Margaret Ashton was the first woman councillor in Manchester, elected as an Independent in 1908.
Margaret Ashton was the first woman councillor in Manchester, elected as an Independent in 1908. Her first involvement in politics came in 1888, when she helped to found the Manchester Women's Guardian Association, an organisation that encouraged women to become Poor Law Guardians and to take a more active role in local politics.
Margaret came from a wealthy mill owning family and from 1875 she worked on a voluntary basis as the manager of the Flowery Fields School in Hyde for the children of mill workers that had been founded by her grandfather. A committed suffragist, Margaret was on the executive of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies until 1915 and was a delegate to the International Women's Suffrage Alliance in Budapest in 1913. She was part of the failed delegation to The Hague International Women's Congress in 1915, a founder member of the Women's International League also in 1915 and a tireless campaigner for peace in World War One (WW1). She was dismissed from many of her civic responsibilities as a result of this activity.
She was involved in trade union campaigns for women before and during WW1 and in 1910, was instrumental in setting up a hostel for working women in the city and the Manchester Babies' Hospital in 1914. She was a governor of Manchester High School for girls and championed women's education. Her national and international networks were extraordinary encompassing suffrage, education, internationalism, welfare, pacifism and women's rights.
Margaret was a councillor from 1908 until 1921. During these years she was instrumental in developing municipal heath visiting, midwifery and better maternal care in the city. She worked tirelessly for better education for working class children, was a committed anti-militarist and travelled ceaselessly to campaign for the vote across the country. In 1908, Margaret sold her house in Didsbury to raise money for the suffrage paper, The Common Cause. She sat on the council’s Sanitation, Education and Midwives Sub-Committee working closely with other local pioneers -women doctors, political activists and teachers.
A portrait of Margaret was commissioned by CP Scott in 1925 but was refused by the city council on account of her anti-war activities. The portrait was rediscovered in 2006 and rehung in Manchester Town Hall to great acclaim. Margaret's political life has inspired two films – ‘These Dangerous Women’ (2014) about the 1915 delegation to The Hague and ‘Crusading Women’ (2016) about the anti-war Women's Peace Crusade in 1917.
Margaret Ashton was an extraordinary woman - a women's rights pioneer who was ubiquitous in all the campaigns for maternal welfare, trade union rights, education and peace as well as being internationalist in her outlook. She has been largely forgotten in her beloved Manchester.