In August 1832, the first women’s suffrage petition was sent to Parliament. It was to be nearly one hundred years before equal voting rights were achieved.
A little-known suffragist, who campaigned for women’s votes and improved working conditions throughout her life, was Brighton-born Clementina Black.
Suffragettes and suffragists
History books dealing with women’s suffrage and votes for women campaigns are dominated by individuals such as Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters and Emily Davison, who famously died after walking in front of the king’s horse at the Derby. Whilst the bravery and dogged determination of those suffragettes who acted upon their mantra, ‘Deeds not Words’, cannot be over emphasised, it is important to note that not all campaigners for votes for women believed in the militant, often violent actions of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
Although there were some militant suffragettes in Sussex, those leading the fight for women’s votes were much more likely to be a suffragist. The most famous suffragist is probably Millicent Fawcett, who was the first woman to have a statue erected in her honour in Parliament Square. Suffragists followed the rally cry: “Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less!” They strongly believed that militancy was not the way forward and that violence did more to damage their cause than promote it.
Black’s early life in Brighton
One such suffragist was Clementina Black, who used her skills as a leader and as a writer to forward various causes involving the plight of women, including the fight for equal voting rights.
Born in Brighton in 1853, Black was one of eight children and was educated at home, becoming fluent in French and German. Her grandfather was a naval architect to Czar Nicholas 1 of Russia and her sister, Constance Garnett, was a noteworthy translator of Russian literature, including numerous volumes of Anton Chekhov’s work.
Black’s father David was a solicitor, town clerk and coroner in Brighton, who after a severe illness, lost the use of his legs. When attempting to lift him, her mother Maria, a successful portrait painter, suffered a rupture, from which she died. As the eldest daughter, Clementina became the carer for both her father and her siblings. Later in life, Black’s caring personality became even more apparent when she took in her niece, whose father, Clementina’s brother Arthur, murdered his wife and son and then allegedly killed himself.
Despite having responsibilities as a carer for her family, Black developed a keen interest in problems within society, having socialists as her friends, including Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx.
As a member of the Fabian Society, a socialist organisation, Black aimed to spread the principles of social democracy and “promote greater equality of power, wealth and opportunity”. Her allegiances lay firmly with the conditions and challenges faced by working class women who, it could be argued, were not always represented by the suffragettes.
To this end, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League when, as early as 1888, she put forward an equal pay for women motion at the Trades Union Congress . A woman ahead of her time, one could say.
In the same year, Black was among those who supported and organised the ‘matchgirls’ strike’, when action by women and girl workers at the Bryant and May factory led to the whole workplace stopping production. It also led to an increased awareness of the serious dangers faced by the women in the factory.
Writing and oratory
Black campaigned passionately for better working conditions and equal pay for women. She fought for the rights of women to join trade unions and used her skills as an orator and as a writer to persuade others of the need for change.
As editor of the Women’s Industrial News from 1895, she sent other women to look at working conditions and by 1914, 117 trades had been investigated and reported upon. Her report, Married Women’s Work (1915), drew attention to the mistreatment of women workers.
Clementina Black proved that words could evoke change, her accomplished writings spreading the word and gathering support for her causes. In addition to writing seven novels, including A Sussex Idyl, her political works were highly regarded by social activists of the time.
Given her obvious social conscience, it was predictable that Black would become actively involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), a powerful organisation for whom she edited their weekly publication, The Common Cause.
In 1913, Black took part in a rally of over 50,000 people in Hyde Park, the culmination of women walking from all over the country, including Sussex, which came to be known as the Suffrage Pilgrimage. She helped to secure 257,00 signatures on a petition regarding votes for women, no mean feat at a time with limited means of transport, no internet and low literacy rates.
An important legacy
Throughout her life, Black tirelessly campaigned for the improved conditions for working women, arguing that they should be represented in trade unions, and above all that in a democracy, women should have equal rights to men in terms of the vote.
Although not as famous as many militant suffragettes, we must not underestimate the influence of Clementina Black and others like her in the movement for change. A true feminist and advocate of equality, she deserves to be remembered and respected as an important figure in the women’s movement. A blue plaque in Ship Street, Brighton, commemorates her life.