As a researcher and writer, I have been fortunate in acquiring the voluminous manuscript diary kept by Kate Parry Frye (1878-1959) from 1887 until October 1958. It is in effect the record of one woman’s entire life. The diary is of particular interest because from 1906 Kate was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and from 1911 until 1915 was employed as a paid organizer for a suffrage society. More importantly, she was one of the foot soldiers of the suffrage movement, her involvement in the Cause previously lost to history. It is this aspect of her life that I have resurrected in Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, an edited version of those suffrage-dominated years.
Kate’s diary is unique in allowing us an insight into the life, work and thoughts of a rank-and-file suffragist. Writing daily in large ledger-type volumes she had ample space in which to recount life’s minutiae. The diary was written with no thought that it would be read by others – and certainly with no thought of publication. Kate wrote from immediate experience, her remarks untainted by hindsight. As such her diary is a peculiarly reliable primary source, revealing the world-view of a first-wave feminist – in all its real-life contradiction.
Although conventionally brought-up and conventionally ill-educated at home by governesses, Kate Frye was well-read and, aside from the millions of words committed to her diary, wrote many plays, only one of which was published. Moreover, in the early years of the 20th century she acquired a profession – the ‘acting profession’. After a short training at the Ben Greet Academy (where a year or so later Sybil Thorndike was to be a star pupil) she then found employment with touring repertory companies. An apparently conventional middle-class young woman, she put herself on the stage because she was devoted to the theatre and was keen to earn – at least partially – her own living. Incidentally, we might find it surprising that her family did not object, but her parents were equally stage-struck and Kate was not required to fight any feminist battle on this front.
However, after a couple of years, Kate had to admit that acting did not really pay and return to the family home – or homes. At this time the Fryes rented a London house in north Kensington and another on the Thames at Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. It was now – from 1906 – that she became increasingly involved in the suffrage movement, as a member of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (LSWS), a constitutional society.
Kate acted as a steward at LSWS meetings, took part in spectacular processions, worked to raise funds as a palm-reader at bazaars and sat on dance committees. Of one of the earliest meetings at which she stewarded, held in Kensington Town Hall on 3 December 1906, she wrote, ‘I am afraid I felt I was more like a helper at a Bazaar than at so grave a thing as a Woman’s Suffrage Meeting – but I am in earnest – I really do feel a great belief in the need of the Vote for Women if only as a means of Education. I feel my prayer for Women in the words of George Meredith “More brains, Oh Lord, more brains.” But we are coming along and not slowly by any means. Of course all these rowdy attacks on the Ministers and these imprisonments have sounded coarse and unpleasant and the jokery made of it most bad for the cause – but women have waited patiently. At this meeting every thing passed off in a most orderly dignified spirit – and the speeches from the women were delightful and must have come as a revelation to many of the audience. There was a declaration there for any working woman there who cared to sign – a number did – I did – as I have a profession. Naturally they don’t want crowds of names without any meaning or strength in them.’ So, although no longer working, Kate was proud to have a profession, feeling it set her aside from most of her fellow members in the Kensington branch of the LSWS.
As the years passed Kate became increasingly involved in direct engagement with the public – for example, standing in the street handing out flyers advertising suffrage meetings and canvassing for the LSWS at polling stations during the 1910 general elections.
With her eye for the theatrical she was keen to be present at all suffrage grand occasions. For instance she was in Parliament Square on 18 November 1910 when the news was released that Parliament was to be dissolved and the suffrage bill (the Conciliation Bill) on which the campaigners were relying was to be lost. The following is one small section from the long eyewitness account that Kate confided to her diary that very evening. ‘As the crowd grew and the crowd kept being pressed back – I moved away and once, seeing some fighting women & policemen on the pavement coming my way, I stood back to the railing expecting them to go by. But, oh no – a burly policemen, taking me for one of a deputation, caught hold of me with an ‘Out you come’ and for some minutes I was tossed about like a cork on an angry sea, turning round and round – sometimes bumped on to a policeman – sometimes on a hospital nurse, who was fighting for all she was worth – pale to the lips but determined (and I afterwards saw her led off arrested ) – until I was with the others pushed out of the danger zone. The others went back but I sat down by the railing for a few minutes. I was too excited to realise quite what was happening and I was so thickly dressed as not to feel the bumps much – but it wasn’t nice. What I felt was – I am not going to get out of the trouble by saying I am not one of them for I am in heart and anyway he [the policeman] will probably think I am trying to trick him and it will do no good and if these women can stand so much I can stand this little. And of course it was nothing really – only a new experience.’ This ‘new experience’ had a salutary effect and Kate immediately resigned from the LSWS and joined the women who had been so badly treated – that is, she became a member of Mrs Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union.
Who knows what might have befallen her as the militant campaign became increasingly violent if she had remained a ‘suffragette’? However, Kate was never required to make any decisions about smashing windows or setting fire to pillar boxes because by the end of 1910 it became clear that the life that she had known was about to end. Her father, Frederick Frye, who in the 1890s had been the radical Liberal MP for North Kensington and whose chain of grocery stores had kept the family in relative, if decreasing, comfort, had now lost control of his business. As financial disaster loomed Kate decided that she would have to go back on the stage. She was saved from this precarious prospect by the offer of employment as organizer to their new society, the New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, by two decidedly feminist friends – university-educated sisters – Alexandra and Gladys Wright,.As the name suggests, the New Constitutional Society was formed by women who were instinctively ‘constitutional’, but who felt the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies too tame for their taste and the Women’s Social and Political Union too militant. Incidentally, there is more information about the NCS in Kate Frye’s diary that exists in any archive, the Society having clearly made a thorough job of destroying its files when it disbanded in 1918, its work, as it saw it, accomplished.
Among her other duties, Kate had to organize the printing of handbills for her meetings
Campaigning for the Vote opens in early 1911 as Kate begins her new employment and covers in detail the work she undertook from then until mid-1915 as she travelled around the country – in particular in Norfolk and Kent – attempting to rouse the men and women of England to the cause of ‘Votes for Women’. During these years Kate both preached and practised feminism, likening herself, on occasion, to an ‘Ibsen woman’. Not only was she promoting the suffrage message – demanding political, social and economic equality for women – but, as she did so, she was experiencing and conquering many of the petty notions of correct behaviour that existed to discomfort lone women. Although missing home comforts, she rather enjoyed the freedom associated with an itinerant life, feeling slightly superior to those still trammelled by convention.
For instance, while staying at a hotel in Ashford, Kent, in March 1912, Kate became friendly with a fellow guest, a travelling lecturer whose remit was to expound the merits of the Insurance Bill. However, on the third morning ‘To my horror when I came down to breakfast I found two very shy and awkward men. Evidently the Commercial gets spring cleaned on Saturday and so they joined us. However I took it lightly, rang the bell for my breakfast, wished them good morning and we had some light chat. My, how they did squirm. Then in came my friend. He looked at me and then down and I saw in a moment a change and set in – oh! such a change, he was as shy as the Commercial travellers. I began to feel awkward too, but it was rather a game.’ That same evening, her friend having moved on, she, perforce, had the company of ‘a woman who was returning home to Worthing but who, owing to the alteration of trains owing to the strikes was unable to proceed further than here’ This woman clearly felt very uncomfortable staying alone in a hotel and ‘asked me all the things it would be correct to do or leave undone and did my parents approve of my staying in a Hotel by myself etc etc.’
However, for much of the time, rather than living in hotels, Kate had to choose the cheaper option – ‘digs’. As a class, transient women lodgers did not have a good reputation and she was happy to do what she could to strike a blow for feminism on their behalf, writing in June 1913, while staying in Fakenham, Norfolk, ‘My good landlady seems to like me and, as she has never had a lady lodger before, I must make a good impression.’
As an organizer Kate had to overcome a natural reserve, steeling herself to knock on doors and engage strangers in conversation, but she was soon canvassing with aplomb. During her first week of work – in March 1911, at East Dereham, Norfolk – she wrote, ‘Alexandra [Wright] & I went out paying calls – so amusing – some people quite nice. The Minister nice but so quaint – the district nurse quaint – but with us – and the Minister’s wife most annoyed with us – and the doctor’s wife shaking with rage. It was funny – she did so want to be rude – but we weren’t quite the sort.’
Later that summer, in Lowestoft with a couple of fellow organizers, Kate recorded that ‘we donned our Posters & very trim and nice we looked – two in green linen and one in cream linen with the Large Double Cross Bills [these were posters depicting ‘Double-Cross Dishonourable Asquith’] sewn on to stiff Brown Paper and tied round our necks with green ribbon. My heart beat horribly at first but it was really alright – and not bad when we got started. I went first.’ They encountered a ‘bevy of young men …evidently undergraduates [who] thought they were going to have a lark. By a gift I was able to freeze them and they spoke quite nicely afterwards. But of course they had expected a “rag” – what one does have to put up with. Well I suppose it is bracing. Dodging in and out Mr Pamphilon’s office [Pamphilon was the manager of the theatre in which she was organizing a meeting] has been trial enough. I always felt I might blush. The sort of man who cannot get away from Sex. He has tried to be good with me and I think his interest in Suffrage is aroused, but I do happen to look particularly blooming down here. I suppose it helps the Suffrage, but it shouldn’t. But it is hard to live up to Suffrage.’
Moreover, for every suffrage meeting that she organized Kate had to find a chairman or chairwoman and was constantly incensed by refusals from the local worthies – often clergymen. At Wantage, Berkshire, in December 1913, finding that the local vicars had fixed a special service to coincide with the suffrage meeting they knew she was planning, she did not mince her words. ’ Pigs!!! Yes they are.’ Suffrage organizing was work that will never attract the praise awarded the daring deeds of the militants but in its way it was heroic.
Although in her suffrage days Kate travelled without the support of a man, she did, in fact, have a fiancé. She and John Collins were engaged for 11 years until, in late 1914 Kate took the decision that they should at last get married. John had little say in the matter – except to acquiesce with delight. The engagement dated from an occasion when something occurred while Kate was alone with John, a fellow actor, in digs in Croydon while on a tour. What that ‘something’ was I have been unable exactly to fathom but whatever it was (and I do not think it was the obvious) John told her – and she agreed – that now she could not marry anyone else. However, as Kate knew, he was not destined to have much success in life and had little hope of supporting her in the style then expected. It was only when war brought him a salary as an army officer that marriage became a possibility.
Moreover by then that prospect was more attractive than the alternative. Kate’s father had recently died and she had no desire either to live with her mother and sister in their rented house in Worthing, or to spend the rest of her life alone in digs. Although an ‘Ibsen woman’, Kate was realistic.
Kate Frye continued to work for the NCS until mid-1915, running the work room that was the society’s contribution to the war effort. Despite this, when, in February 1918, she recorded her pleasure at the passing of the ‘Franchise Bill’, she also lamented,’ Haven’t had a single letter from anyone concerning it – I said I wouldn’t but it seems very strange – that someone hasn’t though of me in connection with the work.’ However Campaigning for the Vote has now reclaimed Kate Frye not only as a worker for the Cause but one whose words allow us to experience this particular feminist battle through fresh eyes.
Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary, edited by Elizabeth Crawford, is published, with over 70 illustrations drawn from Kate’s archive, by Francis Boutle Publishers £14.99. It is available here.
Elizabeth is also the author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a reference guide 1866-1928 (Routledge, 1999), The Women’s Suffrage Movement: a regional survey (Routledge, 2005), and Enterprising Women: the Garretts and their circle (Francis Boutle, 2002). She is the owner of Women and Her Sphere, a business in selling antiquarian books, postcards, pamphlets and ephemera by and about women, and of the website http://womanandhersphere.com/