When Leeds’ Leonora took on the establishment to help win the vote

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“One hopes that women of the future will organise themselves into groups or unions and that they will use the vote intelligently to ensure that we will have the very highest standards of womanhood.”

It’s a thought provoking statement made nearly four decades ago from Leeds’s most prominent suffragette, Leonora Cohen at the ripe age of 100.

Leeds suffragette Leonora Cohen

Leeds suffragette Leonora Cohen

And it’s Mrs Cohen’s remarkable battle as a vanguard of change that still inspires 
generations of young women today.

When Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced a bill to enfranchise all men, but leave out every woman in 1911, Mrs Cohen was outraged and joined a Women’s Social and Political Union deputation to Westminster.

Whitehall windows were smashed and mounted police moved in. She was sentenced to seven days in Holloway.

However, her greatest act of disobedience earned Mrs Cohen a place in the history books.

Rather than resorting to smashing windows she wanted to make a direct statement to the state and smashed a showcase of the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London.

She managed to escape jail after being acquitted on a technicality owing to the value of the glass smashed.

When Asquith came to speak in Leeds in 1913 Mrs Cohen hurled a brick through a window and was imprisoned at Armley Jail, where she went on a hunger and thirst strike before being released under licence to prevent her death.

Nicola Pullan, assistant curator of Leeds and social history, said: “It’s hard to get a real grip of the scale of just what Leonora was and wasn’t doing.

“She was an incredibly busy woman and she lived a long and full life.

“She was very much aware of her role as being one of the vanguards of change and carried that as a responsibility throughout her life and career.

“She was aware that she was paving the way for women in the future to continue doing what she was doing.

“It’s interesting how she chose the Tower of London as a target. She had been planning to take part in the window breaking in the capital but she wanted to get something that was a symbol of the state.

“She flicked through an A to Z of London and picked the Tower. She wanted to avoid art galleries because she was from a family of artists.

“She had her own boundaries but you see her as a woman who put herself on the line.”

However, by the eve of the First World War, the Cohens had moved away from Leeds, now an unsafe city.

In quieter Harrogate, Leonora ran a boarding house – and helped shelter suffragette “mice” – fugitives from the notorious “Cat and Mouse Act”. The Act allowed women who had been on hunger strike out of prison for a certain number of days to recuperate, before being pursued again by the authorities.

In later life Mrs Cohen, who died at the age of 105 in 1978, was one of the earliest women to become a magistrate, being sworn in as a Justice of the Peace in Leeds in the second round of appointments of women.

She served for 25 years.

And in the 1920s was made an OBE for her services to Leeds.

Ms Pullan added: “Democracy is always changing and our roles as citizens are under the spotlight.

“For women in the 21st century it is important to remember that we haven’t always been lucky enough to be in the position we are now with votes.

“It not only enables you to look forward in the future and strive to make things improve in whatever area you are interested in.

“This happened with Leonora.

“When she became a magistrate she always tried to ensure that people facing the judiciary were treated as fairly as possible.

“She used the experiences she had to try and help improve things as time went forward.

“In so many areas of life it is important to take time to reflect.”