Suffragette and Activist Jessie Stephen: A Life Remembered by Jean Corston

Jessie Stephen. Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09812. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0

We are delighted to post this piece by the Rt Hon the Baroness Corston, on her memories of the suffragette and Labour activist Jessie Stephen (1893-1979).

I first came across Jessie Stephen in June 1976.  It was just a month after I had been appointed to the Regional Organising Staff of the Labour Party.  I was based in Bristol, covering the South West Region, and was the Women’s Officer.  In those days, the Party funded a three day National Conference of Labour Women, and I was given the job of acting as the Assistant Secretary of the Conference Arrangements Committee.  In 1976, it was held in Folkestone.  We met the day before conference was to start, to review the arrangements.  One of the most important tasks, politically, was to assess the proposals for Emergency Resolutions to Conference.  These, as the name implies, were to be confined to issues or events which could not have been tabled by the normal closing date for resolutions.

The Committee was small, and some of the ladies wore hats.  I did notice one woman. She was big, and obviously very elderly; she held a white stick, and she had a luxurious mane of white hair, tied in a bun at the base of her neck.  She wore dark glasses.

We came to consider a particular resolution, which was about an industrial dispute.  There was some uncertainty as to when the strike started, and whether it could have formed part of the preliminary agenda. One of the ladies in a hat expressed the view that this resolution should not be accepted, because she was sure that the strike had been going on for some time.  She spoke in a particularly dismissive tone.  At that, a volcano seemed to erupt.  The woman with the white stick banged it on the floor.  And then the most commanding and booming voice issued out of her.  ‘You are talking about my Union’, she said.  She then gave us a comprehensive account of the strike, and explained why it should be accepted on to the agenda as an Emergency.  The woman who had spoken so dismissively seemed to shrink into her hat.  The resolution was immediately accepted as an Emergency.  This was my first meeting with Jessie.

I later learned that Jessie had been driven to Folkestone from Bristol by Janet Cocks, who was the Chair of the Bristol Labour Women’s Council at the time.  Janet would take Jessie to her hotel room when they went to conferences together, and help her navigate the facilities.  Jessie had gone blind in later life, but still had remarkable confidence.

I came across Jessie off and on in meetings in Bristol, and was fascinated by her.  It transpired that she had started her working life as a domestic servant in Glasgow, but by the age of 16 was attracted to the suffragette cause.  I will never forget her look of mischief, her humour, and her air of pride when she would say, in a Scottish accent which never left her,  ‘I used to have an afternoon off each week, so I would go round Glasgow putting incendiary devices into postal pillar boxes’.

She was also appalled by the treatment of domestic servants.  They led a life of extraordinary deprivation, and servitude.  They were also isolated.  So, at the age of 17, Jessie had helped to form the Scottish Domestic Workers’ Union.

I began to visit her in her little house in Chessel Street, Bedminster, in Bristol.  It was sparsely furnished but comfortable.  She would talk about her life and her feminism. She had begun to think of herself as part of a dying breed, because in her lifetime the interest in women’s rights had all but disappeared. She saw in me a re-awakening of those ideas.  I suppose I could be described as a 1970’s feminist; influenced by women writers like Gloria Steinem and Susan Brownmiller. We were concerned with abortion rights, equal pay, access to jobs and mortgages and domestic violence.  It just thrilled her that this was happening.  She began to call me ‘Darling’, and I was immensely flattered.

Jessie Stephen police report. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/4
Jessie Stephen ejected from St. Stephen’s Hall for shouting ‘Votes for Women’, 30 June 1908. Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/4

I loved listening to her reminiscences on the fight for women’s suffrage.  She told how, during the time of the so-called Cat and Mouse Act, when Emmeline Pankhurst was a wanted woman, Jessie would help carry a wicker laundry basket into women’s suffrage meetings.  Police were always stationed on the door, and they took no interest in a basket which obviously contained bunting and tablecloths for the platform.  The basket was carried as if it weighed a feather.  It contained Emmeline Pankhurst, and when she stood to speak, the police would try to rush the platform, only to be met by a protective phalanx of women, Jessie among them.  Mrs Pankurst would be spirited away out the back.  However, Jessie did not have much time for Mrs Pankhurst and was much more at home, personally and politically, with her daughter, Sylvia, and joined her in the Women’s Social and Political Union.

Jessie joined the Labour Party as a young woman and was always an active trade unionist.  She joined the Clerks Union, which later formed part of the amalgamation to create APEX, the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff.  It was this Union which Jessie was defending when I first met her.

She had a mane of dark hair as a young woman, and photos record that she was always very stylish in her dress.  One of the things which she hated about her blindness was that she could not know whether she had dropped food onto her clothes.  She wanted to learn Braille, and I wrote to the then Minister for Disabled People (the first person to hold such a post), Alf Morris MP, to complain that this opportunity was not open to her.  He replied that Braille was not taught to people of Jessie’s age, but she could learn something called MOON.  Jessie tried, but made little progress.

She had always been an active member of the Coop Party, and was a regular attender at meetings in Bristol.  It was said that men found her very threatening; I am not surprised, because many women did, too.  Janet Cocks recalled that she found Jessie ‘scary and formidable’.  She was called ‘Leather-lungs’ behind her back, principally by men, but children who were taken to meetings when Jessie was present would vie for a place next to her.  Carol Draper recalled the pleasure of being surreptitiously plied with sweets from Jessie’s handbag.

Jessie’s political life started in local politics in Bermondsey.  A press cutting from the Daily Express dated 30th October 1919 is headed, ‘Kitchen to Council?  Servant Girl Candidate for Election’ and continues:

“If Miss Jessie Stephen is returned to the Bermondsey Borough Council – and the working girls of the No 1 Ward, for which she is a Labour candidate, decline to consider any other contingency – she will be the first domestic servant to become a borough councillor.

She is a capable young woman with a mass of dark hair, a good speaker, and a first-rate organiser, and if the borough council elections campaign generally is marked by apathy, there is at least a vigour down Bermondsey way, where the local branch of the National Federation of Women Workers have put forward two candidates, Miss Stephen and Miss Broughton.”

She undertook several lecture tours of the USA and Canada in the nineteen twenties. A card advertised one of her meetings thus: ‘Miss Jessie Stephen, of England will lecture on The Labor Party Activity of her country , Tuesday, March 15, 1927 at 8pm at Amalgamated Hall, 168 West Pratt St, under auspices of Socialist Party.  Admission 10 cents’.

Her promotional leaflet for a later tour reads;


Parliamentary Labor Candidate for South Portsmouth, England, 1923-24-29.  Honorary General Secretary, Home and Hotel Workers’Union.  Has been a member of two Government Committees of Inquiry; Vice-Chairman of Catering Trades Industrial Council; Chairman and Vice Chairman of Local Employment Exchanges.  Lecturer and Propagandist for Labor and Socialist Movement.  Has lectured in United States and Canada for Socialist and Peace Movement, and for Chataqua.’

The blurb describes her as ‘probably one of the most prominent and interesting of the younger women in the British Labor and Socialist Movement.  She has received the hearty support and confidence of all sections of that Movement.

‘She is an uncompromising pacifist and a recognised authority on many labor union problems, and has been called upon to advise Government Departments on phases of the Domestic Servant Problem.  Her fearless advocacy of Socialism is known all over Britain.  Even in the chief naval port of Britain she has, by means of her Parliamentary candidatures, not only familiarised naval and military voters with Labor’s programme on peace and disarmament, but has reduced an original hostile plurality of votes from 18,000 to less than 5,000.’

‘Her viewpoint is that of true social unity which, in her opinion, can only be obtained through the workers, as human beings, each having a sacred personality to fulfil, and not as mere cogs in the machine.’

The leaflet went on to describe Jessie’s career:

‘She began life (the eldest of eleven children), on leaving school at the age of 14 years, as a domestic worker, and was thus employed until the outbreak of war,  Afterwards she became, in turn, suffrage worker, labor union organiser, campaign manager, lecturer, and finally journalist, contributing to many of the most important British newspapers and periodicals.  She has been three times chosen as one of British Labor Party’s Parliamentary candidates, is a woman of outstanding personality and oratical gifts.’

‘From all over Canada and the United States she has received testimonials of praise for her work on previous tours, and her life story and achievements have been the subject of page reports and stories in practically every part of the English speaking world’

Even if the hyperbole is Jessie’s own, it would be a remarkable record of achievement for a young woman at the beginning of the twenty first century, never mind the less enlightened times of a hundred years earlier.

The leaflet went on to describe the subjects of Jessie’s lectures:

‘Story of Labor’s Rise to Power in Britain

British Labor Government and the Land

British Labor Government and the Drink Question

British Labor Government and Industry

British Labor Government and Peace

British Labor Government’s Achievements

Personalities in the British Labor Government

J Ramsay MacDonald: The Man

Philip Snowden: The Man

Margaret Grace Bondfield: Britain’s First Woman Cabinet Minister

The reference to her success in reducing the incumbent MP’s majority from 18,000 to less than 5,000 was in Portsmouth.  The Liverpool Echo reported on 22 October 1924, under the heading, ‘Candidate’s Rush Home’, accompanied by a photo of a stylish Jessie in a hat with a feather in the brim:  ‘Miss Jessie Stephen, the Labour Candidate for Portsmouth South, snapped on arrival from Canada by the C.P. liner Montroyal.  Miss Stephen is the General Secretary of the Domestic Workers’ Union, and has been on a lecturing tour in Canada.  She told an “Echo” reporter that two of the main planks in her election platform were the splendid way in which the Labour Government had dealt with the unemployment problem, and the Russian Treaty, which she whole-heartedly supported.  She has been in Canada for five months, and would have remained longer, but for the election.’

Jessie Stephen. Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09812. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0
Jessie Stephen. Bundesarchiv Bild 102-09812. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Besides fighting the Portsmouth seat three times, Jessie also contested Kidderminster and, finally, Weston Super Mare in 1964.

Given this start, it is surprising that she did not become more of a household name and never made it to the House of Commons. It is almost certainly why she developed her enviable self confidence, particularly as a public speaker.  It was reported that when she addressed a public meeting during one of her campaigns in Portsmouth, the accommodation in the school where the meeting was to be held was described as ‘inadequate’, and an overflow meeting was arranged.  Jessie addressed both meetings, and it was reported in the local press that, ‘when Miss Stephens left to address other assemblies the meeting left with her despite the Chairman’s assurance that there were one or two other speakers.’  On another occasion, it was reported that so dense was the crowd awaiting her arrival that she had to address an overflow meeting in the school playground before being allowed to address the ‘great meeting’ inside.  In a double page spread in an edition of ‘John Bull’ on October 4, 1930, Jessie is featured in an article entitled “The World’s Most Powerful Women”.

She later branched out into journalism, and kept up a steady stream of articles about women and their lives.  The headings illustrate this very well: “After the Wedding; Why Should Wives Not Continue At Work”, “Wives Big Mistake; Complacent Pride in Apron Strings for Husband”, The Price of a Worthless Woman, Why persist in the Degrading Practice of Awarding Damages with Divorce”, “Breaking Marriage Ties, Is it caused by Incompatibility or Incompetence”, “Nobody Loves a ‘Vampire Mother’”, “Unemployment Insurance for Domestic Workers”, “Does Cupid need Chaperones?”.

Her Trade Union career was similarly glittering; aside from her involvement in the Domestic Workers’ Union and the Clerks Union, she was very active in the Women’s TUC, and later was given her Union’s Gold Badge, its highest award.  She was the first woman President of Bristol Trades Council in a hundred years, no mean feat in a city dominated by unions representing dockers and industrial workers.  She was also a Labour councillor in Bristol.

So, this was the wellspring of reminiscence and experience which so enthralled me in the late 1970’s in that little house in Bedminster, now marked by a plaque in her memory, placed there by Bristol City Council.  Jessie occasionally called my attention to a large black trunk under her bed.  She said it contained all her papers, together with a copy of her draft autobiography, and that I was to have them on her death.  She said she would tell her sister, Betty Hammond, who lived in Retford, Nottingham, that it was to be so.

Jessie also told me that she had written her autobiography, entitled ‘Submission is for Slaves’ and that there was a copy held by her Trade Union, APEX.

Most of us have an inbuilt sense of indestructibility, and Jessie had it in spades.  She was admitted to hospital in Bristol in early June, 1979, and died on the twelfth.  This was just before the opening of the National Conference of Labour Women in Felixstowe.  I drove from Felixstowe to Bristol on 15th June, accompanied by Tony Benn, who was MP for Bristol South East, for her funeral in Bristol South Crematorium.  I rang Jessie’s sister two days later to arrange to collect the black trunk containing Jessie’s papers, to discover that, owing to a misunderstanding, they had all been burned the previous day. Jessie had not passed on the message, though her sister gave me permission to request any papers held by the Union.  Fortunately, a bundle of press cuttings and photos, together with a copy of the manuscript, were held by APEX, and the General Secretary, Roy Grantham, released them to me, telling me that the manuscript had been rejected for publication.

It was reported that Jessie’s last words were. ‘You’ll have to change my tablets.  I’m going to a Women’s Conference’.

Rt Hon Baroness Jean Corston, June 2014

Baroness Corston was Labour MP for Bristol East 1992-2005 and Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party 2001-2005. She has been a life peer since 2005.

Image of Jessie Stephen from Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive.


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