Women of Character Bessie Braddock and Prince Philip smile as wrestler Jackie Pallo lands at their feet, 1963

Women of Character

Liverpool is full of strong and accomplished women who make us all proud, but today, in honour of International Women’s Day, we’re taking a look at a selection of Liverpool women who have helped to change the face of British life as we know it. Gutsy women who stood up for people’s rights, earned positions of power and challenged establishments, to fight for equality and fairness. 

No list, no matter how long, could communicate the contribution that Liverpool’s women have made and continue to make this day. But here are three laudable Liverpool ladies who would most certainly be on the front line, supporting International Women’s Day if they were with us today.

Kitty Wilkinson's stained glass window at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral
Kitty Wilkinson’s stained glass window at Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

1786 - 1860
Laundress turned humanitarian

Kitty Wilkinson was no stranger to tragedy. By the age of 20 she had lost her father, sister and husband to the sea. But personal adversity only seemed to bolster Kitty’s capacity for compassion.

Like many great Liverpool women, Kitty was naturally resourceful, and made the most of the little good fortune that came her way. Originally a mill worker and domestic servant by trade, Kitty was gifted a second-hand mangle and used it to set herself up as a laundress, in one of the poorest areas of the city.

During this time many disadvantaged parts of Liverpool were plagued by disease. In 1832 cholera broke out and Kitty, convinced of a link between cleanliness and health, offered neighbours the use of her boiler, to rid their clothes of fatal cholera bacteria. This service saved many lives and it spurred Kitty on to tackle wider issues.

Liverpool's first public bath house on Frederick Street
Liverpool’s first public bath house on Frederick Street

Whilst caring for the sick and taking in homeless children, Kitty continued to fight poverty for the rest of her life. In 1846 she successfully crusaded for a place where the poor could bathe, resulting in the first public bath being opened in Liverpool, on Upper Fredrick Street.

The success of this project led to the opening of other bath houses in Liverpool and beyond. The author and civic historian, Michael Kelly believes that Kitty’s work in this area “indirectly transformed and revolutionised UK healthcare forever’.


Eleanor Rathbone's stamp
Eleanor Rathbone’s stamp

1872 - 1946
MP and social reformer

It’s fitting that we talk about Eleanor Rathbone today, on International Women’s Day. Eleanor effectively worked to improve the rights of women at a time when the very notion of sexual equality itself was dismissed.

Social parity was in Eleanor’s blood. The daughter of philanthropist William Rathbone VI, Eleanor worked alongside her father to investigate and report on social inequalities in Liverpool, particularly the difficult and dangerous working conditions at Liverpool’s docks.

Following her father’s death in 1902, Eleanor established the School of Social Science at The University of Liverpool, where she lectured. She went on to be elected as an independent member of Liverpool City Council in 1909. She used her influence to promote women’s involvement in politics, and to campaign for a family allowances and greater benefits for the children of unemployed people.

Eleanor Rathbone - The subject of Susan Pedersen’s book ‘Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience’

Although generally regarded as a champion of women’s rights, Eleanor was actually concerned about the rights of all people, whether they were in her constituency or much further afield.

During her first speech as a Westminster politician in 1929, Eleanor spoke out against clitoridectomy in Kenya. She went on to become one of the first MPs to realise the immoral nature of Germany’s Nazi party, warning parliament of a Nazi threat to Czechoslovakia and denouncing British complacency in Hitler’s remilitarisation of the Rhineland.

Eleanor’s persuasive arguments combined with her steely determination, caused junior ministers and civil servants at the Foreign Office to reputedly ‘duck behind pillars’ when they saw her coming. But Eleanor lived to see the fruit of her labour. In 1945, the year before her death, the Family Allowances Act passed into law, allowing benefits to be paid directly to mothers. To mark her achievements, The School of Law and Social Justice at the University of Liverpool carries her name to this day.


Betty Braddock
Bessie Braddock

1899 - 1970
MP for Liverpool Exchange

Forthright and formidable, Bessie Braddock was a British Labour Party politician who inherited much of her campaigning spirit from her mother, Mary Bamber, an early socialist and trade union activist. Bessie served as a Member of Parliament for Liverpool from 1945 to 1970, where she strongly supported the introduction of a National Health Service and worked to establish it in 1948.

Many people believe that it was Bessie who was the recipient of Sir Winston Churchill’s memorable insult: ‘My dear you are ugly, but tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly’ (although there is some debate on who the comment was actually aimed at, or if it was even said at all).

But one thing is clear, Bessie had little vanity, but cared immensely for the rights of working class people, particularly those in her home city of Liverpool. During her career she fought for better child welfare, improved public health and safer working practices for working class people.

Described as pugnacious, challenging or even fearsome by colleagues and opponents alike, it’s fair to say that Bessie was no wall-flower. (Her combative style and fervent attitude even led to a brief suspension in 1952).

Bessie Braddock's statue at Liverpool Lime Street
Bessie Braddock’s statue at Liverpool Lime Street

Neither was she adverse to a little bit of theatrics to make her point, once bringing a two-foot megaphone into a council meeting to demand action over housing and slums. But Bessie wasn’t sensitive, shrugging of criticism of this move stating: “If you didn’t do something outrageous, nobody would take any notice of you”.

Nobody can deny that people took notice of Bessie. Her vehemence and passion won many people over. After Bessie’s death in 1970, the Guardian hailed her as “one of the most distinctive political personalities of the century”.

In Liverpool we sometimes take it for granted that women are equal to men, we all have mothers, sisters, daughters and friends who contribute to our lives and society in immeasurable ways. But gender inequality is a global issue and remains all over the world.

International Women’s Day serves many purposes, but one of them is to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women, who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their country and community, hopefully inspiring other people to do the same.

For more information on International Women’s Day visit: http://www.internationalwomensday.com/


Published: 08/03/2016