The Unknown Suffragette – Cissy Foley

Saffron Howdle

Early life and growth of independence

Working-class women played a central part in the campaign for the right to vote in Britain. Some people may know Annie Kenney, but there was an army full of women from different work forces that helped to organise and protest against the government. But not all these women are remembered. They didn’t have time to write about their lives. They didn’t have the platform that traditional middle-class suffragettes had. It is up to us as historians to reconstruct these narratives so that working-class women are remembered. Born in 1879 to a large family of 8, Cissy Foley was the eldest daughter. Her father was an unreliable breadwinner and an Irish radical, who frequently drank, gambled and lost his job. This meant, at the age of 15 Cissy entered the mill as a ‘setter on’. Cissy hated working in the mill, but the wages meant her family were able to move into a better home. Alice, Cissy’s younger sister, described Cissy as acting as a “little mother” who would look after the children with “brown eyes (more tragic than mothers)” that looked as “if exploring worlds other than our humble kitchen”. Cissy was a keen reader, as many were in her family, and she was keen to see Alice stay in school for as long as possible. The turning point in Cissy’s life, when I believe she realised the importance of women having a voice was the death of her brother. At 16 years old, Jimmy Foley had come home from work early with severe stomach pains. After a doctor’s exam, he was told he needed urgent surgery in hospital. Cissy’s father refused to allow him to go. Jimmy died later that day, with Cissy “weeping bitterly… refusing to be comforted”. Cissy blamed her father for Jimmy’s death, and no longer accepted his authority within the household. In 1905 Cissy joined her local suffrage society. It is unknown exactly what society this was, but I believe it to be a suffragist society linked to the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee. Cissy was focussed on self-improvement. She became a ‘jack frame tenner in the cardroom’, earning significant wages, that she spent supporting her family and sometimes buying new clothes. The next conflict between Cissy and her father was following this wage increase. Cissy had taken to saving some of her wages. However, her father stole her savings spending them on drink. Alice notes that Cissy never forgave him for this and saw her mother as “a fool”. In her efforts for self-improvement, Cissy had the family shop at the Co-Operative stores. She was also noted for her “active and reforming influence in her particular section of the textiles trade union and had tenaciously elbowed her way into the male precincts of that executive”. Cissy would invite her friends over for tea and discuss politics. She attended socialist talks and lectures as well as starting to take cold baths in the morning (believed to have significant health benefits).
The Unknown Suffragette – Cissy Foley
WSPU leaders Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst

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Later Life

Upon her father’s death Cissy was unsympathetic. When the First World War broke out, she trained as a nurse. By the end of the war, she ran the town’s first voluntary child’s clinic. Cissy would later marry before her death from a battle with cancer. Why do these narratives matter? What do they tell us about working class suffragettes? By looking at the accounts of working-class women historians can gain an insight into what pushed working class women to join the campaign. Often working-class women were victims of a failing male dominated breadwinner system. This alongside the connections felt between each other in the form of sisterhood and class, plus the benefits of opportunities for self-help and education, pushed working-class women into the suffrage campaign. They had voices and narratives that needed to be heard. They could not survive much longer in a system where men had power and they were left voiceless. Women like Cissy Foley gave all they could to the fight to give women the vote. They had a lot to risk, but also such little time. Exhausted from factory life and then domestic chores, these women’s commitment showed just how important having the vote was. It is important for history to be representative of all aspects of society, and this includes different classes. These women are not remembered in the history textbook, but their commitment and their demands to be heard were just as central to the women’s suffrage campaign as any other group of people.
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The Unknown Suffragette – Cissy Foley

Saffron Howdle

Saffron wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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Gloucester History Festival 2 - 17 September