Updated: Oct 31
Jessie Stephen is one of the few working-class Scottish Suffragettes about whom much is known. She was born in London on 19th April 1893 and came to Scotland when she was about two years old. Her father was a tailor who went where the work was, so the family moved to Dunfermline, then Edinburgh, and finally Glasgow. The Stephen children (all 11 of them) attended North Kelvinside School, where Jessie was bright enough to win a scholarship. However, she left at 15 when her father lost his job and she took work as a domestic servant to help the family budget.
Conditions varied depending on the employer. One, Lady Chisholm of Belhaven Terrace, dismissed Jessie when she wrenched her ankle running upstairs and thus couldn’t fulfill all her duties. Jessie had strong Socialist views which she learned from her father, and by 16 she was already the vice-chair of the Maryhill Independent Labour Party, so she wasn’t going to accept this treatment meekly. She organized her fellow maids into the Scottish Domestic Workers’ Federation (1913) to campaign for better conditions and used her contacts to help, for example, Bailie Alston, a Labour man who ran a number of tea shops let them use one for meetings at which she addressed not just fellow servants, but their employers too.
Alongside this, she became an active Suffragette, joining the Women’s Social and Political Union. Again, Jessie was able to use her contacts by asking the ILP for help in dealing with any trouble at Suffragette meetings. Groups of hefty dockers would be distributed around the room and they hurled out the hecklers at any sign of abuse. Jessie also became the youngest member of a group that went to London in March 1913 to lobby the House of Commons, and she was involved in what the Glasgow Herald described as “Pillar Box Outrages”, something she got away with because, in her own words: "I could drop acid into a pillar box without anyone suspecting me – muslin apron, black dress, cap and cuffs. I couldn’t be doing anything criminal!" All of this was by the age of 20!
During the First World War Jessie was “head-hunted” by Sylvia Pankhurst for her Workers’ Suffrage Foundation in London’s East End and she never returned to live in Glasgow, moving around the UK preaching the Socialist and Trades Union messages. She also went on lecture tours abroad, traveling thousands of miles in North America while still in her early 20s. Her biggest aim of becoming a Member of Parliament was never fulfilled, but she remained an activist all her life and had many achievements including winning the TUC Gold Medal in 1955 and being awarded an MBE in 1977.
Jessie died in Bristol on 12th June 1979 and, reflecting her importance to the Labour movement, her funeral was attended by well-known figures such as Tony Benn. If you want to know more about her, you can read her unpublished autobiography, Submission is for Slaves, online via the Working-Class Movement Library in Manchester.
You can also listen to her via interviews with surviving Suffragettes made in the 1970s by historian Brian Harrison on the London School of Economics website. Jessie is number 157 on the list – and despite her years in England, you can still hear her strong Scottish accent.
There was another Jessie too!
There is another significant suffrage campaigner called Jessie: Jessie Soga, who was born in South Africa on 21 August 1870. Her father, Reverend Tiyo Soga, died when Jessie was just a baby and her mother, Janet Burnside, a Scottish missionary who met Tiyo when he studied theology in Glasgow, brought the family to Scotland. Jessie was a talented singer, and you can read about her career and involvement with the suffrage movement in a blogpost by Lesley Mitchell of Protests and Suffragettes, an excellent project which, amongst other activities, has produced resources for schools on radical women.
This blog is part of a Trailblazers collection, celebrating the lives of 10 women who we decided to name our bikes after! To find out more and click to see some of the other blogs, please click on Trailblazers: The 10 Women who inspired Gallus Pedals.
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Anabel Marsh is a volunteer tour guide with Glasgow Women's Library (GWL). GWL now has six women's history walks, three longer trails, and one bike ride, all of which can be downloaded as self-guided tours from GWL's website. Guided walks take place during the summer months and can be booked via the library's events calendar.