It’s 2016. Its International Women’s Day and I’m thinking of you, as I often do. You passed away seventy years ago. I wanted to let you know that your life and your work and your legacy are still significant, still talked about and still inspiring action.
I wanted to tell you how much I admire your bravery in speaking out against the exploitation of ‘factory girls’ by your employers. I have poured over the letters you sent to the Crewe Chronicle that summer in 1894, when you were 24 year old, and a tailoress. You risked so much in continuing to write about the inequalities in pay and working conditions. Eventually, your identity was discovered and you were fired. That act took courage and skill (your letters are utterly persuasive and fiercely written).
I wanted to say that after you left the factory your campaigning for the political representation of the working classes was inspirational. You canvassed support for the Independent Labour Party for many, many years. You travelled across the North of England and Scotland, wherever there was an ILP candidate standing in a by-election, you were there, addressing the crowds, encouraging men to vote in elections that you yourself had no right to vote in. That must have been bitter. You had the foresight to see that the vote was coming. You wanted to establish a party for working people so when women did get the right to vote, working women would have representation in a Labour parliament.
I look at the grainy photographs of you on the steps of the Clarion Van in 1896 (a converted soup van turned campaign vehicle) or of you on the hustings at the Crewe by-election in 1912, towering over the men and boys in the crowd, and I wonder at your energy and commitment.
All the while you were organising for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, writing letters and fiction too, giving talks, never stopping. And all the while you were raising your daughter.
I follow your work through endless archives of newspapers, magazines, political pamphlets and I see your relationship with the NUWSS tested by the advent of war and their turn towards supporting the war effort at the expense of campaigning for women’s political rights. I so admire that you chose not to compromise your pacifism and I’m glad you found a home in the Women’s International Society for Peace and Freedom. You fed and cared for all those mothers and infants left impoverished by war and absent, unemployed, injured or killed husbands and fathers.
I hope that in your later years between the wars as you travelled all over the world you found much beauty, peace and happiness, and maybe even some restfulness, though I wonder if that came naturally to you?
Really, I’m writing to say ‘thank you’. I have all of the freedoms you fought for. I was born 33 years after you left this world, in a small village in East Lothian in a working class family. I stayed in school until I was 17 (you, by necessity, left at 11) then I went to university. I got a degree, then another, then a doctoral degree. I am employed in a university (where students read your writings). I have children of my own. I travel freely. I own my own body and my own voice. I vote. I am fortunate beyond words. But so many women and girls are not so fortunate, even today, I’m sorry to tell you, they don’t have the opportunities open to me. There’s still a lot to do Ada.
I hope, however, you’ll be glad to know that, with a dear colleague and friend, Orlagh McCabe, I visit schools around Crewe and talk with the local children about your dedication to equality and peace. The kids draw pictures and write letters and poems inspired by you, and we take those responses in a ‘travelling exhibition’ around universities, libraries, museums, conferences and events of all kinds. We will write about your work, ensure your name is said aloud in important places, and we’ll carry on the campaign for equal citizenship.
So, that’s where we are in 2016, walking in your footsteps and still fighting. Thank you for starting the journey and for taking us so far, and thank you for accompanying us as we go on.
With love and gratitude, Kirsty.