Suffragist, trades unionist, politician, pacifist, lifelong women’s rights campaigner. Even at the age of 85, Jessie Stephen was attending up to three women’s rights meetings each week. The woman was unbreakable.
Born in Glasgow to a socialist family in 1893, Jessie was the eldest of eleven children. Although hoping to become a teacher, she had to leave school at the age of 14 and go into domestic service when her father lost his job. And it was as a maid in 1912 that she received her first taste of activism by organising maidservants in Glasgow into the Scottish Federation of Domestic Workers. Jessie would knock on the back doors of the wealthy homes in Glasgow and enlist her sister maidservants to fight against exploitation.
By the age of 16 she was also vice-chair of the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow, as well as a militant member of the Women’s Social and Political Party (WSPU) in the city. While wearing her maid’s uniform of apron and cap, Jessie blended into the bustling street scene, putting her in an easy position to join the WSPU in their campaign to destroy the contents of letterboxes in protest at their voices not being heard. “I was able to drop acid into the postal pillar boxes without being suspected because I walked down from where I was employed in my cap and apron … nobody would ever suspect me of dropping acid through the box,” she recalled afterwards. “As the women passed a pillar box they dropped in a lighted match or a wee drop of acid. Who would have suspected those timid downstairs maids of doing such a thing?”
When Jessie heard that one of the WSPU’s leaders Sylvia Pankhurst was heading to Glasgow to set up a branch of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation (WSF) she made it her business to be introduced to the suffragette – and was rewarded with an invitation to work with Sylvia in London.
Working in the front line of the suffragette movement with the WSPU’s leaders, Jessie managed to avoid imprisonment despite her involvement with schemes such as smuggling Emmeline Pankhurst past a police blockade to speak at a rally. “Police, five deep, had surrounded St Andrew Hall in Glasgow. They were on the roof and posted at every door and window. The objective was to prevent Emily [sic] Pankhurst from addressing a packed meeting,” recalls Ian Onions, who interviewed Jessie in 1978. “The meeting began with the police confident that they had reached their objective. Then Jessie announced, ‘Ladies! Our leader!’ And out of the wings stepped Emily [sic]. They had smuggled her past the police in the laundry basket where she remained on stage all day as the police searched for her.”
Although Emmeline attempted to call a halt to all suffragette activities once war was declared in 1914, pacifist Jessie was reluctant to stop. She promptly left the WSPU and went to work full-time with Sylvia’s East London Workers’ Suffrage Federation. One of Jessie’s first tasks was to organise an open-air meeting in Hackney. “After half an hour of throwing my voice into space, very slowly passers-by came closer to the platform, usually a chair or box borrowed from a shopkeeper,” remembered Jessie.
Sylvia soon dispatched the Glaswegian into the provinces to rally yet more troops to the cause of female emancipation. The constant police surveillance failed to ruffle Jessie’s feathers and she shrugged off the ready attendance of officers at her rallies saying: “Detectives attended all meetings and took shorthand notes of the speeches … One of them always approached the speaker to ask for one’s name and address and permanent place of abode.”
Jessie believed that mass canvassing via open-air meetings was a way to reach the working women who might feel intimidated by attending more formal political meetings in halls. She wanted to reach “women who are so poverty stricken that they have not the necessary clothes to go out in… This group is larger than many suppose”.
She was adamant that the impression that the suffrage movement and its successors were largely middle-class was a “distortion”, stressing that there were “a tremendous number of working-class women”. However, just as Jessie herself is excluded from the vast majority of suffrage histories, so are many of her working-class sisters. It was only via her subsequent work with the trade unions that the scale of Jessie’s work as a suffragette came to light. In 1978, she stated: “It was the working women of Britain who were the driving force that led to the vote. But those who thought equality would come with the vote were wrong.”
Jessie’s many roles included organiser of the Bermondsey Independent Labour Party, secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers, and vice-chair of the Ministry of Reconstruction. In 1922, she was the elected Labour councillor for Bermondsey and worked to improve public health in the borough. She was still only 29.
Her work would take her all over the globe. During 1926, she undertook a tour of the United States to explain the trade union position to workers there. She also spoke to groups including immigrant workers from Europe, the National Union of Mineworkers, the Socialist Party of America, and she was instrumental in the formation of the Canadian Union of Domestic Workers.
Once back in the UK, Jessie widened her talents. As well as establishing herself as a freelance journalist, she also set up a secretarial agency and joined the National Union of Clerks in 1938. By 1944, she was appointed the first female area union organiser of the National Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union for South Wales and the West of England, and it was this role that brought her to Bristol where she would become the first ever woman president of the Trades Union Council. Jessie was elected as a city councillor of Bristol in 1952 and used this as an opportunity to speak widely and loudly about birth control.
In 1978, Jessie received the MBE for her trades union work. However, she died of pneumonia and heart failure at Bristol’s General Hospital on 12 June 1979 aged 86. Jessie’s last address on Chessel Street remains honored with a blue plaque. Her unpublished autobiography is kept at the People’s History Library in Manchester.