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Helena, the secret Suffragette

Helena Swanwick’s name may not be familiar but her legacy is an important one, writes Dan Carrier

29 January, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Helena Swanwick: a ‘deliberately overlooked figure’

IT is remarkable, reading a biography of Helena Swanwick, that she is not as well known nor as celebrated as others in the Suffragette movement. She was a true visionary, a political philosopher, journalist and campaigner who articulated the battle for equality and the argument for pacifism at a time when it was far from clear that limited suffrage would be introduced, and men were sending their sons abroad to fight in the trenches.

In historian Donald Mitchell’s wide-ranging and brilliantly written biography, Against All Odds: The Life and Work of Helena Swanwick, her life, spanning the Victorian and Edwardian period and into the 1930s, is rightly being honoured – and shows how her work and legacy is still relevant today.

Academic and lecturer Donald, who lives in Dartmouth Park, has taught at universities in the UK and Ireland. He wrote a biography of pacifist campaigner ED Morel who became the dominant figure in the Union for Democratic Control (UDC) during the First World War, an organisation that revealed “the secret treaties and lies” leading up to the conflict, and campaigned for a just and lasting peace. It was while writing The Politics of Dissent on Morel that he came across Swanwick, who worked at the UDC.

“I realised this was another deliberately overlooked figure, not so much because of her valiant activities in the suffragette movement, as because of her vehement stance against violence and military conflict, and her criticism of the political forces that led to such carnage,” he says.

Born in Bavaria in 1864, she had a troubled childhood. One of six children to Oswald Sickert and Elena Henry, she was beset by ill health, a harsh mother and early years spent in a boarding school ruled by sadistic teachers. Her brother was Walter Sickert, the artist of the Camden Town Group fame, and the book describes how being a sister to five brothers was formative – and would set the tone for her political activism later in life. She wrote: “I learnt very early that, thought I was supremel­y important to myself, I was unimportant to others.”

Aged 14, she was moved to the Notting Hill High School, an altogether happier experience. Her parents were now mixing with the likes of William Morris and Oscar Wilde – who took a shine to her and commissioned a piece for the magazine Women’s World, her first paid piece of journalism.

“Swanwick was struck by his endless good humour,” writes Donald.

Wilde encouraged her to read poetry and it was also around this time she picked up John Stuart Mill’s work, which further focused her general feeling that all was not right in a world where half the race were treated as second-class citizens.

Aged 18, she was encouraged to apply to Girton College, Cam­bridge to study econom­ics: her parents did not want to contribute to the cost, and she was also struck by how endow­ments from wealthy rich women often went to churches, hospitals and dogs – but rarely towards the further education of women.

The book reveals that in her last year of study, she also worked as a lecturer at Westfield College, in Kidderpore Avenue, Hampstead, and it was while she taught there she met her husband to be, Frederick Swanwick. They settled in Manches­ter and Helena worked for the Manchester Guardian. She became more politicised through voluntary work managing a club for young women working in Manchester factories. Swanwick met many working-class families and became a member of the Women’s Trade Union Council and the North of England Suffrage Society. As a journalist she reported on many Suffragette meetings. Swanwick’s job as a reporter meant she could watch the growing movement from the sidelines – though she added she ached to join other women vocally campaigning for the vote.

When the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies decided to run a weekly news­paper, Swanwick was given the role as editor. Called Common Cause, it gave voice to feminist and socialist views and drew her further into the world of politics.

As war broke out, the Union of Democratic Control, based in Royal College Street, Camden Town, was formed. It called for democratic control of foreign policy, international cooperation and terms for peace that would not humiliate the defeated powers. Swanwick was appointed the movement’s secretary, giving her a further platform to expand her political philosophy.

Sadly, as Donald points out: “If Swanwick were alive today she would be horrified by the lack of progress that has been made over the last century.

“Swanwick’s views have great salience today, where the global equality of women is very far from established and powerful nations are hovering on the brink of catastrophic violence. She believed the organisation of a world community was essential for world peace, and the message her voice still carries deserves to be heard by us all.”

Against All Odds: The Life and Work of Helena Swanwick. By Donald Mitchell, Silverwood Books, £9.99
Donald Mitchell is giving a talk at the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Road, today (January 24) at 6.30pm. Free entry

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