Selina Cooper

(1864-1946) – Suffragette and pacifist

Callington-born suffragette, Selina Cooper, joined the Independent Labour Party while living in Lancashire. During the war she was a pacifist and opposed conscription. She helped conscientious objectors who were sent to prison for refusing to fight and later became a local magistrate.

Credit: Callington Heritage Centre

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Selina Cooper was born in Callington in 1864 to Charles and Janet Combe. Charles died of typhoid fever while working away from home as a “navvy” (building railways), and when Selina was twelve Janet took the family north to join her two eldest sons.

Selina was sent to work part time in the local textile mill, attending school for the other half of the day. She worked as a ‘creeler’, ensuring a steady supply of bobbins to the weavers. Aged thirteen she started working full time at the mill.

By 1882 Selina was caring for her mother, now suffering badly from rheumatism, making clothes at home and taking in washing. When Jane Combe died in 1889 Selina returned to full time work in the mill. She joined the Nelson branch of the Cotton Workers’ Union but, although the majority of members were women, the union was run by men. Selina found that they were not interested in the same things as women, for instance, she wanted doors fitted to the women’s toilets and the problems of sexual harassment at work to be dealt with.

Selina joined the Women’s Co-operative Guild education classes in Nelson. They encouraged women to ‘discuss matters beyond the narrow confines of their domestic lives’. She began reading books about history, politics and medicine.

In 1892 the Independent Labour Party was formed in Nelson. Here she met and married weaver, committed socialist and supporter of women’s suffrage, Robert Cooper, in 1896. Within three years they had three children, losing the first child to bronchitis when only four months old.

By 1901 Selina had helped organise a petition advocating equal rights for women, and in 1901 was elected as an Independent Labour Party candidate in the Poor Law Guardian elections. At the National Conference of the Labour Party in 1905, Selina made a speech asking the leadership to fully support women’s suffrage and the following year she helped form the Nelson and District Suffrage Party. She became a full time organiser and in 1910 was one of four women chosen to present the case for women’s suffrage to prime minister, Herbert Asquith.

The First World War completely divided the Suffragette movement between those who came out in support of the war like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and those, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Selina Cooper, who adopted the pacifist cause. Cooper was strongly opposed to conscription and helped imprisoned conscientious objectors.

With the passing of the Qualification of Women Act in 1918, which gave women over the age of thirty the right to vote, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies tried unsuccessfully to persuade the male dominated Labour Party to allow Selina to stand for election to Parliament. She continued to be involved in local politics, becoming a town councillor and magistrate. The 1930s saw her opposed to fascism. She died in 1946. 

Key words: women

Credit: Callington Heritage Centre