Manchester’s first woman councillor, Margaret Ashton, famous in her day, is now largely forgotten, but she deserves recognition as a champion of women’s rights and social reform and a champion too of peace.
She grew up in a wealthy and well-connected family of mill-owners – the Ashtons of Hyde – and could have stayed secluded in that privileged world, but instead she got involved in the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign and became a dedicated suffragist and defender of women’s rights.
When her petitioning of local councillors was ignored – ‘Why should we take any notice of you? You have no vote’ – Margaret decided to go into politics herself. In 1908, at the age of 52, she stood for Withington in the municipal elections – and won. Undaunted by being a lone woman in the male world of the Council, she served on the Education Committee and the Public Health Committee, always working to improve the lot of women – better education, better maternal care, better living conditions.
A great example of Margaret’s achievements was the opening of Manchester Babies’ Hospital in 1914 (re-named Duchess of York Babies’ Hospital in 1935). This was a pioneering hospital at a time when infant mortality was high and hospital beds for babies were scarce and when medical women were often excluded from senior posts.
As a suffragist, Margaret had always believed in campaigning for the vote by peaceful means and when the war came in 1914 she stood by these pacifist beliefs. She set up the pacifist Women’s League in Manchester and across the country. She stood against conscription in 1916 and spoke out in support of a just and negotiated peace.
This took some courage at a time when pacifists were branded as traitors. During the war she was systematically stripped of her civic positions and removed from the Education Committee in 1917. She finally left the Council in 1920, but was still persecuted to the extent that the Council refused to hang a portrait of Margaret commissioned to mark her 70th birthday. She said she did not mind – ‘I shall hang quite as happily and suitably among young women of the coming generations [in the Women’s Union at Manchester University], as among the men who never really forgave me for capturing that citadel of theirs’.
Recalling her childhood in later life, Margaret said how much she would have liked to have gone into the family cotton business, but it was never even considered on account of her sex. Shortly before her death, she remarked to a friend, ‘People are young, in their prime, getting on or wonderful’. It is fair to agree with the friend and say that Margaret was always ‘wonderful’.
By Sarah Hobbs, Manchester Archives