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Guide to the Mary E. Gawthorpe Papers TAM 275

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630
tamiment.wagner@nyu.edu


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Jessica Weglein and Laura Helton, 2001-2003

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 10, 2018
Finding aid is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

Mary Eleanor Gawthorpe (1881-1973) was born in Leeds, England, on January 12, 1881, to John and Annie Eliza (Mountain) Gawthorpe. She had four siblings, but only one sister, Annie Gatenby, and a brother, James Arthur, survived to adulthood. Her father was a leather worker, and her mother worked occasionally as a textile worker and laundress to help support the family. Gawthorpe became a pupil-teacher at age thirteen in a local church school. Following her certification, she served as a schoolteacher in Leeds until 1906.

While she was studying and teaching, Gawthorpe became involved in socialist and labor politics in Leeds through her friend Tom Garrs. She was active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Women's Labour League, and she coordinated a women's page in the local Labour News. Through this work she began to speak in public, and the first two speeches she prepared were entitled "The Child under Socialism" and "The Modern Pariah, a plea against the making of criminals." She was also a leading figure of the Leeds branch of the National Union of Teachers, served on the Lord Mayor of Leeds Committee for the Feeding of School Children, and was active in A.R. Orage's Leeds Arts Club.

Christabel Pankhurst had been speaking to ILP audiences throughout England, and Gawthorpe became increasingly interested in the issue of women's suffrage, particularly after the arrest of Christable Pankhurst and Annie Kenney at Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Though the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was active at that time only in Manchester and other Lancashire towns, Gawthorpe began to organize suffrage-related events in her native Leeds and throughout Yorkshire by writing letters to the editor and speaking at local labor events. She helped Isabella Ford form the Leeds Suffrage Society, which was affiliated with the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. In 1906, she resigned her teaching post at the Bramley Council School to devote more time to these causes, and later that year, she accepted an offer to become a full-time organizer for the WSPU. As she became more involved with the militant suffragettes, she grew less active in the ILP.

One of her first assignments was to join Christabel Pankhurst in Wales, where she drew upon her own working-class background and involvement in the labor movement to organize mining communities for the Mid-Glamorgan campaign against the Liberal politician Samuel Evans. Gawthorpe became one of the WSPU's primary speakers, and was especially active in the North of England. She was first arrested for disrupting a House of Commons meeting on October 23, 1906. She was known as a particularly dynamic and persuasive orator, and was one of the speakers at a Hyde Park demonstration that drew over 200,000 people. By 1909, she was head organizer for the Lancashire branch of the WSPU, headquartered in Manchester. Several imprisonments, which included hunger strikes and forced feedings, eroded her already fragile health, and she had to drop out of the movement for repeated periods of convalescence. In 1910, she was unable to be in Manchester to fulfill her duties for the Autumn Campaign, but conducted a "bed-side" effort to raise money to support the campaign. She joined with Dora Marsden in 1911 in a venture to start a new journal, The Freewoman, which sometimes found itself at odds with WSPU leaders, including the Pankhursts. In 1912, the issue of forced feeding of suffragette prisoners became increasingly important to her, and she led a petition drive in protest of the practice (which generated a lengthy response from George Bernard Shaw). She also made an unsuccessful call in this year for a national women's hunger strike.

Following 1912, Gawthorpe's health was too poor to continue her participation in the movement. She spent time in different locales to recover, including a trip to Italy in 1914-15. She intermittently received financial support from individual suffragettes until 1916. Around this time, she began to consider other fields of work she could pursue. She took a secretarial training course at Kensington College in 1915.

Gawthorpe traveled to the United States with her mother in 1916, where they joined family members in Monroe, New York. While it appears that Gawthorpe initially advertised herself for employment as an editor's or author's assistant, she soon began to work as an organizer for a number of political causes and moved from campaign to campaign for the next several years. She quickly joined the American struggle for women's suffrage, working first as a Field Organizer and then Head Organizer for the Brooklyn branch of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. Mary Ogden White wrote of her contribution to this movement, "Miss Gawthorpe is a morsel of a woman to have achieved so much, but one look into her hazel eyes--her very unusual hazel eyes--is convincing of the power within her. She is all fire and quick response, a flash of energy, of sympathy, of comprehension." In February 1917, she went to Buffalo to work as chairperson of the Western New York Suffrage News Service. In this capacity, she led one contingent of a caravan to the Suffragists' State Convention, led by Gertrude Franchot Tone in August 1917. Later that year, she was appointed State Press Chairman for the Party, a capacity in which she served until mid-1918.

Following her work with the Woman Suffrage Party, Gawthorpe worked on a number of short-term organizing projects around the country. In 1918, she worked for the National Consumers League's Industrial Investigation. Gawthorpe assisted in the completion of the League's study of "Woman's Work in Wartime" in Wilmington, Delaware. Gawthorpe carried out research by visiting homes to gather family history and budget data and then remained to serve as Legislative Secretary of the Delaware Consumers' League, working on their campaign for a Minimum Wage Law.

In 1919, she traveled to Chicago, where she worked with the Cook County Labor Party, especially with the Women's Section. She continued the public speaking for which she had been well known in the British suffrage movement, and was a Labor Day speaker at a demonstration of miners in Belleville, Illinois. It may have been in Chicago that she became associated with Sidney Hillman's Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, as her next move was to Rochester, where she briefly served as the union's Director of Educational Programs. She was a delegate to the national convention of the National Labor Party (later the Farmer-Labor Party) in Chicago in 1920, and was "loaned" by ACWA to work on the presidential campaign of Parley Parker Christensen. To aid the campaign, she spoke in the mining districts of Indiana and Illinois. From 1921-1922, she was an executive secretary for the League for Mutual Aid.

In 1921, she married John Sanders, an engineer who had been a boarder in the home of her brother, James Arthur, in Newark, New Jersey, where the family had relocated. The couple moved to Whitestone, New York, where they resided for the rest of their lives. Following her marriage, Gawthorpe held no "official job"--as she described--but maintained close associations with a number of progressive and labor organizations around New York City, particularly the New School for Social Research.

In 1931, Gawthorpe once again became involved with her acquaintances from the British suffrage movement when she began to promote Sylvia Pankhurst's book, The Suffragette Movement, which was experiencing poor sales in the United States. This endeavor led to a disagreement with Pankhurst over a description of Gawthorpe in a brief footnote in the book, which overlooked Gawthorpe's involvement in the women's suffrage movement in the United States following her emigration. To set the record straight, and to provide detailed information about her activities in the United States for a compilation of biographies of militant suffragettes for the Suffragette Fellowship in Britain, she solicited letters of reference from a number of political figures with whom she had worked, including Gertrude Franchot Tone, Roger Baldwin, Arthur Garfield Hays, and Vera B. Whitehouse. Gawthorpe eventually demanded that Pankhurst produce a second edition of the book in order to correct the mistake, an action Pankhurst was not prepared to take. Following a contentious correspondence from 1931 to 1935, they appear to have fallen out of touch.

In 1962, Gawthorpe wrote a memoir of her early years and her participation in the British suffrage movement, Up Hill to Holloway, printed by Traversity Press of Penobscot, Maine. John Sanders passed away the following year. In addition to her political activities, Gawthorpe maintained interests in astrology, gardening, painting, and drawing. She was moved to the Clearview Nursing Home in Whitestone, New York, in January 1973, and passed away there on March 12, 1973. She was survived by her nephew and heir, Sidney John Ward, whose daughters preserved her papers and donated them to the Tamiment Library.

Sources:

  • Diane Atkinson, The Suffragettes in Pictures (London: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1996).
  • Mary Gawthorpe, Up Hill to Holloway (Penobscot, Maine: Traversity Press, 1962).
  • Sandra Holton, Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women's Suffrage Movement (London: Routledge, 1996).
  • Pankhurst, Sylvia, The Suffragette Movement; An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1931).