Elizabeth Wolstenholme, the daughter of a Methodist minister from Eccles, was born on 15th December 1833. Elizabeth's brother Joseph received an expensive private education and eventually became professor of mathematics at Cambridge University. The Rev. Wolstenholme held traditional views on girls schooling and Elizabeth only received two years of formal education.
After the death of both her parents, her guardians refused permission for Elizabeth to attend the newly opened, Bedford College for Women. Elizabeth decided to educate herself at home until she gained her inheritance at the age of nineteen. In 1853 Elizabeth purchased her own girls' boarding school in Worsley, Lancashire.
Elizabeth believed that teaching was a highly skilled occupation that needed special training. In 1865 Elizabeth Wolstenholme joined with other women schoolteachers in her area to form the Manchester Schoolmistresses' Association. Two years later Elizabeth and Josephine Butler helped establish the North of England Council for the Higher Education of Women. This organisation provided lectures and examinations for women who wanted to become schoolteachers.
Wolstenholme felt passionate about improving the quality of women's education. In 1869 Josephine Butler asked Elizabeth to contribute an article on education for her book Women's Work and Women's Culture. The article criticised middle class parents for their lack of interest in their daughter's education and set out her plans for a system of high schools for girls in every town in Britain.
In 1864 Parliament passed the Contagious Diseases Act. This act required women suspected of being prostitutes to undergo compulsory medical examination. If the women were suffering from venereal disease they were placed in a locked hospital until cured. Elizabeth Wolstenholme considered this law discriminated against women, as the legislation contained no similar sanctions against men. Elizabeth and Josephine Butler decided to form the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Elizabeth took the view that it would be impossible to have legislation like this reformed until after women had the vote.
In 1865 eleven women in London formed a discussion group called the Kensington Society . Nine of the eleven women were unmarried and were attempting to pursue a career in education or medicine. The group included Elizabeth Wolstenholme, Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, Francis Mary Buss, Dorothea Beale, Anne Clough, Helen Taylor and Elizabeth Garrett. At one of the meetings the women discussed the topic of parliamentary reform. The women thought it was unfair that women were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections. They therefore decided to draft a petition asking Parliament to grant women the vote.
The women took their petition to Henry Fawcett and John Stuart Mill, two MPs who supported universal suffrage. Mill added an amendment to the Reform Act that would give women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73. Members of the Kensington Society were very disappointed when they heard the news and they decided to form the London Society for Women's Suffrage. Soon afterwards similar societies were formed in other large towns in Britain. Eventually seventeen of these groups joined together to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.
In 1868 Elizabeth became secretary of the Married Women's Property Committee. The main objective was to change the common law doctrine of coverture to include the wife’s right to own, buy and sell her separate property. Elizabeth served alongside Josephine Butler and Richard Pankhurst on the executive committee of the organization.
In the early 1870s Elizabeth became friendly with Benjamin Elmy, a poet from Congleton. The couple lived together and in 1874 she became pregnant. Some members of the Married Women's Property Committee believed that Wolstenholme should resign as they felt the scandal was harming the women's movement. Josephine Butler sent a letter to women leaders defending their behaviour. "They have sinned against no law of Purity. They went through a most solemn ceremony and vow before witnesses. I knew of this true marriage before God - early in 1874. It would have been a legal marriage in Scotland. They blundered; but their whole action was grave and pure. The English marriage laws are impure. English law… sins against the law of purity. It is a species of legal prostitution the woman being the man's property." Lydia Becker was not convinced by these arguments and resigned from the committee.
Elizabeth Wolstenholme, who was pregnant at the time, married Elmy at Kensington Register Office in October 1874. The wedding was a civil ceremony and true to her principals, Elizabeth refused to make a promise of obedience to her husband. She also refused to wear a wedding ring or to give up her surname. Three months after their marriage, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. According to Sylvia Pankhurst, Elmy was, "a stout, sallow man" who "intensely resented and never forgave" the suffragettes for interfering in his affairs. One of her close friends, Harriet McIlquham, later argued that "her life with Mr Elmy has been one of mixed happiness and sorrow... In many ways I believe he has been a great intellectual help to her, and in other ways a great tax on her energies."
Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was a great believer in presenting petitions to Parliament. She claimed to have personally communicated with 10,000 people and nearly 500,000 leaflets. Her work resulted in the collection of 90,000 signatures demanding changes in the law. The Married Women's Property Committee eventually managed to persuade the House of Commons and the House of Lords to pass the Married Women's Property Act (1882). Another one of her campaigns resulted in the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1886), which improved the custody rights of mothers.
In 1889 Elizabeth joined Richard Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst and Ursula Bright, to form the Women's Franchise League. Elizabeth, like Richard and Emmeline, was also a member of the Manchester branch of the Independent Labour Party. However, she was constantly in conflict with Bright, who was a member of the Liberal Party. After one dispute with Bright she resigned from the Franchise League and told Harriet McIlquham she did "not intend ever again to take any part whatever in political action on behalf of women.". She did not keep to her pledge and within a year had established another suffrage group, the Women's Emancipation Union.
By the early 1900s Elizabeth had become very critical of what she called the "fiddle-faddling" of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and was one of the first people to join the Women's Social and Political Union. However, Elizabeth was now in her seventies and was not able to take any actions that would result in her going to prison. She wrote: "I am old and hope many mornings that the end may be soon and sudden - and indeed I am so tired in brain, head and body, that I long for rest."
In February 1906, Elizabeth wrote to a friend that her husband was "too weak to sit up even to have his bed made". Louisa Martindale wrote to Harriet McIlquham asking if she can "manage all the nursing herself?" Benjamin Elmy died the following month.
In an attempt to put pressure on the government, the Women Social & Political Union (WSPU) decided to organise a Women's Coronation Procession march through London on 17th June 1911, just before King George V's coronation. It is estimated that over 40,000 women marched to seventy-five bands and held over a thousand embroidered and painted banners. The 78-year-old, Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, was the guest of honour. It was claimed that as the oldest militant suffragist still alive she had "spent 46 years of her life in fighting for the vote."
Elizabeth became concerned about the increasing use of violence by the WSPU. She wrote to the Manchester Guardian in July, 1912: "Now that our cause is on the verge of success, I wish to add my protest against the madness which seems to have seized a few persons whose anti-social and criminal actions would seem designed to wreck the whole movement ... I appeal to our friends in the ministry and in Parliament not to be deterred from setting right a great wrong by the folly or criminality of a few persons." However, unlike other critics of its arson campaign, Elizabeth refused to resign from the WSPU.
Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy died, aged eighty-four, in a Manchester nursing home on 12th March 1918 after falling down the stairs and hitting her head. Six days earlier, the Qualification of Women Act had been passed by Parliament. The Manchester Guardian reported that she had lived long enough to be told the good news.
Nothing is more plainly to be seen by those who will open their eyes than three things: (1) That a very large proportion of women do not marry. (2) That of those who do marry, a very considerable proportion are not supported by their husbands. (3) That upon a very large number of widows… the burden of self-maintenance and of the maintenance of their children is thrown.
They have sinned against no law of Purity. They went through a most solemn ceremony and vow before witnesses. I knew of this true marriage before God - early in 1874. It would have been a legal marriage in Scotland. They blundered; but their whole action was grave and pure. The English marriage laws are impure. English law… sins against the law of purity. It is a species of legal prostitution the woman being the man's property.
English parents, who are apathetic and irrational enough about the education of their boys, are much more so when the education of their girls… Fashion has stamped its approval upon certain external accomplishments and graces. The period during which social triumphs can be achieved is short and fleeting… Mothers say that their little daughters must not be troubled with the halfpennies and farthings in her arithmetic, because, "it will not help her to get married"… How to deal with these difficulties in the case of parents is the standing perplexity of teachers. We must confess that we see no hope for immediate reformation. It is only by the greater extension of education itself that education will come to be rightly valued, and in this way the task of the teachers of the next generation will be far easier and pleasanter one than that of teachers of today.
Women demand our immediate enfranchisement on the same terms as men because we have, by long and painful experience, proved the absolute impossibility of securing any further redress of the many legal wrongs from which we still suffer, and because we fully realise the great danger of further careless, mischievous, and unjust legislation, greatly imperilling the well-being of women.
I wish to add my protest against the madness which seems to have seized a few persons whose anti-social and criminal actions would seem designed to wreck the whole movement ... I appeal to our friends in the ministry and in Parliament not to be deterred from setting right a great wrong by the folly or criminality of a few persons.
Sitting by my side is a woman who this month celebrates the 43rd anniversary of her work in this movement. She could tell us that if it had not been for this new militant agitation she would have left this life with a broken heart, because she would have felt that the whole of her life work had been a failure. It is about time that the House of Commons got rushed a bit!
Several women might easily have claimed to be the mothers of the suffragette movement, but few with as much justification as Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Aged seventy when the militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began breathing its fire on the body politic in 1903, she comfortably jumped the divide between the old and the new. She spent the last decades of the nineteenth century whipping, cajoling and entreating the suffrage movement into being, and the early years of the twentieth gleefully celebrating the birth of its delinquent child. The militants honoured her with a special title: "Nestor of the Woman Suffrage Movement". But in her long political life she had experienced far more grind than glory. To say this extraordinary woman worked tirelessly to improve the lot of her sisters would be an almost laughable understatement. Well into her seventies she continued to rise daily at 3 a.m. to put in six or eight hours of political work before starting the washing, cooking and other housework that were her lot as a far from wealthy woman.
Mrs. Elmy, one of the most wonderful women who devoted her life and her intellectual powers to the cause of the emancipation of women, paid constant visits to London from her home in Cheshire, with the object of stirring up what seemed to be the dying embers of suffrage activities. She knew all the Members of Parliament who had at any time expressed in words, or who had helped with pen or with action our cause; and at the time of these visits to London (usually at the period of the promised debates in Parliament on a Suffrage Bill), she would visit these Members in the Lobby and do her best to stir them into action. The late Mr. Stead, who was a great admirer of hers, would frequently help her to get up small private meetings of sympathisers and workers, and all of us who were looking for a lead in suffrage matters, welcomed these quaint and earnest appearances of hers in London, and derived encouragement from her experience of Parliamentary procedure and intense spiritual enthusiasm. She usually stayed at my house when she came to town, and I had the privilege of accompanying her when she interviewed Members of Parliament or other sympathisers. She must have been then between sixty and seventy, very small and fragile, with the brightest and keenest dark eyes and a face surrounded with little white ringlets. She was an old friend of and fellow-worker with Josephine Butler and of John Stuart Mill, and in those days had been an habituée of what was then known as the “Ladies’ Gallery” in the House of Commons. There, behind the grille, where they could see but not be seen by the Members of the House, these and other devoted women had sat night after night listening to the debates on the Contagious Diseases Acts, which raised questions that concerned their sex as much, if not more, than they did that of the men who were discussing them. This loyalty in the cause of their fellow-women who, they realised, suffered so severely under the C.D. Acts, brought them insult and opprobrium, but it also brought them many of the truest and loyalest friends that women ever possessed; and, as we know, the cause they stood for triumphed in the end.
My friendship with Mrs. Elmy and work with her continued during many years and our correspondence, between the periods of her visits to town, was continuous; I was keeping her au courant with what was going on in London, and she interpreting, encouraging, sending me voluminous newspaper cuttings and helping forward my work in every way in her power with loving counsels and wisest advice. She never faltered in her belief that women’s political enfranchisement was very near at hand, although, time and again, politicians betrayed and jockeyed us, while men who feared our influence in public life, insulted our efforts and talked out our Bills. Mrs. Browning wrote: “It takes a soul to move a body,” and I often thought that it was the little white hovering soul of Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy which eventually moved a somewhat inert mass of suffrage endeavour and set it on the road of militant activity. At any rate, she hailed with delight the work of the “Women’s Social and Political Union,” which flared up like a torch in Manchester under the guidance of Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters, and in London, under that of a group of women, myself included, who undertook to attend political meetings and question speakers about their intentions towards the enfranchisement of women, keeping that before the meeting as our supreme aim and if necessary, holding up proceedings until an answer was obtained. Early in 1906 Christabel Pankhurst wrote me from Manchester that Annie Kenney was coming up to town to help us carry on the fight and she wanted to find a place to stay at in the East End of London, where she could get into touch with East End working women. As I was already in touch with many of these women, I was able to find the place Annie Kenney required with Mrs. Baldock, the wife of a fitter, at 10, Eclipse Road, Canning Town, and she and Teresa Billington helped much in our London work. Before this, however, some of us had been on a deputation to Mr. Campbell Bannerman in Downing Street, and the illustrated papers came out with pictures of a group of us, including Mrs. Drummond, Mrs. Davidson, Mrs. Rowe and myself, standing on the steps of No. 10, Downing Street, trying to persuade the elderly manservant to let us in and interview the Prime Minister. We had a long and rather amusing argument with this manservant, who evidently was at his wits’ end to know what to do with us, so politely pertinacious were we. Finally, after closing the door on us more than once, while he went into the house with our messages, he returned to say that Mr. Ponsonby, the Prime Minister’s Secretary, would see two of us, and Mrs. Drummond and myself were deputed to interview him, while the rest of the deputation remained on the doorstep. Our interview was not wholly successful, inasmuch as we could obtain no definite promise that the Prime Minister would receive a deputation, but I think we succeeded in making Mr. Ponsonby understand that we were in deadly earnest about the matter and that if we did not get some definite Governmental promise or assurance that the Liberals, for whom women had worked so loyally to place in power, would fulfil their pre-electoral pledges, we would find other means, unconstitutional if necessary, to force them to do so.