Lydia Becker: Leading trailblazer in Britain’s women’s suffrage movement
Lydia Ernestine Becker, a botanist by profession, was one of the early pioneers of women’s suffrage movement in Britain.
Lydia Becker was born on February 24, 1827, as the daughter of Hannibal Becker, the owner of a chemical works in Manchester, England, and Mary Duncuft. She was the eldest of fifteen children. Like her sisters, she was educated at home. After the death of her mother in 1855, she took the responsibility of looking after her younger siblings.
Becker was an intellectually curious person. She started studying botany and astronomy in the 1850s. Her interest in botany resulted in sending a letter to Charles Darwin in 1863 concerning the subject. She provided Darwin with specimens of plants indigenous to her hometown.
In 1866, Becker attended a suffrage meeting held at Manchester where she heard Barbara Bodichon giving a lecture on women’s suffrage.
Lydia was interested in Darwin’s work on plant dimorphism. She worked on it and send him detailed observations on the phenomenon. Darwin responded to her letters and gave his feedback on writing. He also advised Lydia where to publish her articles.
In 1864, Lydia Becker won an award for her collection of dried plants. Two years later, in 1866, her book Botany for Novices was published. She also established Manchester Ladies Literary Society for the study of scientific subjects among women. Upon her request, Darwin sent her three papers to be read at the inaugural meeting of the society.
In 1866, Becker attended a suffrage meeting held at Manchester where she heard Barbara Bodichon giving a lecture on women’s suffrage. She was instantly attracted to the idea and wrote an article titled Female Suffrage for the magazine, The Contemporary Review. Emily Davies and Elizabeth Wolstenholme, two women rights activists read Lydia Becker’s article and joined her to co-found the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee. Becker was the first secretary of the committee. Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee later became the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Elizabeth Wolstenholme also arranged to print 10,000 copies of the article Female Suffrage as pamphlet.
In 1868, Lydia Becker accepted the position of the treasurer of the Married Women's Property Committee. At the same time, Josephine Butler was running a campaign against the Contagious Disease Act. Becker joined Josephine Butler in her campaign. She also continued writing articles for women’s suffrage. In 1870, Becker established the Women’s Suffrage Journal. She edited the journal from 1870 to 1890.
In 1870, an Education Act was passed, which enabled women to vote and serve on school boards. Lydia Becker was elected to the Manchester School Board. During her stint, she focussed on improving the education of girls in Manchester.
In 1874, Lydia Becker created a controversy when she supported a Bill put forward by William Forsyth MP that would grant voting rights to single women. Becker, who was unmarried, supported the Bill. She only thought of it as a short-term strategy, but she had to face severe criticisms from married suffragists like Emmeline Pankhurst. Lydia Becker was also forced to resign from the Married Women‘s Property Committee.
In 1881, Lydia Becker was offered the post of paid secretary of the Central Society for Women’s Suffrage. She accepted the offer and served as secretary for the next three years. In 1887, she was elected president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
By 1889, Becker started to suffer from health issues. She resigned as the editor of the Women’s Suffrage Journal.
Lydia Becker passed away on July 21, 1890.