Brave nurses who helped win women the vote can inspire today's leaders

Nurses who joined in the struggle for women’s suffrage are largely unacknowledged, but their non-conformism is an example to nurse leaders today, write Lisa Reynolds and Julie Attenborough

Nurses who joined in the struggle for women’s suffrage are largely unacknowledged, but their non-conformism is an example to nurses’ leaders today, write Lisa Reynolds and Julie Attenborough

A suffragette march in June 1911.


Inspirational nurses in history’s shadows

Catherine Pine: ‘Sensible’ woman cared for suffragettes

Born in in 1864, Catherine Pine trained at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, with good reports throughout her training – she was described as a ‘nice sensible woman’ (Crawford 2003). She worked as a ward sister at Barts. The hospital archives contain records and photographs of her training and in her subsequent role.

In 1908 Catherine and another Barts’ qualified nurse, Gertrude Townend, both members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, ran a nursing home where suffragettes were cared for as they recovered from hunger strikes and forced feeding endured in Holloway prison. It was this nursing home that the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst went to after her release from prison. As a consequence of the ‘cat and mouse’ Act  (1913), which released suffragettes on hunger strike when their health became affected, returning them to prison when they recovered, the nursing home became a focus for the police and press and Catherine had to care for patients at various addresses in London.

No vote, no census

Taking part in a boycott of the census in 1911, Catherine wrote on her census return ‘No vote, No Information’, underlining the words in red and black ink (Liddington 2014).

In 1915 she managed a hostel set up by Emmeline Pankhurst to care for illegitimate war babies and in 1919 she travelled to America and Canada with Pankhurst and three of the babies (Purvis 2002).  She returned to England, and nursing, in 1923, becoming one of the first to register as a state enrolled nurse (Robinson 2018).

She died in 1941, leaving the special suffrage medal given to her by Emmeline Pankhurst to the British College of Nurses. The Catherine Pine Collection at the Museum of London consists of books and photographs that belonged to Catherine, documenting the struggle for suffrage.

Mary Rodwell: campaigned to improve women's lives

Born in 1874, Mary Rodwell trained at Hendon Infirmary Hospital, then worked at the Samaritan Free Hospital and nursing homes in London. Mary was a member of the Crystal Palace and Anerley Women's Freedom League. This movement included more working-class women than the Women’s Social and Political Union and had aspirations beyond women's suffrage, to improve women's lives.

The league objected to the union’s deference to wealthy women and, as a pacifist organisation, to the union’s tactics of arson and vandalism.

One member of the league, Muriel Matters, flew above London in an airship distributing Votes for Women leaflets. More than 100 league members went to prison for their actions during the campaign (Robinson 2018).

A member of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, Mary was caring for war wounded on a hospital ship, the Anglia, in 1915 and was among those drowned when it sank after hitting a mine (COHSE 2009).

Sophia Duleep Singh: heroine of Black Friday

Born in 1876, the daughter of a maharaja, Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh studied at the Northwestern Women’s Medical College in Chicago and became a British Red Cross nurse during the first world war.

She took part in the first women's deputation to the House of Commons in 1910, known as Black Friday because of the injuries sustained by women who participated.

Sophia was a member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League. She had her jewellery confiscated because of her refusal to pay taxes until suffrage was granted to women.

Her entry in the 1914 edition of Who’s Who listed her only interest as being ‘the advancement of women’ (Crawford 2003).

Catherine Pine ( see box, above) provides an exemplar of modern nursing values. She was committed to her patients and courageous in the face of intimidation.

In 2017 Alex Wubbels, a nurse in the USA, refused to allow police to take a blood sample from an unconscious patient, defending her position in the face of intimidation, physical assault and arrest. Brought to the world's attention through soical media, her courage changed police practice.

Nurses like Alex Wubbels who bravely hold the line according to nursing codes of practice and ethical priniciples continue the legacy of Catherine Pine.

Women's suffrage was a social movement which transformed society; one hundred years on, it has lessons for social action in modern life.

NHS England launched a three-year programme in 2016 to promote and support social movements to improve health and social care. Social movements enable people to engage as active communities to promote and change health and social care and ultimately society. This resonates with the women’s suffrage movement, which was characterised by strong leadership, agency, cohesive community and empowerment.

The innovation foundation Nesta (2016) describes elements of health as a social movement that connects us with the women’s suffrage movement: mobilising strengths, capabilities, resources and knowledge, experimenting with new ideas and knowledge, and ‘raging and roaring’ for issues that matter.

Resourceful and resilient

To effectively respond to this agenda nurses must be resourceful, resilient and determined. They must have the courage to think differently and challenge the status quo.

The importance of the nursing profession in challenging gender inequalities has been highlighted by the Nursing Now campaign. Launched in February 2018, Nursing Now aims to raise the status, profile and influence of nursing globally. The campaign is underpinned by the Triple Impact Report on how developing nursing will improve health, promote gender equality and support economic growth.

As in the past, for many women worldwide nursing is a profession that provides them with a voice, a community and power (Kuokkanen and Leino-Kilpi, 2000). The bravery of the nurses in the suffrage movement demonstrates how we may capitalise on this power to bring about social change.

There were many nurses engaged in the suffrage movement about whom little is known. Even the better-known nurses in the suffrage movement are largely ignored in the history and achievements of nursing, and they do not appear on lists of famous nurses. Perhaps this is because they were seen as challenging the conformist nature of the nursing profession.

Nurture nonconformists

The leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were dissidents. Their vision, belief, creativity and determination provide powerful examples for nursing leaders today. To lead change and create social movement we need to nurture the nonconformists and freethinkers within nursing and harness grassroots leadership.

Awareness of these extraordinary women may allow us to stand on their shoulders to achieve our goals: to enhance the quality of health and social care, challenge inequalities and develop future nurse leaders.


Lisa Reynolds is divisional lead for nursing, City, University of London

Julie Attenborough is associate dean and director of undergraduate studies, City, University of London


COHSE Union blogspot (2009).

Crawford E (2003) The Women's Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928. Routledge, London.

Kuokkanen L, Leino‐Kilpi H (2000) Power and empowerment in nursing: three theoretical approaches. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 31, 235-241.

Liddington J (2014) Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nesta (2016) Health as a Social Movement.

NHS England (2012) Compassion in Practice.

NHS England (2016) Triple Impact.

Purvis J (2002) Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. Routledge, London.

Robinson J (2018) Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and how Women Won the Vote. Penguin, London.

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