Radical Objects

Radical Object: The Dress of a Leeds Suffragette

In preparation for the Leeds Arts Club Ball in 1914, Leonora Cohen (1873-1978), a Leeds suffragette and talented seamstress, designed and made a unique turquoise rayon dress emblazoned with paper shields depicting Britannia waving the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) flag. Leonora was a member of the WSPU, the militant branch of the women’s suffrage movement, who believed in using direct action, such as breaking shop windows and chaining themselves to the railings of Buckingham Palace, as a means to gain the right to vote.

Leonora’s dress appears to be a one-off piece, making it a significant example of early twentieth-century feminist material culture. She wore the dress for the Leeds Arts Club Ball in 1914, an annual fancy dress ball attended by the city’s intellectuals, described as ‘a bohemian affair’ by the Leeds Mercury newspaper. Founded in 1903, the Leeds Arts Club aimed to introduce the city’s population to avant-garde ideas through weekly lectures and discussions. Leonora was among several Leeds suffragettes involved in the club, including Mary Gawthorpe, a paid organiser for the WSPU’s suffrage campaign. By wearing the dress to the Arts Club Ball, Leonora used her body to make a bold political statement and demonstrate her commitment to the women’s suffrage movement. The shields are printed in the suffragette colours of purple for dignity, green for hope and white for purity. A paper cut out of the figure of Britannia, the female warrior bearing the word ‘justice’, is attached to the front of her dress. Leonora also pinned a doll of a prison warder to the shoulder, symbolising her imprisonment for her involvement in the struggle for the right to vote.

Credit: The dress Leonora Cohen wore to the 1914 Leeds Arts Club Ball. Photograph credit: Leeds Museums and Galleries, UK/Bridgeman Images.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those women who subverted the ideals of femininity by wearing loose, practical clothing became the subject of caricatures, with women depicted as wearing trousers, goloshes and other masculine clothing. The suffragettes wanted to be taken seriously, so they mostly conformed to Edwardian fashion by presenting a feminine image. While Leonora conformed to ideals of femininity by wearing a dress, the cut and design of the dress were unconventional, suggesting that she was trying to challenge or subvert patriarchal ideals.

It has proven difficult to find any interviews or sources indicating why Leonora made the dress in the first place, but the photograph featured at the end of this article, taken of her and other women looking at the dress at Abbey House Museum, proves she must have spoken about the dress to other people. Nevertheless, the design of the dress, in terms of its practical short sleeves and length, would have been radical for an Edwardian society that valued modesty, perhaps indicating that Leonora wanted to present herself as a modern, progressive woman. The prominence of the WSPU flag and the dress’ colours also shows that Leonora wanted to visually show her support for the militant branch of the women’s suffrage movement.

Leonora Cohen after her release from Holloway Prison. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

To gain a better understanding of the woman behind the dress, I wanted to explore Leonora’s early life and her work before she became involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Leonora was born in Hunslet, Leeds, in 1873. Following her father’s death when she was five, Leonora and her two brothers were brought up by her mother. According to Historic Royal Palaces curator Polly Putnam, when Leonora was growing up, she saw that working women like her mother did not have the same rights as men, which inspired her to join the women’s suffrage campaign. Aged 14, Leonora became a milliner’s apprentice. In her mid-twenties, she decided to move to Bridlington after marrying her childhood friend and jewellery business owner, Henry Cohen. The couple moved back to Leeds shortly after their daughter died in infancy. Leonora’s husband strongly supported her involvement in the suffrage movement.

In 1909, Leonora joined the WSPU, established by the famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. The organisation used direct action to campaign for women’s suffrage, which they eventually achieved for some women over 30 through the 1918 Representation of the Peoples Act. Leonora was actively involved in the Leeds branch of the WSPU, attending meetings and rallies. By 1911, she became the secretary of the Union’s Leeds branch. Her militant actions led to her arrest and imprisonment on three occasions. On Saturday, 1st February 1913, during what is now a well-known protest, Leonora followed a group of school children into the Jewel House in the Tower of London. As part of the WSPU’s campaign of window breaking, she threw an iron bar smashing a glass case displaying the symbol of the Order of Merit, which the Crown awards to those who made a significant contribution to the Arts, Learning, Literature and Science. Leonora had wrapped a piece of paper around the iron bar, which 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. Votes for Women. 100 Years of Constitutional Petition, Resolutions, Meetings & Processions have Failed”.

Leonora was pinned to the ground by the Yeoman warders who guard the Tower of London and arrested for smashing the glass cabinet. However, Leonora was subsequently acquitted because she provided evidence that the damage she had caused did not exceed £5.

In November 1913, when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith visited Leeds, Leonora participated in one of several violent demonstrations. Firstly she was arrested for smashing one of the windows of the Labour Exchange on the corner of Great George Street in Leeds city centre. Following her trial, she was imprisoned in Armley Gaol, only to be released a few days later under the notorious 1913 Cat and Mouse Act after her health severely deteriorated when she went on a hunger and thirst strike. Under the Act, Leonora should have been re-imprisoned once her health had improved. Instead, she fled to Harrogate whilst out on licence. She then opened a guest house in Harrogate for suffragettes released under the 1913 Act.

Historians have debated how far the outbreak of the First World War led to the disappearance of the suffrage campaign as women began to join the war effort. Angela Smith argues that the campaign never disappeared, and women remained committed to the cause. Instead, they modified their tactics. During the First World War, the suffragettes necessarily scaled back their rallies and campaigns. Women used the war effort to their advantage, arguing they were on the same side as the government to justify their rights because they needed to be able to do war work to fight for the country. By undertaking war work, women were proving they were worthy citizens and deserved to be enfranchised.

During the First World War, Leonora worked in a munitions factory, participated in the workers’ trade unions and made bandages as part of the Lady Mayoress’ committee. The existence of Leonora’s dress visually shows that the campaign for women’s suffrage remained active, if not disrupted, during the war, and that women acted as individuals to support suffrage when possible.

Leonora Cohen and two unknown women at the opening of the exhibition ‘Votes for Women’ at Abbey House Museum (29th February 1966). Photograph credit: West Yorkshire Archives.

Leonora’s dress is an early example of feminists using fashion as a tool to enact social change. We can see parallels in feminist action today. For instance, in 2020, Natalie Portman wore a cape to the Oscars embroidered with the names of female directors to draw attention to the lack of female nominees in directing categories.

By displaying the words ‘suffragette’ and ‘justice’ and the WSPU flag, Leonora used her dress to create a collective identity in which she was part of an army of women fighting for their rights. Throughout her life, she remained devoted to campaigning for women’s rights and better working conditions, including working with the Trade Union movement. In 1978, Leonora passed away aged 105, at the height of second-wave feminism.

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