Manchester has long been at the forefront of innovation in the United Kingdom, from the first working computer and the discovery of the atom to being at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. However, many of the histories of Manchester have focused on the men who left their mark on the city, and have forgotten the many inspiring women who have lived in the Capital of the North. For this reason, we have decided to shed some light on the contributions of inspiring female figures in the city.
Marie Stopes made academic history when she was appointed as the first female academic on the faculty of the University of Manchester in 1904. At the age of just 23, Stopes lectured in the incredibly confusing field of Paleobotany, where she focused her research on coal seams in the north to advance several scientific theories.
Stope’s academic research distinctly pivoted from geology and coal balls to birth control. Although her career paved a revolutionary path for women in the former, it was her campaigning for better birth control options for women which helped to shape the modern world.
She believed that women should be offered birth control to help slow down the cycle of pregnancy and motherhood, and that marriage should be a joyful, equal relationship between a man and a woman who were in love and respected each other. This proclamation, which was the subject of her book Married Love, was rejected by several publishers for being too controversial.
Stopes founded the first birth control clinic in Britain in 1921. The clinic was originally planned to be opened in Manchester, but it was relocated to London. The free clinic was aimed at mothers and families from the lower classes. It offered knowledge and advice about reproductive health and birth control.
Although some of Stope’s campaigning choices and beliefs are controversial, her other work proved to better the contraceptive options open to women, and to raise awareness about women’s reproductive health and rights.
Probably the most well-known Suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Moss Side in 1858. She was first introduced to the idea of women’s suffrage at the age of 14, and went on to hold the first meeting of the Women’s Franchise League in her house in 1889.
Early in her activist career, Pankhurst worked with numerous political organisations, such as the Women’s Liberation Federation and the Independent Labour Party. As well as her work as a Suffragette, Pankhurst also distributed food to the poor in Manchester and was elected as the Poor Law Guardian in Chorlton-upon-Medlock in 1894.
Pankhurst went on to campaign extensively for women to have the right to vote in the United Kingdom, which was achieved for those over 30 in 1918. In 1903, she co-founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, which went on to protest against poor suffrage reforms and became known for its militant activity. Despite debates about her forms of protest, Pankhurst is widely celebrated for her contributions to women achieving the right to vote.
You can still appreciate Pankhurst’s impact on the city of Manchester in St Peter’s Square, where a statue of the famous political activist stands proudly opposite Central Library. The Pankhurst Centre is also open to visitors as “the only museum dedicated to telling the story of women’s fight for the right to vote.”
Born in Oldham, Manchester in 1924, Maisie Mosco was a Jewish teacher, editor and writer. Her family had emigrated to Manchester, which is a central plotline in Mosco’s novel trilogy. The three books, known as The Almonds and Raisins series, were published within a three-year timespan and centre around a Jewish family fleeing from the Russian Empire after a series of pogroms.
During the Second World War, Mosco taught illiterate soldiers how to read and from the late 1940s onwards, Mosco edited the Jewish Gazette which was a Manchester-based Jewish newspaper with weekly editions. She also wrote radio plays for the BBC.
As her talent in writing grew, Mosco wrote a number of novels towards the end of the 20th century. The books offer numerous insights into the Mosco family’s history and provide an interesting perspective on being persecuted for one’s identity.
While there is little information available about her, she clearly led a fascinating and varied life. Her strong sense of responsibility shines through her achievements, which aimed to uplift and empathise with others, particularly within the Jewish community.
Born in Jamaica in 1938, Lusie Da-Cocodia MBE was an anti-racism campaigner, as well as the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Manchester. Da-Cocodia arrived in Britain in 1955 to train as a nurse in the NHS, and worked in the role for many decades.
In 1966, she became the first Black senior nursing officer in the city of Manchester. She was appointed as Assistant Superintendent of District Nurses, yet continued to experience racism from colleagues. In the next decade, she served on regional Race Relations Board committees and is celebrated for taking on many community-based roles in Manchester, such as Voluntary Action Manchester.
Da-Cocodia was awarded an MBE in 2005 for services to the people of Manchester and had been previously awarded an honorary Master’s degree by Victoria University in 1989. She co-founded the Louise Da-Cocodia Education Trust to approve the opportunities for young people in the city, meaning that her legacy lives on strongly in Manchester to this day.
Mrs Archibald Little
Mrs Archibald Little, an author, women’s rights advocate and social campaigner, challenged expectations throughout her life. Published in 1885, Little’s book Mother Darling! offered a counter-narrative to the distressing impacts of the Married Women’s Property Act which allowed men to strip women from “his” property and of her own parental rights. The book brought about a change in marital law in 1893, which allowed married women to access the same property rights as unmarried women.
After Little and her husband moved from Manchester to China in the late 1880s, Little was exposed to many Chinese social customs and norms; some of which she challenged. One of Little’s most revolutionary impacts was her opposition to the traditional Chinese practice of foot-binding. Women’s and girls’ feet were broken and then bound by cloth to achieve a ‘lotus flower,’ which was believed to be a symbol of status, a sign of beauty, and a proposition of marriage in late imperial China.
Little viewed this practice as something which damaged women’s autonomy and agency, which led her to establish the Natural Foot Society in 1898. For over a decade, Little aspired to elevate women’s rights and status in China to afford them the right to a choice, as often foot-binding was done by male members of the family while the girl was under the age of five.
Her society published photographs of what was being done to Chinese girls and women to raise awareness in Europe. She also delivered talks in major cities such as Hong Kong, spoke to bound and unbound women to understand their perspectives, and wrote about the practice.
Little’s work as a campaigner is regarded as one of the main contributory reasons for China’s modernisation after the fall of the Qing dynasty.
Carol Ann Duffy
Despite being born in Glasgow in 1955, Carol Ann Duffy has played a significant role in the long literary history of Manchester and is one of the most well-regarded poets of the last decade.
Duffy has published numerous poetry collections throughout a career spanning over 40 years. Some of her most celebrated works include The Other Country, Feminine Gospels, and The World’s Wife, and she has also written a number of plays.
Duffy was made Poet Laureate for Great Britain from 2009-2019, and was the first woman to hold the position. She has been repeatedly celebrated as being at the forefront of literature in post-war England, as well as for her writing from a distinctly feminist perspective.
Duffy is currently living and working in Manchester, and works as Professor and Creative Director of the Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.