Born in 1856, Margaret Ashton was to go on to achieve political success, public infamy and undeserved anonymity in her lifetime.
An indefatigable campaigner for social change, she was the first woman to run for a City Council seat in Manchester, and in 1908, succeeded in her aim, becoming the first elected woman to sit on the Council when she won the district of Withington.
At the time, she was involved with the suffragette movement and used her councillor status to voice her opinions on votes for women, health and education.
Her activities were wide and varied, ranging from helping to found the local Women’s Trade Union council to setting up a babies hospital in Burnage with pioneering paediatrician Catherine Chisholme (who’s own achievements included being Manchester University’s first female graduate in medicine).
It was her stance on peace, though, that really made her name. Splitting from the suffragette movement in the first year of the First World War because of their pro-war agenda, she started the Manchester branch of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, organising a public peace rally in 1917 which was stopped by the police.
|Babies Hospital, Burnage, 1924|
Sadly, in the days of empire and serving one’s country that Margaret lived in, her pacifism was seen as unpatriotic and treacherous, and the City Council not only berated her for it, but actually passed a resolution in 1921 that labelled her as a friend of the enemy and pro-German, both statements that were untrue.
To add insult to injury, the council also refused to hang a portrait which the editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, had commissioned to celebrate Margaret’s 70th birthday.
|CP Scott, 1900|
Margaret Ashton died in 1937, with the cloud of a second world war on the horizon, a peace campaigner to the last and a true Mancunian political pioneer, yet in relative anonymity.
Thankfully, 80 years after her portrait was finished and 150 after her birth, a pacifist is no longer seen as a traitor and her place in Manchester’s rich political history as an advocate for equal rights, a social reformer and a tireless anti-war voice is finally being acknowledged.