Untold Stories: Women of Faith in the Suffragette Movement

Over sixty participants from diverse faiths attended the ‘Untold Stories: Women of Faith in the Suffragette Movement’ at the Edinburgh Storytelling Centre. Religions for Peace UK Women of Faith Network hosted the event in partnership with Interfaith Scotland during Scottish Interfaith Week to highlight the (less commonly known) stories of women of faith who fought for equality and for women to have voting rights in the UK.

Dr Maureen Sier the Director of Interfaith Scotland welcomed participants, then introduced Ms Aileen Campbell the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government. She spoke of the importance of hearing stories of remarkable women who supported the movement in Scotland and thanked Ravinder Kaur Nijjar Chair of Religions for Peace UK Women of Faith Network and Dr Maureen Sier for taking this initiative forward.

Katherine Gilmour, the Gender Justice officer at the Church of Scotland related the first story. She spoke of Dr Dorothea Chalmers Smith a pioneering doctor and a militant Scottish suffragette. Her husband Rev. William Chalmers Smith did not welcome her enthusiasm for militancy and believed that a woman’s place was in the home. She was imprisoned for her activities and divorced from her husband after the First World War taking her three daughters but not being allowed to see her three sons again.

Ravinder Kaur spoke of a Royal Sikh suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs and the god-daughter of Queen Victoria. On 18th November 1910, she played an important role in the first deputation (march) to Parliament alongside Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and other prominent female figures. She was extremely active in publicity campaigns, an enthusiastic fund-raiser, and a regular seller of the The Suffragette, the WSPU newspaper outside Hampton Court. She was a resounding supporter of the Tax Resistance League and in 1913, summoned to court for refusing to pay taxes. She is quoted saying:

“If I am not a fit person to vote then whyshould I be a fit person for taxation?”

May Pollok Grant’s story was told by Mirella Yandoli the Interfaith Programme Officer for the Church of Scotland. After returning from India in 1911, May worked for women’s rights in Dundee as a member of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. She caused disruption in many political meetings for which she was imprisoned. Throughout 1913 and 1914, she wrote numerous letters to the press and was frequently ejected from public meetings for causing a disturbance but stayed firm in her dedication to the cause.

After hearing the stories, participants were given an opportunity for dialogue, to discuss what they found inspiring and most challenging in hearing the three stories. The discussion then lead onto whether they voted in elections and the importance of voting.

A further two events will take place in February during World Interfaith Harmony Week and in March during International Women’s Week. In March, a resource containing all the untold stories of faith in the suffragette movement will be launched as well as a discussion on human rights issues affecting women today.

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