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100 years on – a look at Aberdeen’s Suffragette leader

Tuesday February 6th 2018 at 7:09 AM


Caroline Phillips (Left) and her cousin, Agnes Simpson (right) c. 1900. Pic – Rosemary Watt

It is 100 years to the day since women won the vote in the UK and Original 106 is looking at the role Aberdeen’s women played in that struggle.

On the sixth of February 1918, the Representation of the People act allowed women over 30 – who were a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, who owned property, or who were a university graduate – could vote.

All men over 21 could vote now too – it wasn’t parity, but it was a first step.

You’ve probably heard of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, and Emily Davison – who died after jumping in front of the King’s horse during the derby… but what about Aberdeen’s suffragette leader?

Letters, in the archives of Aberdeen Art Gallery, give an insight into a power struggle between the famous Pankhursts and the head of the Aberdeen Women’s Social and Political Union, Caroline Phillips.

Philips also worked as a journalist for the Aberdeen Daily Journal, a forerunner to the Press and Journal, which she also used as a hub for correspondence for the WSPU, known as the Suffragettes, and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, who are more commonly called the Suffragists.

Philips is known to have chained herself to railings in Aberdeen city centre, broken windows and replaced all the flags on Balmoral golf course with WSPU colours overnight – correspondence has shown Philips doubted the need for Mrs Pankhurst’s militancy.

(L-R) Emmeline, Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst led the Suffragette movement – there were tensions between the trio and Caroline Phillips

Eventually, the disagreements between Ms. Philips and the Pankhurts family led to Emmeline personally coming to the Granite City to disrupt a meeting of the North East Liberal party at the Music Hall, being led by then-Chancellor of the Exchequer, H.H Asquith.

Aberdeen Art Gallery’s lead curator for art Madeline Ward said: 

“The liberal movement was thought to be quite pro-women and women getting the vote, but Asquith himself stood out as a figure that wasn’t a supporter.

“To get him here in Aberdeen and in the midst of our ladies here that wanted the vote was something quite special and unique to Aberdeen’s story in the women’s suffrage movement.

“I think possibly we’d find there are lots of Caroline Phillipses or women like her in local branches across the UK.

“But without women like her – that put themselves forward and were prepared to fight – we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in today.”

Ms Phillips was eventually relieved of leading the Aberdeen branch in 1909 – when Mrs Pankhurst sent daughter Sylvia Pankhurst to take over.

The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1928, granting all women over the age of 21 the right to vote.

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