strategy, some married suffragists, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, were outraged by her views.
In 1890 Becker visited the spa town of Aix-les-Bains, on medical advice, but she caught diphtheria there, and died, aged 63.