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Leeds' forgotten suffragette
Leonora Cohen
Leonora Cohen - pictured at the height of her activism

One Saturday in February 1913, an elegant woman entered the Jewel House at the Tower of London.

She removed an iron bar from her coat and threw it at a glass showcase containing insignia of the Order of Merit.

Beefeaters immediately forced the woman to the ground and arrested her.

Wrapped around the bar was a piece of paper stating: "This is my protest against the Government's treachery to the working women of Great Britain."

That woman was Leeds-born activist Leonora Cohen. Like so many suffragettes, she lived in middle class comfort but was unafraid of breaking the law to publicise her cause.

She was charged with causing unlawful and malicious damage to an amount exceeding £5 and was bailed for trial by jury. By the time Leonora returned home to her husband and young son in Leeds her story was headline news.

Her courage and articulacy when she conducted her own defence in the ensuing court case won her much admiration. An expert witness, stated that the cost of repairs would only be £4 10s, enabling the jury to acquit her because it could not be proven that she had caused damage exceeding £5.

Early days and family life

Leonora was born in June 1873, the daughter of Canova Throp, a stone carver, who died when she was only five years old. Her widowed mother, Jane, struggled to bring up Leonora and two younger brothers by working as a seamstress.

Leonora's blue plaque
A historical reminder of Leonora's campaigning - the blue plaque at 2 Claremont Villas

She always maintained that it was her mother's lack of empowerment that radicalised her. In an interview later in life she explained: "Life was hard. My mother would say 'Leonora, if only we women had a say in things', but we hadn't. A drunken lout of a man opposite had a vote simply because he was a male. I vowed I'd try to change things."

Leonora apprenticed as a milliner and was working as a millinery buyer in Bridlington, when she fell in love with a childhood friend, Henry Cohen, a watchmaker and jeweller.

Both families opposed the match but nonetheless, the couple married in March 1900. Eight months later their daughter Rosetta was born, but sadly died within a year.

In 1902 Leonora gave birth to a son, Reginald, and for the next nine years appears to have been submerged in domestic bliss, while Henry prospered in his business and became a member of the Leeds and County Liberal Club.

Politicisation

By 1909 Leonora had joined Leeds Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903 that believed in direct action. At first she played a largely supportive role, selling suffragette newspapers and marmalade to raise funds.

However in 1911, as WSPU Branch Secretary, she was so incensed by Herbert Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister and arch anti-suffragist, breaking his commitment to women by announcing a Manhood Suffrage Bill to give all adult males the right to vote that she was almost overnight seized by a Votes for Women passion.

For the next two years, with her son away at boarding school and the unwavering support of her husband, Leonora devoted herself to the suffragettes' cause.

Once her suffrage allegiance was known she lost most of her friends, received unpleasant letters and had to face her son's persecution at school.

Later in 1911 she joined a WSPU deputation to London and, in the resulting fracas with police, threw a stone that smashed a window of a government building. She was sent to Holloway Prison for seven days for malicious damage.

Prison only served to harden her resolve. For the next few months she took part in several other protests and meetings, always careful to attack only government or official property in retaliation for what she saw as yet another government betrayal.

Leonora Cohen
Leonora in her later years - celebrating her 100th birthday

In January 1913 Asquith again shocked the suffrage campaigners by announcing that the Reform Bill would be dropped. This was the spur for her attack on the Tower of London.

Undaunted by the experience, she continued to attend rallies and in May 1913 addressed an open air crowd saying that the time had passed for constitutional work: "We women are outside the constitution. We are outlaws."

Leeds police charged her with disturbing the peace and husband Henry paid a surety of £50 for his wife, who agreed to be bound over.

Her undertaking not to take part in any militant action did not, however, last long. In November 1913, Asquith was addressing a public meeting in Leeds.

Leonora, part of a nearby WSPU parade, was among those who threw stones at a local government building. This time she was arrested and charged with wilful damage but remanded in custody at Armley Prison.

She went on immediate hunger strike and the much more serious and dramatic, thirst strike. She had to be released after a matter of days on seven days' licence under the "Cat and Mouse Act" - the measure that allowed hunger strikers to be temporarily released to recover their strength - as she was dangerously ill and weak.

Henry now took action. He wrote to the Home Office declaring that if they rearrested Leonora he would not receive her back next time so that the authorities would be forced to accept responsibility for her death.

World War I and a changing society

When war broke out in 1914, Leonora worked in a munitions factory in Leeds, joined the General and Municipal Workers Union and eventually organised worker petitions and a three-day strike.

The First World War changed everything and in a short space of time, society's views had changed immeasurably. After the war in 1918, women over 30 were granted the right to vote.

In 1923, Leonora became the first woman president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils and the following year was appointed a magistrate, one of the first women appointed to the bench. She was a JP for 25 years and by the mid-1920s had been awarded an OBE for services to public life.

From that point, she seemed to slip totally from public view but in the mid-1970s, as a new wave of feminism took hold, there was a resurgence of interest in the activities of the suffragettes.

Leonora was much sought after for interviews and appeared on the

Leonora Cohen pictured with other suffragettes
Leonora (middle) makes the cover of the Radio Times in the 1970s

cover of the Radio Times publicising a BBC television series, Shoulder to Shoulder, based on Sylvia Pankhurst's book The Suffrage Movement.

What remained with her the most was not the decades of respectability in Leeds but the two years of direct action when she risked her life for the suffragette cause.

Leonora died in 1978, aged 105, and the house in Leeds where she lived for 13 years - 2 Claremont Villas, Clarendon Road - was adorned with a historic blue plaque to celebrate her memory.




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