Annie Kenney was born near Oldham in 1879. She was the fifth of eleven children, and started work in a local cotton mill at the age of ten as a ‘half-timer’ which meant she spent the morning working in the mill, and afternoons at school.
In 1905 Annie and her sisters Jessie and Jane went to a meeting in Oldham where Christabel Pankhurst spoke about voting rights for women. Annie was so inspired that she was soon organising and speaking at meetings, and joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which Christabel had recently helped form.
She and Christabel attended a Liberal rally at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in October 1905. There they stood up and asked Winston Churchill ‘If you are elected, will you do your best to make women’s suffrage a government measure?’ When they received no reply, they unfurled a banner with the slogan ‘Votes for women’ - and were thrown out of the meeting. In the ensuing struggle, a policeman claimed the women had kicked and spat at him. They were arrested and charged with assault.
This was the first of 13 times Annie Kenney was sent to prison. In Prison faces she wrote: ‘The law may be stronger than I am, but if I may not change the wicked law that holds in bondage the smitten womanhood of this country, I will at least die in the attempt to change it’.
Suffragette action became more militant over the years – some women chaining themselves to railings, some setting fire to mailboxes or breaking windows. As a result, suffragettes were imprisoned and while in prison often went on hunger strike.
The notorious “Cat and Mouse Act” was brought in during 1913. This allowed for the release of prisoners who were suffering illness as a result of hunger strikes; however, the police were free to re-arrest women once they had recovered.
When Christabel Pankhurst fled to Paris to avoid arrest in 1912, Annie Kenney was put in charge of the WSPU in London - the only working-class woman in a position of authority in the organisation.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to a split in the suffragette movement, with the WPSU calling a 'ceasefire' in their campaign for the duration of the war while more radical suffragettes continued their struggle. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to: women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities.
After the Act was passed, Annie Kenney virtually withdrew from active political life. She married and gave birth to a son in 1921. Her memoirs, Memories of a militant, were published in 1924. She experienced long-term health problems, which may well have had their roots in her times on hunger strike. Annie died on 9 July 1953.
Related Object of the Month
September 2009: Suffragette pamphlet by Cicely Hamilton
Resources about Annie Kenney in the Library
Annie Kenney, Memories of a militant (1924) - Shelfmark: Hall display case [B09]
Sarah Jacksonand Rosemary Taylor, East London suffragettes (2014) - Shelfmark: C52b
Frederick William Pethick Lawrence, Annie Kenney: character sketch and article on 'Prison faces' (1907) (Hall display case)
Alan Plater, Annie Kenney (1991) - Shelfmark: AG Suffragette Movement Box 1
Geoffrey Woodhead, The Kenney family of Springhead [ca. 2003] - Shelfmark: AG Suffragette Movement Box 2
To find out more about what the Library holds on suffragettes, search the catalogue here.