Lydia Becker

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Lydia Becker
Lydia becker.jpg
Lydia Becker
Born 24 February 1827
Chadderton, Lancashire, England
Died 18 July 1890 (aged 63)
Aix-les-Bains, Savoie, France
Cause of death Diphtheria
Nationality British
Education at home
Lydia Becker's name on the lower section of the Reformers memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery

Lydia Ernestine Becker (24 February 1827 – 18 July 1890) was a leader in the early British suffrage movement, as well as an amateur scientist with interests in biology and astronomy. She is best remembered for founding and publishing the Women's Suffrage Journal between 1870 and 1890.


Born in Chadderton, Lancashire, the oldest daughter of Hannibal Becker, whose father, Ernst Becker had emigrated from Ohrdruf in Thuringia. Becker was educated at home, like many girls at the time. Intellectually curious, she studied botany and astronomy, winning a gold medal for an 1862 scholarly paper on horticulture.[1] Five years later, she founded the Ladies' Literary Society in Manchester. She began a correspondence with Charles Darwin and soon afterwards convinced him to send a paper to the society.[2][3][4] In the course of their correspondence, Becker sent a number of plant samples to Darwin from the fields surrounding Manchester.[5] She also forwarded Darwin a copy of her "little book", Botany for Novices (1864).[6] Becker is one of a number of 19th-century women who contributed, often routinely, to Darwin's scientific work.[7] Her correspondence and work alike suggest that Becker had a particular interest in bisexual and hermaphroditic plants which, perhaps, offered her powerful 'natural' evidence of radical, alternative sexual and social order.[8]

In autumn 1866 Becker attended the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Social Science, where she was excited by a paper from Barbara Bodichon entitled "Reasons for the Enfranchisement of Women". She dedicated herself to organising around the issue, and in January 1867 convened the first meeting of the Manchester Women's Suffrage Committee, the first organisation of its kind in England.[9]

Several months later, a widowed shop owner, Lily Maxwell, mistakenly appeared on the register of voters in Manchester; Becker visited Maxwell and escorted her to the polling station. The returning officer found Maxwell's name on the list and allowed her to vote. Becker immediately began encouraging other women heads of households in the region to petition for their names to appear on the rolls. Their claims were presented in court by junior defence barrister Richard Pankhurst in Chorlton v. Lings, but the case was dismissed.[10]

On 14 April 1868, Becker moved the resolution that women should be granted voting rights on the same terms as men at the first public meeting of the National Society for Women's Suffrage in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Becker subsequently commenced a lecture tour of northern cities on behalf of the society. In June 1869, Becker and fellow campaigners were successful in securing the vote for women in municipal elections.[11] Having campaigned for the inclusion of women on school boards, in 1870 she was one of four women elected to the Manchester School Board on which she served until her death.[12] In the same year Becker and her friend Jessie Boucherett founded the Women's Suffrage Journal and soon afterward began organising speaking tours of women – a rarity in Britain at the time.[13] At an 1874 speaking event in Manchester organised by Becker, fifteen-year-old Emmeline Pankhurst experienced her first public gathering in the name of women's suffrage.[14]

The Journal was the most popular publication relating to women's suffrage in 19th-century Britain. Roger Fulford, in his study of the movement Votes for Women: The Story of a Struggle, writes: "The history of the decades from 1860 to 1890 – so far as women's suffrage is concerned – is the history of Miss Becker."[15] The Journal published speeches from around the country, both within and outside of Parliament. Becker published her correspondence with her supporters and her opponents, notably in 1870, when she chastised the MP for Caernarvonshire after he voted against a proposal offering women the vote.[16]

In 1880, Becker and co-workers campaigned in the Isle of Man for the right of women to vote in the House of Keys elections. Unexpectedly, they were successful and they secured for women voting rights in the Isle of Man for the first time in the elections of March 1881.[17]

Becker differed from many early feminists in her disputation of essentialised femininity. Arguing there was no natural difference between the intellect of men and women, Becker was a vocal advocate of a non-gendered education system in Britain.[18] She also differed with many suffrage activists in arguing more strenuously for the voting rights of unmarried women. Women connected to husbands and stable sources of income, Becker believed, were less desperately in need of the vote than widows and single women. This attitude made her the target of frequent ridicule in newspaper commentary and editorial cartoons.[19]

In 1890 Becker visited the spa town of Aix-les-Bains, where she fell ill and died of diphtheria, aged 63.[18] Rather than continue publishing in her absence, the staff of the Women's Suffrage Journal decided to cease production.


Lydia's name is listed on the south face of the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.


  • Botany for Novices (1864)
  • "Female Suffrage" in The Contemporary Review (1867)
  • "Is there any Specific Distinction between Male and Female Intellect?" in Englishwoman's Review of Social and Industrial Questions (1868)
  • "On the Study of Science by Women" in The Contemporary Review (1869)
  • "The Political Disabilities of Women" in The Westminster Review (1872)


The archives of Lydia Becker are held at the Women's Library at the Library of the London School of Economics, ref 7LEB


  1. Holton, p. 22.
  2. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  7. 'Women and Science' section of the 'Darwin & Gender' resources of the Darwin Correspondence Project
  8. Bernstein, S. D., '‘Supposed Differences': Lydia Becker and Victorian Women's Participation in the BAAS' in Clifford, D., Wadge, E., Warwick, A., & Willis, M. (eds.), Repositioning Victorian Society: Shifting Centres in Nineteenth-Century Scientific Thinking (London, 2006).
  9. Liddington and Norris, p. 70; Fulford, pp. 54–55.
  10. Liddington and Norris, p. 71; Phillips, p. 103; Fulford, pp. 63–64.
  11. Herbet, pp 37–38
  12. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  13. Phillips, p. 132.
  14. Bartley, Paula. Emmeline Pankhurst. London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-20651-0. p. 22.
  15. Fulford, p. 78.
  16. Fulford, pp. 77–78.
  17. Herbet, P39.
  18. 18.0 18.1 "Lydia Becker – The Life and Times". Famous Chaddertonians. Chadderton Historical Society. 25 May 2008. Accessed on 6 August 2008.
  19. Liddington and Norris, p. 74.


  • Fulford, Roger. Votes for Women: The Story of a Struggle. London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1957. OCLC 191255.
  • Herbet, Michael. Up Then Brave Women: Manchester's Radical Women 1819 – 1918. North West Labour History Society, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9523410-1-7
  • Holton, Sandra Stanley. Suffrage Days: Stories from the Women's Suffrage Movement. London: Routledge, 1996. ISBN 0-415-10942-6.
  • Liddington, Jill and Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women's Suffrage Movement. London: Virago Limited, 1978. ISBN 0-86068-007-X.
  • Phillips, Melanie. The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas Behind It. London: Abacus, 2004. ISBN 0-349-11660-1.
  •  Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.

External links