16. Lydia Becker juggled campaigning for women’s votes in Britain with being a scientist and contributor to the work of Charles Darwin
When they were campaigning for women in Britain to be given the vote, the Suffragettes were often dismissed as bored, âsilly’ housewives without the intellect or sophistication to understand politics. Such a change could never be leveled at Lydia Becker. For as well as being a leading figure in the votes-for-women movement, Becker also possessed a fine scientific mind. Indeed, had she been born in more enlightened times, she might be better remembered for being a biologist rather than for her accomplishments as a feminist.
Born into a family of German immigrants in Manchester in 1827, Becker was educated at home. However, this was not enough to satisfy her fierce intellectual curiosity. As a young lady, then, she taught herself botany and biology. She submitted articles to leading journals with some success. What’s more, she corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin and even contributed her own research and ideas to his work. Alongside this, she also became increasingly involved with the burgeoning feminist movement of the time.
After establishing the Ladies’ Literary Society of Manchester – and even convincing Darwin to share original work with the feminist group – she was an active participant in the first public meeting of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, also held in Manchester. She toured the cities of northern Britain, lecturing on women’s rights and suffrage. She also established the Women’s Suffrage Journal and even went so far as to call for unmarried women to be given the vote – something even many ardent feminists of the time were against. Thanks to Becker’s work, some municipalities allowed women to vote in local elections from the 1870s onwards.
Notably, one of Becker’s many talks was attended by Emmeline Pankhust, who was inspired to take up the cause of votes-for-women herself. Pankhurst would, of course, go on to become a leading figure of the later Suffragette movement that succeeded in getting the vote for women in 1918. Becker died in 1890 while she was holidaying in the south of France. She was aged just 63.