Leeds Suffragettes remembered in specially commissioned work
Leading figures in the Suffragette movement were honoured with a specially commissioned artwork displayed as part of Light Night Leeds last week; a timely reminder that democratic rights are hard won and safeguarded
By Mark Cantrell
THEY were leading lights in the Suffragette movement fighting for women’s democratic rights, so it seems apt that over century on Leeds honoured their struggle as part of an illuminating arts show in the city centre.
As part of the Light Night Leeds show, held on the nights of October 4 and 5, the stories of local Suffragettes Leonora Cohen and Mary Gawthorpe were told in a new artwork projected onto the walls of the city’s 250-year-old Library.
The specially commissioned work, entitled A Certain Amount of Courage, sought to reveal more about the real women behind the extraordinary struggle for democracy and female emancipation.
Using archive material and images gathered from collections including those at Leeds City Museum, Abbey House Museum and Leeds Central Library, artist Karen Monid of The Projection Studio created an intimate digital portrait of two very different women, united by their unshakable belief in a common purpose.
“Through his piece, we see Suffrage history through the eyes and experiences of two women from Leeds. Through their lives and actions we get to know what that period looked like but we also get to know more about them as women, which was really important to me as I want people to connect with them,” Monid said.
“Both Leonora and Mary would have seen themselves as quite ordinary women who became part of something extraordinary and through that, they were able to find strengths and talents they never realised they had. I think we can all take something from that- the things that are sent to challenge us are very often what helps us grow.”
Part of Monid’s research included visiting Leeds City Museum, which hosts an extensive collection of material related to Leonora Cohen’s life.
She was a fiercely militant campaigner. In 1911, Cohen famously threw a rock at the window of a government building and was arrested and jailed before again being imprisoned in 1913, this time for hurling an iron bar through a showcase at the Tower of London.
Her fellow Suffragette Mary Gawthorpe, who features in Abbey House Museum’s current A Woman’s Place? exhibition, was a regular speaker at huge national events, including a rally in London’s Hyde Park in 1908 in front of more than 200,000 people.
This year also marks 100 years since the first women in the UK won the right to vote, and Monid said she believed both the event theme and her piece would resonate with Leonora and Mary.
“Recordings of Leonora paint a clear picture of a very committed and focused woman who was very determined and if she set her mind to something, you can tell nothing was going to distract her,” she said.
“What we know about Mary Gawthorpe reveals a very different personality and I don’t think people realise she was quite the celebrity and a lively, witty orator who had an excellent way with audiences.
“Their stories are still so relevant today – they both saw Suffrage as a means to and end and as a way of improving the lot of women and the people they were connected to. I think they would have recognised that what’s happening today is part of a continuing fight for equality.”
A Certain Amount of Courage also featured newly commissioned pictures of both Suffragettes by artists Suman Kaur, who won last year’s BBC Big Painting Challenge.
“Over the past 14 years, Light Night Leeds has continued to evolve, growing into an event of such impressive ambition and creativity that it has become one of the benchmarks for culture and innovation in Leeds and beyond,” said Councillor Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, ahead of the event.
“As Light Night once again brings thousands of people together, we hope that the event is not only a celebration of culture and artistic endeavour, but also of the unity, diversity and collective civic pride which are part of the foundation of Leeds.”