Pioneering Aberdeen journalist put job on the line to spearhead suffrage movement in North-east

Emmeline Pankhurst leading a procession of women

An Aberdeen trailblazer who helped women win the vote has been remembered a century after that momentous day.

While Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison are the names most associated with the suffrage movement, Caroline Phillips was a key player in the North-east of Scotland.

A journalist by trade and a rabble rouser when she needed to be, Caroline was a well-respected figure – even when she came into conflict with the movement’s leaders.

Aberdeen journalist and suffragette Caroline Phillips, pictured around 1900.

The drive for women’s suffrage in the North-east was strong and, as head of the Aberdeen Women’s Social and Political Union, it was Caroline who spearheaded the fight in and around the Granite City.

Sarah Pedersen, professor of communication and media at Robert Gordon University, has written a number of books detailing the life of Caroline.

She said: “Aberdeen has a unique collection of sources and letters about the suffragettes that tells us a remarkable story about Caroline Phillips.

“There are letters sent between herself and Emmeline Pankhurst.

“Caroline Phillips was very well-respected in the suffragette movement.”

However, despite her high-up position, Caroline often found herself in opposition with Emmeline Pankhurst and the more militant faction of the suffragettes.

The banner of the Aberdeen NUWSS branch.

Sarah said: “Pankhurst did not agree with a lot of Caroline Phillips’ beliefs.

“In particular, Phillips wasn’t happy about the militant approach to the cause.”

One event in 1909 saw the conflict between Emmeline Pankhurst and Caroline come to a head during a visit by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Herbert Henry Asquith.

Mr Asquith was due to give a speech at Aberdeen’s Music Hall and Emmeline Pankhurst travelled to Aberdeen in the hope of disrupting the event.

Sarah said: “Caroline Phillips was very unhappy about this and did her best to stop it from happening.

“Pankhurst saw herself as being a general in an army.

“She didn’t want to deal with individuals – she was very much working towards a greater good and that was her focus.

“After that, Caroline Phillips disappeared from this and there is evidence that the suffragettes were behind this.”

In 1909 she was relieved of leading the Aberdeen branch and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emmeline’s daughter, took over.

Sarah says Caroline fitted more into the role of a suffragist rather than a suffragette. Suffragists believed in using political means to achieve votes for women, while suffragettes employed the notion of “deeds not words”.

One incident in 1913 Aberdeen saw suffragettes torch the newly-constructed cookery, woodwork and laundry department of Ashley Road School, with paraphernalia relating to the cause left nearby.

Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested.

Sarah said: “The suffragist movement has been a little swallowed up by the suffragettes but it was a major movement in Aberdeen. It was founded here in 1871 and set up in Aberdeen. They believed in using constitutional means for creating change.”

As well as her role as a suffragette, Caroline was also a journalist for the Aberdeen Daily Journal, and based out of the Evening Express offices in Broad Street. She often found herself in conflict with the newspaper and was forced to choose between her career and her role in the suffragette movement.

Sarah said: “She had a career as a journalist as well as her role as a suffragette. She was torn between her job and her commitment to the movement. It fascinates me that she was putting her career on the line for this movement.

“Eventually she wasn’t allowed into political meetings which made it very difficult for her to carry out her job.

“It was also very unusual for a woman to have a role as a journalist at that time – that in itself is making a huge statement.

“She was quite shameless and would often write letters for the suffrage movement using work paper and equipment.

“It got her into a lot of trouble and must have been very difficult for her.”

In 1912, Caroline inherited the Station Hotel in Banchory from an aunt and moved out of Aberdeen.

She devoted herself to the business until her retirement to Kintore in the 1940s. On January 13, 1956, she passed away, at the age of 85, and is buried in Kintore kirkyard.

Sarah said: “I think it’s fantastic that these women that have been a little bit swallowed up by history are now being remembered in their own right as well as some of the more well-known figures in the suffragette movement.

“It’s so important to talk about this movement and the different cities and people involved in it.”