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The Struggle for Women’s Rights in the Northeast - and across the World

The struggle for women’s rights has been going on in the Northeast England for many centuries.  The Northeast played a major role in the fight for women to have the vote and indeed one of the most prominent of all Suffragettes had roots deep in the soil of the region where her body now lies.   Meanwhile similar struggles for women’s rights are still taking place across the world today.

It has been noted that the struggle for women’s rights in North-east England can be traced back to at least 1417.  In that year, two young women from Newcastle, by the names of Matilda Usher and Margaret Burgh struck a blow for women’s rights long before the issue of universal suffrage arose. It had traditionally been thought that St. Cuthbert didn’t like women around him and after he was buried in Durham Cathedral it was decreed that women were not allowed to approach the shrine at the east end of the hallowed building.  Margaret and Matilda dressed up in male clothes and managed to get into the forbidden area.  They were caught and forced to walk in the same clothes in front of a procession to St Nicholas’ Church, whilst the master and mistress of the two girls were ordered to attend the spiritual court at Durham where they were charged with aiding and abetting Matilda and Margaret.  (1)

It was to be many centuries before women like Matilda and Margaret, who refused to accept their second-class status, would be in a position where they could really start to demand equal rights. People of the region fought hard for male suffrage during the nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century, as suffrage was extended to nearly all males, so women in North-east England were also beginning to demand their democratic rights. Indeed, it was in 1900 when the Newcastle and District Women’s Suffrage Society was formed by Mona Taylor of Chipchase Castle.  Soon Mona was busy walking the streets of Tyneside speaking at meetings in workplaces, factories and just sometimes in those very same streets.

In 1890 Mona Taylor took part in a conference, “to appeal to M.P.s for women’s rights” and towards the end of the same year she organised a conference of workers at Newcastle and chaired meetings when Millicent Fawcett toured the region. on behalf of the Central National Society for Women’s Suffrage.  The following year Mona became Vice President of the CNSWS and wrote a leaflet entitled, ‘Why Women Want Suffrage’ and it is reported that the CNSWS was very pleased with her as 45 000 of these leaflets were distributed.  However, in those early days, it was still acknowledged that no real headway had been made and most women were still unaware of the suffrage issue.  Indeed Mona Taylor summed up 25 years of agitation by stating that,

                “and what chance, I ask you, have we of getting Women’s

                Suffrage, or of having numbers of women at elections

                pressing M.P.s for the suffrage, when we have all that

                much country unconcerned about it – unconverted? And

                how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall

                they preach except they be sent?  That is our problem today.”



It wasn’t long before Mona began to find a number of influential supporters; other women who were tired of being treated as second-class citizens. This group included, Lisbeth Sim, who was married to an ILP organiser, the schoolmistress Florence Harrison Bell and also two female doctors who shared a practice and the same first name, Ethel Williams and Ethel Bentham, the latter going on to become a Labour M.P.    Their meeting place soon became settled as the Drawing Room café in Fenwick’s department store in Newcastle.   This was a genteel setting for this potentially revolutionary movement but as we shall see, not all the women, who were becoming known as ‘suffragettes’, were to be quite so genteel in their tactics.

Over the ensuing eight years the group grew, to such an extent that as so often happens with successful movements, it split in 1908.  Some of them joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), headed nationally by Emmeline Pankhurst, while the rest went to join the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who were led by Millicent Fawcett.  1908 was also marked by a major public meeting on the Town Moor in Newcastle, when 3 000 women attended a rally, before, “marching down – banners flying – to Central Station to greet two women who’d just been released from a spell in prison for the cause of women’s suffrage.” (3)  Martin Luther King in his posthumously published autobiography, related how he too faced difficulties caused by splits in the movement, which he and others were building in the cause of civil rights.  He is noted as saying that, “we were seeking to bring about a great social change which could only be achieved through united effort.  Yet our community was divided…”  (4)   

We have already seen that solidarity is an important part of any movement striving for social change.  Trade unions did better, when they were united and the cohesion of the movements for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery and the struggle for wider male suffrage did much to help them achieve their objectives.  How did the women's movement fare after the split in 1908?  

The NUWSS was originally dominated by Liberal women who didn’t want to embarrass the Liberal government of the early 20th century. However, there were still a large amount of opportunities for the movement to develop in the region in the Edwardian era.   The NUWSS was led by Mona Taylor, a woman described as forceful, who drove the organisation on.  Another factor to bear in mind was that unlike other parts of the country, Liberalism in North-east England couldn’t afford to alienate the working-classes, as there were too many miners who supported the Liberals in the years leading up to the First World War, which was to be the watershed, after which the Labour Party came to dominate North-east politics.  As it happened this dominance of the Liberal Party in North-east England was to be challenged before the war. 

Those who attended the meetings did tend to be the more genteel elements of the North East female population, perhaps because it was the better off ladies who could afford to travel to meetings further afield.  (5) This did not stop the Newcastle Society supporting the election campaign of John Johnson, who was a committed suffragist and an official of the Durham Miners Association.  This last fact had not made him popular with the more traditional Liberals in the region, but this was of no great concern to the Newcastle Society.  Indeed Newcastle was seen to be ahead of the game nationally,  as was demonstrated by a 1911 review, Common Cause, which argued that, “What Newcastle thinks today, the National Union will think tomorrow”, (6)  Yet again we can see Newcastle and the North-east leading the way in a national movement. 

It has been noted that the leadership of the women’s movement in the North-East was “distinctly middle to upper class” (7) Perhaps one of the reasons for this was the male dominated nature of working-class society in North-east England.  Unlike some other industrial regions, such as Lancashire, where the female workforce in the cotton mills was very important, the industrial base of North-East England was dominated by heavy industries which largely employed men in what were seen as very masculine trades, such as coalmining, iron and steel production and shipbuilding. Following on from this, it has been noted that, “the wage packet, and how and where that wage packet was earned, played a major part in the development of Tyneside’s cultural and social ethos”. (8)  Consequently, it is argued that this state of affairs, “went hand in hand with an enthusiastic adoption and approval of the Victorian domestic model – the man as bread winner and the woman as wife and mother.” (9)  It is further argued that the idea that women didn’t ‘work’ was clearly established as a, “social tenet and community ideal”. (10)  This cannot have made it easy for many women to challenge the status quo, where men were seen as ‘worthy’ of being given the vote as they earned the money and the fact that women were not allowed to vote in the early years of the 20th century was in the eyes of many simply reflecting their second-class social status. No wonder then that it was for the most part only the more wealthy and educated women in the region who had the confidence to challenge the male-dominated political system.

Accordingly, those who did challenge the status quo included the Irish-born Lady Parsons, wife of prominent industrialist Sir Charles Parsons and Lady Blake, the wife of Sir Francis Blake.  Perhaps it was the background of so many of the activists, which helped to set the tone of much of their work, including on one occasion, a missive, which asked, “’will ladies with large kitchens sometimes arrange a meeting for servants and their friends?’” (11)  This was the genteel wing of human rights campaigning in the region.

There are others who argue that as the movement grew however, so the suffragette movement in the region became more working-class.  One reflection of the fact that the suffragette movement in the region was more working-class than in other regions was the fact that the Newcastle Society was the first local society to work with the National Union to campaign for a change in election policy from support for the Liberals to the Labour Party.  This was not accepted nationally, but recognition was given to the strong position of Labour women in the movement in the North-east.  However, there were still several prominent suffragettes in the region who came from Liberal families, so there was a split, even though it has been argued that the Socialists had the most enlightened attitudes towards votes for women. (12)  The movement for female suffrage in the region was in danger of failure from its divisions, as many other movements have been across the world.

This is, of course a common theme in many reformist movements for greater human rights throughout the world.  On many occasions there are splits between who want to move more cautiously and those who feel the need to be more militant in their actions.  It is also one of the reasons why movements for human rights often fail; because the splits in them fatally weaken them.   It is a complex philosophical argument as to whether it is correct to potentially threaten other people’s rights in the pursuit of greater human rights for many people.  It can also be argued that non-violence can either be a tactic or a principle. When the Indian National Congress was campaigning for independence from the British Empire Mahatma Gandhi consistently argued that they should follow a policy of non-violence, as a matter of belief, whilst to many in the congress it was merely a tactic.  (13)  In the case of suffragettes in North-east England it seems to have been more a case of background and temperament.  I shall reflect later on both the reasons for and the success of the militant tactics in the suffragette movement in NE England.                    

The Newcastle Society met in the tearoom of the large department store of Fenwick on Northumberland Street. While naturally, suffragism was the main topic of conversation a range of social issues were discussed, including the state of the workhouses. The campaigning which was planned in Fenwick’s went on throughout the region (14), although there was often a dilemma in choosing the right candidate at election times, as it wasn’t always clear which man would best take the issue of women’s votes forward.

As I intimated earlier, not all of the campaigning for women’s suffrage in North-east England was quite so genteel.  There were those who were determined to be more militant and if necessary, strike out at the political establishment by doing damage and being prepared as a consequence to go to prison.  Some of the acts which brought women into direct confrontation with the authorities in the North-east included, cutting telephone wires, burning down the pavilion in Heaton Park, smashing windows in the Globe Theatre in Gosforth, pouring corrosive liquid down letter boxes, and breaking windows in an office of the Northumberland Education Committee. It is also reported that they even, “set off ‘incendiary devices at various places around Tyneside including Barras Bridge Post Office, Gosforth Golf Club and Kenton railway station.” (15) 

As the suffragette movement gathered pace, so militancy increased in intensity over the years, from heckling politicians who were opposed to female suffrage, to more extreme forms of direct action. It is reported that women in the North-east of England were involved in militant action at an early stage.; even before the WSPU was formed. The then Liberal government minister, Winston Churchill was invited to Newcastle on February 4th and 5th 1909 and the Newcastle WPSU was determined to enlighten him on the suffragette issue.  Accordingly, he was harassed from the moment he stepped off the train until the following afternoon, when he received a telegram saying, “lest you forget, Votes for Women must be in the King’s speech, signed Newcastle WSPU.”  (16)  The earlier tactics were being eschewed by a more direct and insistent approach. The tactics were to become more direct when the next cabinet minister dared to come to the city.

It is reported that Kathleen Brown, a militant, was released from prison in July 1909 and was met at the Central Station by 3 landaus and 2 brakes, all decked out in purple, white and green along with a n enormous crowd of supporters there to greet the returning heroine.  The crowd made its way to the Turks Head Hotel where they had a celebration tea, served by staff who all wore ‘Votes for Women’ badges.  This was followed by an open air meeting at the Haymarket when Kathleen spoke about her experience to the crowd, after there had been an initial meeting before Kathleen arrived home. (17) 

Another radical from the region was Marion Coates-Hanson from Middlesbrough in what was then part of Yorkshire.  Deciding that the NUWSS was too sedate and that the WSPU was undemocratic, she joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and helped to make the Middlesbrough branch the most important in Yorkshire.  (18) They were joined by Alice Schofield, a teacher, whose interest in suffragism had been aroused when she witnessed a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester.  Alice worked as a WFL organiser and came to Middlesbrough in 1909. She was speaking at an open-air meeting in Guisborough when she was rescued from a mob throwing rotten eggs and tomatoes, by Charles Coates, the elder brother of Marion Coates- Hanson.  Charles and Alice married, and the two sisters-in-law began working together on Teesside for women’s rights.(19)  They used some innovative and creative techniques.

Indeed. it has been reported that,

                 “both Alice and her sister-in-law Marion remained key members

                 of  the small Middlesbrough WFL branch. While isolated, it prided

                 itself on its democracy, friendships, and tolerance towards other

                 groups. It also staged imaginative suffrage productions. From about

                 1908-9, the Actresses’ Franchise League plays department enriched

                 local campaigns by offering wonderful scripts.  Middlesbrough was

                 one of the WFL branches which was lent  costumes and props so that

                 it could put on performances of A Pageant of Great Women by Cicely

                 Hamilton, herself an early WFL member and founder of the Women

                Writers’ Suffrage League. This pageant was designed to encourage

                suffragettes locally to stage artistic propaganda with minimum professional

                support: Cicely Hamilton even came up to Middlesbrough to play the

                leading role, ‘Woman’. (20)


Back on Tyneside, on October 9th 1912, another cabinet minister was due in Newcastle.  This time it was the Chancellor Lloyd George who was to speak about the budget.  It was decided that 12 activists would respond by throwing stones in order to invite imprisonment.  These twelve disciples of suffragism included the aforementioned Kathleen Brown, Lady Constance Lytton, and Emily Wilding Davison.  Four women smashed windows in the Liberal Club on Pilgrim Street, resulting in their immediate arrest, an appearance in front of magistrates the next morning and a sentence of 14 days hard labour.  As these women were being tried, so the other eight met and one of them, Winnifred Jones, went to the Palace Theatre where Lloyd George was due to speak. There, she threw a stone through a pane of the glass door and was immediately arrested.  It is noted that the scenes that Saturday morning in Newcastle, were unprecedented and the publication, Votes for Women commented that, “all the trouble, turmoil and expense was caused by the presence in town of a dozen women who wished to question Lloyd-George on the government’s attitude to women’s suffrage”. (21) 

Constance Lytton and Emily Davison were then arrested after Lytton threw a stone at the car carrying Lloyd George. When Lloyd George spoke men in the audience took up the cause on behalf of the women, causing Lloyd George increasing discomfort leading to him becoming increasingly annoyed as the speech wore on, leading him to angrily say, “there are many ways of advancing a cause, but I think the very worst I ever heard is angering a great audience like this”. (22)  The success of the militant tactics could perhaps be questioned when one hears this response from Lloyd George, yet there can surely have been no doubt that he got the message which the campaigners wanted him to receive.  There is also the argument which often rages during any movement; should you use more militant and violent tactics when more peaceful methods have seemed to fail?  The new year would see both being used, with the more militant tactics leading to a tragedy involving a woman with Northumbrian roots.

1913 saw a lively and expanding suffragist organisation.  Membership increased in Hexham and Morpeth and there were also new societies in Houghton-le-Spring, Blackhill, Consett, Gosforth, Shotley Bridge, Spennymoor and Benton.  In June 1913 the NUWSS organised marchers from outlying areas to go to a huge demonstration in Hyde Park, London, on the 26th July. There was a meeting at the Haymarket on June 18th after which the North-east contingent left Newcastle to go to London. In all, 100 Newcastle members, holding their banners aloft marched to London, fully 23 years before the more famous Jarrow March.   They held impromptu meetings en route being joined by members of other societies, with the only opposition coming at Spennymoor where some stone throwing was reported.

Another initiative in 1913 in Newcastle was a Town Meeting called by the Lord Mayor, on 30th October from the general public to vote on a resolution about women’s suffrage.  Leading up to the event, there were many meetings held by suffragettes, particularly important for them as anti-suffragist organisers had also recently arrived in the city.  The presence of these campaigners did not prevent the resolution, proposed by Ethel Williams, being carried by a three-to-one majority.

1913 also saw the most iconic and tragic event of the who suffragette movement and there was a strong North-east link: the death of Emily Davidson at the Derby in June 1913.    Emily was not born in Northumberland as is commonly assumed, but rather her birthplace was Blackheath in Essex.  However, her mother was from Northumberland and arguably Emily’s roots were in the North-east.  Emily attended Kensington High School and then Holloway College and seemed to have a glittering academic career ahead of her.  However, while Emily was at Holloway College, her father died and Emily was forced to pay her own way by becoming a governess.  Emily was able to continue her studies on a part-time basis and fulfilled her potential by gaining degrees from both Oxford and London Universities.  Emily joined the WSPU in 1906 and by 1909 she had given up teaching to become a full-time worker for the WSPU.  

Emily proved herself to be no mere talker in her membership of the WSPU.  Indeed between 1909 and 1912, she was imprisoned no less than 7 times and in all but one occasion she went on hunger strike, being forcibly fed during three imprisonments. She rested and convalesced each time at Longhorsley in Northumberland, Emily’s mother having returned to her native county to run a bakery and a sweet shop.  Emily spoke about women’s suffrage on her trips back home and became closer to the Newcastle WSPU members. 

Emily’s longest spell in prison was in 1912, when she spent six months in prison after being arrested in December 1911 for setting fire to pillar boxes. Emily went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed.  She also managed to throw herself over a balcony on three occasions. Emily was very much a woman of action, whose personal motto was ‘deeds not words’.  She saw the need to suffer extreme hardship as part of the struggle and perhaps more ominously it is argued that she had decided that there was a need for a martyr. In an unpublished letter, Emily wrote: “the sacrifice varies according to circumstance.  It may be loss of livelihood, position, wealth, friends, relatives and not least common, loss of health or even possibly life itself.”  (23)

This perhaps explains why she was willing to take a great personal risk at the Derby on 4th June 1913, but it has been argued that this should not mean that it can be assumed that Davison deliberately chose to commit suicide.  Neville has noted that in 1986, the trunk which had belonged to the solicitor appointed by the family at the inquest into Emily’s death, was found and inside were located the possessions which Emily had had with her on that fateful June day. They included both a return train ticket and a race card, which was marked with the winners of the previous races.  It is indeed as Neville suggests, hard to believe that a woman preparing to die would have marked all the winners of the day’s previous races.  Neville also points out that, “the most telling evidence has been produced thanks to modern technology. Image enhancement of the film of the tragedy taken by newsreel cameras clearly shows Emily trying to rein down the horse. Her intention, it seems, was to attach to the horse a WSPU flag which she had wrapped round her body”. (24) Whatever the real motivation, Davidson would become the martyr for the movement, which she had predicted would be needed for it to succeed.

1914 saw another by-election in NW Durham, which was set to be a three-cornered fight. The Liberal candidate Aneurin Williams was a committed suffragist, but the NE Federation decided to put their support behind the labour candidate G.H. Stuart.  This decision caused a large amount of debate within the suffrage movement.  It was clearly a difficult decision but seen as a positive move for the future movement:   Millicent Fawcett, argued that it was correct to stick to a policy of supporting socialist candidates:  “I believe it would have been the end of the Labour policy if we hadn’t supported Mr Stuart…..a good deal of work in preparation has been done in the constituency  and our people up there are in close touch with the Labour party.” (25)    

On 4th July 1914, the Bishop of Durham received a deputation, led by the Secretary of the Newcastle WPSU, who came to protest against the forcible feeding of women on hunger strike, while eight days later on July 12th, the morning service was disrupted by a protesting suffragette.  As she was evicted she denounced the established church for not doing more to help suffragettes. The last act of militancy before the outbreak of war came on 14th July 1914, with the attempt to burn down Cocken Hall, the unoccupied residence belonging to the Earl of Durham.  (26)   Within the month the country had become embroiled in the Great War and suffragism would find itself put on the back burner again.  Yet the fact that women had to take up the jobs traditionally carried out by men, because so many of them were away at the war meant that the end of the conflict in 1918 would see the partial suffrage of women for those aged 30 and above, followed by suffrage on the same basis as men in 1928.  

Neville argues that the general verdict of the militant campaign for women’s votes was that it was positive at the beginning but had become self-defeating by end of its life. He also argues that the militancy was not all about winning support, but was rather used more as a feminist expression than as a pragmatic political tactic to make a public feminist statement challenging society’s attitudes to women. (27)  He also makes one other point about the suffragist movement in the North-east, which set it apart from movements in other parts of the country:

“There is some evidence that there was a more of a working-class involvement than was found elsewhere, particularly in Jarrow and there were certainly women in the WPSU who were sympathetic to the cause of Labour (e.g. Connie Ellis).  The rise of the Labour Party however had a profound effect on the suffragette movement, particularly in the North-east of England”.  (28)  It can be fairly argued that radical politics in the region became more associated with the Labour Party than the Liberals, with the end of the Liberal hegemony in North-east England.       

By the summer of 1914, 23 WLL branches and 26 North Eastern Federation Societies were active in the region and this included the development of working-class and pit village feminism.  This can be seen by the involvement of the North Eastern Federation in the last Durham Miners Gala before the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914.  No Liberal speakers were invited, the speakers being from the Independent Labour Party or were independents instead. Once the official speeches had closed, so one of the platforms, draped in red, white and green was given over to speakers from the NUWSS including Margaret Robertson, Margaret Mein and Ethel Williams.  The publication Common Cause noted that, “one could just wish that the fairy of the Arabian nights would just pick up the House of Commons in the night and set it down on Durham on Gala day, that the timid gentlemen who adorn the front benches there might realise that this great cause which they fear to touch has no terrors for the miners nor fears him but is his familiar friend.” (29)

It is no wonder then, that it has been argued that in August 1914, things looked good for Women’s Suffrage.  100 000 were full members or friends of suffragette societies showing the movement now had strong roots in the working-class and that the militancy had not put off women from joining.  It is noted that, “the educational and propaganda activities had provided a balance to any counter-productive action by the WPSU and lobbying of politicians continued.  Much was expected of the next General Election in 1915 – but of course, it never came”. (30)

Looking back one hundred years, it is perhaps possible to argue that not many women in the region were involved in the movement, but they were significant in terms of activity for progressive causes and ideas. It is argued that this was particularly true when the women’s and socialist movements came together.  It is further argued that then that the North-east led the way for the campaign for women’s suffrage, “in tandem with the socialist movement”, while broader issues were addressed by the WLL. Those who chose to go along the more militant road of the WPSU were happy to see more explosive tactics being used in pursuit of universal female suffrage. (31)

It has been noted that the strategies used by suffragettes were dictated by a wide range of circumstances and networks could develop between groups of people who seemed very different, while on other occasions those with seemingly more similar views did not always work together. It may appear that the militant and constitutional sides in the region, were at odds with each other, but in reality, they had more in common than kept them apart.  (32)  What did keep women from staying solidly together was the war which began in August 1914.  It has been noted that the start of the Great War saw a huge split in the suffrage movement as it did in the trade union and socialist movement. (33)

In the end the First World War did help women to have wider employment opportunities in the region, but not real equality. Women were able to find considerable employment in new areas, but this was mostly temporary.   The emergency shell factory in the North-east Railway workshops in Darlington employed 150 men, but as many as 1 000 women, but this employment only lasted as long as the war. There were some increases in employment in traditional areas of female employment, including shops and offices, but it has been noted that the North-east still employed a relatively low percentage of females compared to other regions. (34)  Other areas of greater freedom for women included some sections of local government, which were opened up by late 19th century legislation, resulting in women being able to vote and stand for office.  In 1894, the Houghton-le-Spring Poor Law union got their first female guardian, a certain Miss Peel.  Sunderland Poor Law union had 5 members by 1898, while South Shields Poor Law Union had a female chairman (sic) of the board of guardians. It has been noted that these examples all came from the middle-classes. (35)

In the end in North-east England, as in the rest of Britain it was arguably economic development which brought women their right to vote as they were needed for labour after the war broke out in 1914. It can be further argued that allowing women to play a greater part in both the economic and the political development of the country has helped Britain's economic development over the last 100 years.  Generally speaking, development and greater human rights have worked in tandem.  As developing countries such as Iran continue to progress economically it remains to be seen how far this will cause changing attitudes towards women, which will lead to their full emancipation.

Saudi Arabia is one country today with a reputation for a very poor record on women’s rights.   The following extract is from the Amnesty International Report for Saudi Arabia in 2020:

“In July, members of the Shura Council, a body that advises the monarchy, proposed an amendment in the executive by-law to the Saudi Nationality Law to give permanent residency, without any fee or lengthy procedures, to the children of Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals. This was presented as an interim solution to shortcomings of the Nationality Law, which bars Saudi Arabian women married to foreign nationals from passing on their citizenship to their children.

In a positive development, also in July, a court ruled that “an adult, rational woman living independently is not a crime” in the case of Maryam al-Otaibi, a Saudi Arabian woman on trial in a case filed by her father – also her legal guardian – for leaving her family home. Maryam al-Otaibi had actively participated in the campaign to end the guardianship system. It remained unclear whether this signalled the authorities’ intention to end the criminalization of women fleeing their homes without the permission of their guardian, which allowed male guardians to initiate “absentees” cases against them.

Women and girls continued to face discrimination in law and practice in relation to marriage, divorce and inheritance, and remained inadequately protected from sexual and other forms of violence. Those who had experienced domestic abuse continued to need a male guardian’s permission to leave shelters.”  (36)

Women’s rights have been said to improve in recent years, but women still face many restrictions in Saudi Arabia.  It has been noted that women in that country require the permission of a male guardian in order to marry, and also that divorce can also be a more complicated process for women than men. It has also been reported that until 2019, there had been no regulation in place to stop Saudi women from being divorced without their knowledge, which meant they could be left unaware of their alimony rights.  It has also been noted that Saudi Arabia is considered one of the world’s most gender-segregated countries and that in recent history, this had meant women faced limits on the amount of time spent with men to whom they are not related, while public transport, parks, and beaches across most of the country also had strict gender-based rules.  It was also said that unlawful mixing as previously led to criminal charges being brought against both parties, but women have typically faced harsher punishment.  (37)

The struggle for women’s rights was still ongoing in Saudi Arabia in 2020. It has been noted that on 15 October 2020, Amnesty International advocated for the participants of Women20 summit to demand that the Saudi government release imprisoned women's rights activists. It has been reported that Amnesty International, who were taking part in the W20, “ had the opportunity and shared the responsibility to not only stand for the detained Saudi women rights defenders, but also promote a meaningful human rights campaign.” (38)

It has also been reported that the following on 29 November 2020, Saudi Arabia was criticised by seven European human rights ambassadors because of the continued detention of at least five women rights activists.  These were said to include Loujain al-Hathloul.  It has been further reported that according to a statement by Loujain al-Hathloul’s family, “the court referred her case to the Specialized Criminal Court for terrorism and national security cases”.   It has also been noted that according to Amnesty International, Samar Badawi had also been referred to the same special court, while Nassima al-Sada, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani had to remain in detention. It was also reported that, “CNN reached out to the Saudi government for their response. The Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Jubeir said in an interview with CNN that Loujain’s case “was up to the courts” and that she was tried for matters concerning national security of Saudi Arabia.” (39)

There have been signs that the situation regarding women’s rights in Saudi Arabia has been improving in recent years, but they are still clearly restricted in terms of many of the things they can and can’t do.  

There is still a long way to go before women gain equal rights in Saudi Arabia, while the same can be said to some extent about this country too.  Across the world, women are treated as second-class citizens in many situations are often bearing the brunt of the problems caused by Covid-19 and the Climate Crisis.  The way that women in the Northeast fought and won the right to vote in this country can be an inspirational story, that reminds us that change can come and justice can be won.

Peter Sagar, November 2021


The section above about women’s suffrage in Northeast England is adapted from the upcoming publication by Peter Sagar; A Human Rights History of Northeast England. 1750-2008



  1. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p.6

2. Annual Report Central National Society for Women's Suffrage Central Committee, quoted in D. Neville, To Make Their Mark, p. 12

3. A. Moffat and G. Rosie; Tyneside; A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, p. 300

4. Martin Luther King, The Autobiography (ed. by Clayborne Carson), p. 179

5. D. Neville,  To Make Their Mark, p. 14

6. Common Cause 13th July 1911, quoted in D. Neville, To Make Their Mark, p. 15

7. A. Moffat and G. Rosie, Tyneside; A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, p. 300

8. E. Knox, quoted in R. Colls and B. Lancaster; Geordies, p. 92

9. ibid. p. 93

10. ibid.

11. A. Moffat and G. Rosie; Tyneside; A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, p. 300

12. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 20

13. L. Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, p. 439

14. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 16

15. A. Moffat and G. Rosie; Tyneside; A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times, p. 301

16. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 48

17. ibid. p. 49

18. J. Liddington, Rebel Girls, p.166-7

19. ibid. p. 177

20. ibid.

21. Votes for Women 15th October 1909, quoted in D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 53

22. D. Neville, To Make Their Mark, p. 54

23. Letter in Emily Davidson's notebook sent to Newcastle Daily Chronicle but not published, quoted in D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 70

24. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 67-71

25. M.G. Fawcett to K. Courtney letter dated 6th Jan 1914, quoted in D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 99

26. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 72-3

27. ibid. p. 74

28. ibid. p. 75

29. Common Cause, 31 July 1914, quoted in D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 100

30. D. Neville; To Make Their Mark, p. 102

31. ibid. p. 105-6

32. ibid. p. 106

33. ibid. p. 108

34. N. McCord; North-East England; The Region's Development 1760-1960, p. 201-2

35. ibid. p. 200

36. Everything you need to know about human rights in Saudi Arabia 2020 - Amnesty International Amnesty International

37. What women can and can’t do in Saudi Arabia | The Week UK

38. Women's rights in Saudi Arabia - Wikipedia

39. ibid.



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