First in the Fight


Deborah Grace meets Helen Antrobus and Andrew Simcock, the authors of a new book that celebrates the achievements of Manchester’s radical women.

It’s been almost a year since the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst was unveiled in St Peter’s Square – the first female statue to be erected in Manchester since 1901. The historic unveiling, attended by 6,000 people, was the finale to a year which marked the centenary of Votes for Women. Our Emmeline, created by award-winning sculptor, Hazel Reeves, was the outcome of a five-year campaign – Womanchester – that captured the hearts of a nation.

Thousands of people took part in a public vote, eventually choosing the suffragette leader from a shortlist of 20 of Manchester’s most radical and progressive women. A new book now celebrates the achievements of the women who stood alongside Emmeline Pankhurst on that list.

First in the Fight (published by inostalgia) is co-authored by social historian Helen Antrobus and Didsbury East councillor Andrew Simcock, who spearheaded the Womanchester campaign.

“A lot of people had said to me, ‘All these women are fantastic! Why can’t we have statues of them all?’ They certainly do all deserve greater recognition,” says Andrew Simcock.

“I‘d always intended to write a book about the Our Emmeline campaign,

because I’d put five years of my life into the statue and felt it was important to record the story. The project created such positive energy and reminded us all what a progressive city Manchester is, and always has been. This was a fantastic opportunity to explore the stories of all the women who inspired the Womanchester project, where this journey began and that the legacy of Our Emmeline continues.”

First in the Fight tells the story of a city where – from the women who marched to St Peter’s Field, flying the flag for reform, to the first entrepreneurs – women have long stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight for equality and social change.

Alongside each of the women’s narratives is an individual illustration, lovingly created by talented female artists from the Women in Print collective. The book’s cover image, designed by Jane Bowyer, founder and curator of Women in Print, features the red rose of Lancashire alongside symbols of resistance and protest. The bicycle wheel is a nod to the charity bike ride that Andrew Simcock completed in 2014, which marked the start of fundraising for the Womanchester campaign.

The list of women includes names as diverse as the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, anti-racism campaigner Louise Da-Cocodia, RSPB founder Emily Williamson, city councillor Margaret Ashton, Jarrow March leader ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson and Channel swimmer Ethel ‘Sunny’ Lowry. Also featured are Lydia Becker, Margaret Downes, Annie Horniman, Kathleen Ollerenshaw, Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mary Quaile, Elizabeth Raffald, Esther Roper, Enriqueta Rylands, Olive Shapley, Sheena Simon and Marie Stopes.

“Each was ground-breaking in her own way and the impact of their collective contribution leaves a legacy that is felt by the world,” says Helen Antrobus, who wrote the women’s stories for the book. “The book celebrates women like Ellen Wilkinson and Louise Da-Cocodia – impassioned, radical people who made crucial, social change. And then there are people like Sunny Lowry, one of the first women to swim the Channel. What I love so much about her story is that she failed on her first two attempts but she never gave up.

“She designed her own swimming costume and when she got out of the water after swimming for 14 hours – pretty much blue and covered in jellyfish stings – someone on the beach threatened to call the police because she was indecently dressed!”

The book’s title, First in the Fight, echoes the words emblazoned on the Manchester Suffragette banner, which appeared on the platform alongside Emmeline Pankhurst. The same words were also uttered by Mrs Pankhurst in some of her most significant speeches.

However, for almost a century the banner remained out of the public eye, for a time lying undiscovered in the back office of a Leeds charity shop. The banner finally went on public display at the People’s History Museum last year and played a central role in marking the centenary in 2018 of the first women gaining the right to vote.

Both Helen and Andrew will speak at the official launch of First in the Fight at the People’s History Museum on 14 November 2019.

Adds Helen: “I hope this book, coming at such a critical time of division and political uncertainty, will serve as a reminder that every woman can still use her voice and will be  heard.”

First in the Fight is available from mid-November 2019.