Dora Thewlis was born in 1890. She was one of seven children of¬†a working-class family in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Her parents were proud of her curiosity and integrity. Her mother Eliza described her in glowing terms: ‚ÄúEver since [Dora] was seven, she has been a diligent reader of newspapers and can hold her own in politics.‚Äù At age ten, Dora worked part-time at the local mill, spending the rest of her day at school. In her teens, Dora joined the Women‚Äôs Social and Political Union, an organisation campaigning for women‚Äôs right to vote.
In 1907, Dora travelled to London to take part in a political march. She and a group of other suffragettes were arrested for attempting to rush the House of Commons. Dora‚Äôs defiance and spirit captured the public‚Äôs imagination. A photo of her arrest appeared in newspapers and on postcards, often labelling her ‚Äúthe Baby Suffragette.‚Äù Dora‚Äôs story shows how parts of somebody‚Äôs identity (like their class, gender and age) can influence their treatment before the law and in the media.
The magistrate who heard Dora‚Äôs case could not believe that her parents had ‚Äúlet her loose‚Äù in London. He also implied that Dora‚Äôs main reason for going to London was to ‚Äúentice‚Äù men. The magistrate had trouble imagining why a teenage girl would be interested in voting rights, or why her parents would allow her to travel and campaign un-chaperoned. He didn‚Äôt acknowledge that the issues Dora was campaigning for affected her personally. Still, even while Dora spent a week in prison, her parents encouraged her. Dora‚Äôs mother Eliza wrote to her daughter: ‚ÄúI am very proud of the way you have acted, so keep your spirits up and be cheerful.‚Äù
Dora objected to being called ‚Äúthe Baby Suffragette.‚Äù When approached by a journalist, she declared, ‚ÄúI am not a baby. In May next year I shall be eighteen. Surely for a girl, that is a good age?‚Äù This part of Dora‚Äôs story shows one of the major challenges of being a girl in many societies. Growing up, I was expected to obey adults but also to provide care to others. I often felt like adults chose to see me as a child or a grown-up depending on what was convenient. This combination of sexism and ageism works to downplay girls‚Äô achievements and their power. However, Dora‚Äôs story shows that when girls are treated as intelligent and independent, they can be courageous activists.
Girl Museum Inc.