ON February 6, 2018 women will celebrate 100 years of female suffrage. After a fifty–year campaign, women over 30 years old received the vote if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a university constituency.

Southampton has always been blessed with independent thinking and determined women of influence.

Twice widowed Dame Claramunda held and lived in “Ronceval” a magnificent 13th century tenement on Western Esplanade. Her entrepreneurial skills enabled her to amass a great fortune. While in the following century, Petronilla le Fleming, the widow of John le Fleming bravely and successfully, sued for her inheritance rights, and continued with the family trading business becoming a wealthy and independent woman.

Lower class women also contributed to Southampton’s prosperity, either by becoming licensed market traders, by joining the town’s unique all-women wool packers’ guild, known as the “wild packers of Southampton” or by working as prostitutes in the brothels that lined East Street.

By the eighteenth–century women were becoming vocal through their writing. Feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who worshipped at Holy Rood Church, was dubbed the Hyena in Petticoats and her book “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” called marriage legalised prostitution. The more reasoned, but ironic voice of the novelist Jane Austen, who lived in Castle Square, explored the same topic in her books.

In the 1800’s, the voices had become more and more strident, as the campaign for female suffrage grew. Both Suffragists, Emily Davies, born in Carlton Crescent and founder of the first all-woman college, Girton at Cambridge, and Southampton’s first woman mayor Lucia Foster–Welch were leading activists. Indeed Foster–Welch entertained suffragette leader Emily Pankhurst at her Oxford Street home.

It was to be the death of two poverty-stricken women which transformed Southampton’s history. Pregnant single mother Elizabeth Biggs died of hypothermia and starvation when denied access to the workhouse in St. Mary’s, whilst notorious prostitute Ellen Wren choked to death in her Simnel Street lodgings. Southampton Town Council was forced to change its administration of the Poor Law, and commence a programme of slum clearance.

One of Elizabeth the first’s chief ladies in waiting, Elizabeth Vernon, was involved in a scandal in 1598, when she became pregnant and secretly married Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. The Queen imprisoned the pair, and although soon released, they never recovered her favour.

Gods House Hospital in Winkle Street was run by nuns and monks until 1338 when it was acquired by the Crown. Edward 3rd gave it to his wife Queen Phillipa of Hainault together with the area of Oxford Street. Phillipa endowed Gods House to Queens College Oxford.

Compiled by Sandra M Lochhead (See Southampton tour guide) in collaboration with women’s historian Jean H Cook