Helen Kirkpatrick Watts: The Sunderland born rebel suffragette who fought for women’s right to vote

At the beginning of the 20th century, social and economic changes led to a growing demand by women for equal rights in Britain, who had largely remained second class citizens as Parliamentary democracy and political participation expanded.

With electoral democracy a closed shop for men only, in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed, better known as the “suffragettes” who campaigned using militant methods and civil disobedience to force the government to give equal suffrage to women.

After much struggle, their day of triumph would come in 1918 with the “Representation of the People Act”, but did you know that one Sunderland born woman played a significant role in this historic struggle?

Helen Kirkpatrick Watts (1881-1972) was the daughter of a Vicar born in the parish of Bishopwearmouth. One of seven children, she suffered from deafness but never let this hold her back. The family later moved to Nottingham.

As she grew up Helen supported women’s education, contributed to women’s magazines and published poems. When Helen was 26 years old she became interested in women’s suffrage campaigning and joined the WSPU, where she became an activist.

As society sought to resist activism for women’s suffrage, Helen found herself imprisoned numerous times for her campaigning. She was first jailed for demonstrating outside of Parliament in 1909 and then again later that year for “disorderly conduct” disrupting a Winston Churchill speech.

After she was imprisoned the second time, she undertaken a 90 day hunger strike in protest which subsequently forced her release. Her hunger strike proved to be her most commemorated achievement and she was soon honoured with a medal from the WSPU, as well as given an audience with the leading feminists of that era.

After her activism in the Suffragette movement came to an end, Watts later trained to be a nurse. She later retired to Canada, but returned to the UK to spend out the last her days in Somerset. Passing away in 1972, Helen’s lifespan witnessed an overwhelming transformation in the role of women in society. Born in a highly discriminatory Victorian world, her own legacy saw her serve as a key player in bringing about equal rights in society, with the 1970s bearing little resemblance to the system she fought against.