Recent events in America saw millions of women in the US lose the constitutional right to abortion, after the Supreme Court overturned its 50-year-old Roe v Wade decision.

The ruling led to an outrcry from women around the world calling the law 'heartwrenching' and 'going back in time'.

Even President Joe Biden described it as "a tragic error" and urged states to enact laws to allow the procedure.

The ruling led to many questioning women's rights as even Reading citizens played a part in the fight to freedom and democracy over 100 year's ago. 

Between 1886 and 1911 women’s suffrage bills were repeatedly introduced and defeated. 

The suffragettes were active across the country, holding meetings and demonstrations to publicise their demand of ‘votes for women’.  These events were a shock to the society of the time.  It was not thought to be proper for a woman to speak in public, let alone to participate in an outdoor demonstration!  Members of this movement were nicknamed ‘suffragettes’ because they fought for women’s suffrage; meaning the right for women to vote.

There were five key players in Reading involved in the fight for women's rights, which resonates in today's society.

Thanks to Reading Musuem, we're able to shine a lot on this.

Mrs Pankhurst and the WSPU

In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The WSPU employed many tactics to pressurise the government to extend the voting franchise to include women.  For example in October 1906 Lord Haldane, then Secretary of State for War had visited University College, Reading to open the new hall and buildings. He only consented to come on condition that no woman, whether staff or student, was present at the ceremony.

Reading had an active suffrage movement in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Edith Sutton (of the Sutton’s Seeds family) had sought to persuade Reading’s local council to consider the issue for votes for women in 1904.

Edith was one of the first five women to be elected to Borough and County Councils in 1907, after the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act gave widows and unmarried women the right to stand anywhere in local government. She eventually joined the Labour Party in 1921 and was the first female Mayor of Reading.

In June 1908 around 70 members of the Reading Women’s Suffrage Society travelled to London by train to take part in a great procession organised by the various women’s suffrage societies. 

Edith Morley was a lecturer in English Literature and Language at the University College, Reading (later the University of Reading), where she became the first woman professor at any English university.

She was a Fabian socialist, and an enthusiastic suffragette in the Reading branch of the WSPU. Her position meant she took a prominent place in mass marches and meetings and even had her goods seized and sold because of her refusal to pay taxes

On 1 January 1910 David Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was making a speech at the tram sheds on Mill Lane, alongside Reading’s MP Rufus Isaacs.

Despite precautions, two suffragettes, Miss Streatfield and Miss Hudson, succeeded in getting into a meeting, but were discovered and ejected from the tram sheds. 

As Lloyd George was making a reference to robbery, one of the suffragettes shouted ‘You’re a robber, because you take the women’s money and don’t give them the vote.

Later that year, on 15 July 1910 a suffragette demonstration took place on Station Road, Reading, around the statue of King Edward VII in front of the Great Western Hotel.

 Suffragettes were increasingly radical, rebellious and prepared to take militant action. Mabel Norton, of Caversham, a member of the Reading branch  of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which had a premises in West Street, Reading, was sentenced to seven days’ at Holloway prison for her part in a demonstration.

Another local militant suffragette was Jessie Laws of Lower Armour Road in Tilehurst. She was arrested more than once (including for a raid on the House of Commons in June 1909 along with their first cousin Emmaline Pethick-Lawrence, treasurer of the WSPU).