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The First World War (WWI) was a watershed period for women’s freedoms and their enfranchisement. By the time WWI broke out in 1914, Cleveland was one of the most important iron producing districts in England, producing one quarter of the national output of pig iron. Whilst many men volunteered to fight, by 1916 men were conscripted into the army, but in important industries such as mining, workers were considered to be in ‘reserved occupations’, meaning their roles were vital on the home front. In many industries, however, war brought about a rare opportunity for women to redefine the concept of citizenship, which was fundamental in their success of obtaining the right to vote in 1918. It can be suggested the war lead to their emancipation as they were able to enjoy more freedoms, such as enter the male workplace to fill gaps left by men leaving for the frontlines, and display their patriotism which ultimately became a qualification for the right to vote.

Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) existed in Cleveland, and one group in Skinningrove posed for an image outside of Skinningrove Chapel in support of votes for women. Adela Pankhurst also delivered patriotic speeches at rallies in Loftus and Redcar campaigning for the right to vote in 1909. However, as the war began in 1914, the Pankhurst’s, members of the WSPU and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NU) moved away from protest and instead fully committed to the war effort and used their renown to draw attention to the patriotic service of the women of Britain during WWI. At the Samuelson Works in Middlesbrough, like many other sites in Cleveland, women worked above ground cleaning and breaking down ore that would fuel the Entente’s victory over Germany and Austria-Hungary. By rallying behind the nation in the face of war, feminists throughout the country made the explicit link between national service and women’s enfranchisement.

War gave women the opportunity to explore freedoms that were once restricted to them. They entered masculine jobs and displayed their patriotism. As a result of the service displayed by the women of Cleveland and their support and dedication in campaigning for women’s suffrage, the Representation of the People Act became law in 1918, granting the vote to the 8.4 million women over 30 who had property, making it a pivotal moment in women’s history.

This article was written by our collections volunteer Leah Watson.


East Cleveland Archive, ‘Votes for Women’, 1909. Available at: [Accessed 24 March 2021].

Fawcett, Millicent Garrett, The Women’s Victory - and After: Personal Reminiscences, 1911- 1918 (London: Sigwick & Jackson Ltd).

Gullace, Nicoletta, The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, ‘Suffragists’ Campaign’, 3 July 1909, p. 3. Available at: [Accessed 23 March 2021].

Robb, George, British Culture and the First World War (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

Schedule of Protected Occupations (London: The Stationery Office, 1918), The National Archives, Central Military Service Tribunal and Middlesex Appeal Tribunal: Minutes and Papers, MH 47/142/3, pp. 7-9.