Display tells incredible story of Leeds’s own Suffragette
The incredible story of Leeds women’s rights activist Leonora Cohen is being highlighted ahead of the release of Hollywood blockbuster Suffragette next week.
With film fans set to flock to see stars Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter in the powerful adaptation of the story of the suffrage movement, Leeds City Museum is reminding history lovers that the city was once home to its very own controversial campaigner.
The museum currently hosts a whole display dedicated to Leonora, with the centrepiece being the eye-catching dress she wore to the Leeds Arts Club Ball in 1914.
Covered in Suffragette symbols, the dress carries the logo of the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant branch of the suffrage movement founded by the Pankhursts.
Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries' curator of social history, said the dress would have caused quite a stir.
She said: ““The dress was quite a statement but at the ball she would have been among some of the people who were quite sympathetic to her cause.
“Like many women, Leonora had hoped that when the Liberal government was elected in 1906, women would have finally got the vote.
“When that didn’t happen it was the breaking point for many campaigners and they stepped up their protests.”
As the suffrage movement became more militant, Leonora in turn became notorious for her direct action in protesting against the government.
In 1911 she threw a rock at the window of a government building and was subsequently arrested and jailed.
The threat of prison did not deter her though, and in 1913 she was again arrested and jailed, this time for hurling an iron bar through a showcase at the Tower of London in front of a crowd of startled schoolchildren.
The label attached to the bar read: “Jewel House, Tower of London. My protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women but continues to torture women prisoners- Deeds Not Words. Leonora Cohen.”
Kitty said: “Whilst in Armley jail, Leonora went on hunger and thirst strike in protest and was released so that she could recover. Whilst on licence, she fled to Harrogate and, like many campaigners, put protesting on hold and joined the war effort.
“After the war she became a Justice of the Peace and visited Armley jail in the 1920s. While she was there, she looked herself up and found that she was officially still on licence.”
The iron bar Leonora threw is also part of the museum’s display alongside press articles and a blank diet sheet from her Armley hunger strike.
Leonora was eventually appointed OBE and lived to the age of 105. She remained a force for women’s rights right up until her death in 1978.
Councillor Judith Blake, who earlier this year became the first woman to be named leader of Leeds City Council, said:
“Leonora’s extraordinary story is a truly inspirational example of the determination and indomitable will of the Suffragettes, some of whom literally laid down their lives in the fight for women’s rights.
“It is testament to the impact the struggle of women like Leonora had on our society that we still remember them and celebrate their legacy in museums, literature and film.
“Women like her battled long and hard to lay the ground so that others could to have the opportunities and freedoms we enjoy today and we all owe them our respect and gratitude.”
The Leonora Cohen display can be found at Leeds City Museum on Millennium Square.
Leeds City Museum – Entrance is free
Opening hours: Monday closed (except bank holidays)
Tues – Fri: 10am-5pm
Sat, Sun and bank holidays: 11am – 5pm.
www.leeds.gov.uk/citymuseumMillennium Square, Cookridge Street, Leeds, LS2 8BHTel: 0113 2243732.
For media enquiries, please contact:
Leeds City Council
Tel: 0113 224 3937