Lenora Cohen was born on June 15, 1873 to Canova and Jane Thorp. Her father was a stone carver but died when she was only 5 years old, which left her mother to raise Cohen and her two younger brothers. Her widowed mother worked as a seamstress to provide for her family. Cohen apprenticed as a milliner and while she was working as a millinery buyer, she met the love of her life, Henry Cohen. Henry was a childhood friend yet both of the families opposed of the marriage. Cohen married for love but in the eyes of society, she had married up.
After their marriage in March 1900, the couple had their first child, Rosetta but she unfortunately died within the first year. Two years later, she gave birth to her son Reginald who grew up healthy. For the next nine years, the small family enjoyed a peaceful life as Henry’s business as a jeweller flourished.
Motivation to be a Suffragist
Cohen’s life was full of events and people that motivated her to fight for women’s right to vote. Firstly, her mother Jane was a big influential factor in Cohen’s life. Because her mother was a widowed seamstress who raised three children alone, it was obvious to Cohen that her mother had few rights as a woman living in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Later in life at an interview, Cohen stated that, “Life was hard. My mother would say 'Leonora, if only we women had a say in things', but we hadn't. A drunken lout of a man...had a vote simply because he was a male. I vowed I'd try to change things." Cohen recognized at a young age that her mother had to overcome huge obstacles in her life simply because she was a woman. It was “her mother’s lack of empowerment that radicalized her.”
Other motivating factors included her job and her husband. At the time of Cohen’s first job as a milliner, there was a strong movement by the Leeds campaign for better working conditions for women. This had an impact on Cohen and her view of the treatment of women in the working world. Also, Cohen’s husband Henry, was very supportive of her passion to fight for women’s rights. Cohen’s family and job experience all contributed to her desire to step up and take action as a suffragist.
Actions Speak Louder than Words
Cohen made many physical actions of protest against the British government. Cohen stood up for what she believed in by taking action and this can be seen repeatedly in history. In 1909, she joined the Leeds Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst founded this organization in 1903. The group intrigued Cohen because they believed in direct action to create change for women. Later in her life, Cohen was a personal bodyguard to Mrs. Pankhurst, which allowed her to physically defend someone who spoke up for women’s right to vote.
In 1911, Cohen joined in a protest where she took further action against the government. At the protest, she threw a rock at a government-building window and was promptly arrested and placed in Holloway Prison for seven days. Spending time behind bars had the opposite effect on Cohen as it just increased her passion to fight for her right to vote. Even though found guilty, she defended herself in court and the authorities released her. As Cohen began to take more bold steps as a suffragist, her family supported her suffrage allegiance but her friends did not. Cohen received hate letters and her son faced persecution at school. In 1913, Cohen took action against the government during a protest by using an iron bar to smash a glass showcase in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Cohen was arrested a second time but again, she decided to make a stand by going on a hunger strike rather than speaking out in anger. Because of the Cat and Mouse Act, Cohen was released from prison after a few days to allow her to recover from self-induced starvation. Her deliberate act of rebellion was taken against the government and she chose to take physical action to show her displeasure with the government.
By 1923, Cohen became the first woman president of the Yorkshire Federation of Trades Councils. She was on the Council for 25 years and by the mid -1920s she was awarded an OBE for services to public life. Cohen’s political action and rebellious deeds during protests did not go unnoticed.
Second Wave of Feminism
Since Cohen lived to the age of 105, she witnessed the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and for the second time in her life, Cohen was brought back into the public eye. Cohen was labelled as a feminist and her actions taken as a suffragist in Britain helped modern feminists look at their development over time. Brian Harrison interviewed over 200 people, including Cohen, as a part of his project: Oral History of the Suffragette and Suffragist. In the interview, Cohen discusses her role in the 1911 rally and her experience of her first arrest: “[At the rally] it was so packed. And the mounted police were out. And when we got up to the palace gate, I can also remember so clearly the police there on horseback and that is where I was knocked down.” Cohen describes the violence and huge crowds at the rallies. Her recollections of these moments in history were brought back into focus during the 70s. These moments were seen as encouragements to modern day feminists.
Scholars later analyzed Cohen’s life as a suffragist. Jemal Nath argued that vegetarianism was linked to feminism. The suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century was used as an example. Cohen’s vegetarianism, along with other suffragists, was seen as a way for women to spend less time in the kitchen because they did not have to prepare meat. Therefore, they could spend more time pursuing interests outside of the home. It is unclear if the suffragist’s husbands were vegetarian as well. In the early twentieth century, it was assumed that the wife prepared dinner for the family so if the husband still ate meat, then it would not matter if the wife was vegetarian, she would still need to spend time making dinner. Cohen’s life is continually used as an example of early-day feminism and is often analyzed.
Death and Legacy
At the time of her death, the Times newspaper published Cohen’s passing in the obituary section. The short column attempts to reflect on Cohen’s life and highlight the extraordinary accomplishments in her 105 years spent on earth. The column mentions her award as an OBE, her job as a bodyguard for Mrs. Pankhurst, her imprisonment and hunger strike and her title as the “Tower Suffragette” for the damage she did with the iron bar in the Tower of London. From her short obituary, Cohen was clearly remembered for the actions she took to defend the rights of women. She was seen as a regional activist who was willing to die for the cause that she felt so passionately about.
When Cohen took the iron bar and smashed it through the glass showcase, she had attached a note to the bar. What she wrote on the note clearly states and summarizes why Cohen was willing to sacrifice her comfortable life to boldly defend the rights of women all over Britain: “Jewel House, Tower of London. My Protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women, but continues to torture women prisoners – Deeds Not Words. Lenora Cohen”/ reverse “Votes for Women. 100 years of Constitutional Petition, Resolutions, Meetings & Processions have Failed.”
- "Leeds' forgotten suffragette". BBC. 30 November 2009. Retrieved 27 September 2014.
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- "Obituary". The Times. The Times Digital Archive 1785 - 1985.
- "Leonora Cohen, Suffragette". London Metropolitan University - Homepage. The Women's Library. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
- Nath, Jemal (2011). "Gendered Fare? : A qualitative Investigation of Alternative food and Masculinities". Journal of Sociology 47: 261–278. doi:10.1177/1440783310386828.
- Nath. "Gendered Fare". p. 270.
- Cowman, Krista (2010). "Carrying on a Long Tradition’: Second-Wave Presentations of First-Wave Feminism in Spare Rib c. 1972—80". European Journal of Women's Studies 3 (17): 193–210 . doi:10.1177/1350506810368909.