Annie Kenney in 1909
13 September 1879
|Died||9 July 1953 (aged 73)|
|Occupation||Political activism and trade unionism|
|Known for||Political activist and suffragette for the Women's Social and Political Union|
Ann Kenney (13 September 1879 – 9 July 1953) was an English working-class suffragette and socialist feminist who became a leading figure in the Women's Social and Political Union. She co-founded its first branch in London with Minnie Baldock. Kenney attracted the attention of the press and public in 1905 when she and Christabel Pankhurst were imprisoned for several days for assault and obstruction, after questioning Sir Edward Grey at a Liberal rally in Manchester on the issue of votes for women. The incident is credited with inaugurating a new phase in the struggle for women's suffrage in the UK, with the adoption of militant tactics. Annie had friendships with Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Baroness Pethick-Lawrence, Mary Blathwayt, Clara Codd, Adela Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst.
Kenney was born in Springhead, Saddleworth, in Oldham, to a working-class family. She was the fourth daughter in a family of twelve children, eleven of which survived infancy,  to parents Horatio Nelson Kenney (1849–1912) and Anne Wood (1852–1905).  There were seven sisters including Sarah (Nell), Jessie, Jennie, Alice and Kitty. Her parents encouraged reading, debating and socialism. Three of her sisters became teachers and a brother became a businessman. Her brother Rowland Kenney became the first editor (in 1912) of the Daily Herald.
Annie started part-time work in a cotton mill at the age of 10, as well as attending school, and full-time work at 13, which involved 12-hour shifts from six in the morning. Employed as a weaver's assistant, or "tenter", part of her job was to fit the bobbins and attend to the strands of fleece when they broke; during one such operation, one of her fingers was ripped off by a spinning bobbin. She remained at the mill for 15 years, was involved in trade-union activities, furthered her education through self-study and—inspired by Robert Blatchford's publication, The Clarion—promoted the study of literature among her work colleagues. She was a regular church attender and sang in a local choir.
When her mother died in 1905, Kenney and six siblings remained with her father at 71 Redgrave Street, Oldham.
Kenney became actively involved in the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) after the premature death of her mother Ann, at the age of fifty-three in January 1905, when she and her sister Jessie heard Teresa Billington-Greig and Christabel Pankhurst speak at the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club in 1905. Kenney described Billington's message delivered as 'a sledgehammer of cold logic and reason' but that she liked Christabel, and was invited to meet her mother (Emmeline Pankhurst) a week later, anticipating this made Kenney feel that she 'lived on air;.. simply could not eat... instinctively felt a great change had come'. This resulted in weekly visits on her half-day off to be trained in public speaking and to collect leaflets on women's suffrage. Kenney and her sister Jessie handed these out to women working in the mills in Oldham. Kenney found herself explaining labour rights, unemployment and for giving women the right to vote, to a large Manchester crowd.
During a Liberal rally at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, in October 1905, Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a political meeting attended by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey to shout: "Will the Liberal government give votes to women?" After unfurling a banner declaring "Votes for Women" and shouting, they were thrown out of the meeting and arrested for causing an obstruction; Pankhurst was taken into custody for a technical assault on a police officer after she spat at him to provoke an arrest (although she wrote later that it was a dry spit, more of a "pout"). Kenney was imprisoned for three days for her part in the protest; she was jailed 13 times in total.
Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her autobiography that "this was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England, or for that matter in any other country ... we interrupted a great many meetings ... and we were violently thrown out and insulted. Often we were painfully bruised and hurt.
Kenney and Minnie Baldock formed the first London branch of the WPSU in Canning Town in 1906, holding meetings at Canning Town Public Hall. In June that year Kenney, Adelaide Knight, and Mrs Sbarborough were arrested when they tried to obtain an audience with H. H. Asquith, then Chancellor of the Exchequer. Offered the choice of six weeks in prison or giving up campaigning for one year, Kenney chose prison, as did the others. Kenney was invited to speak to working women's gatherings across the country throughout the campaign, including campaigning for a week in Liverpool at street meetings organised by Patricia Woodlock and Alice Morrissey.
Kenney became part of the senior hierarchy of the WSPU, becoming its deputy in 1912. In 1913 she and Flora Drummond arranged for WSPU representatives to speak with leading politicians David Lloyd George and Sir Edward Grey. The meeting had been arranged with the proviso that these were working-class women representing their class. They explained the terrible pay and working conditions that they suffered and the hope that a vote would enable women to challenge the status quo in a democratic manner. Alice Hawkins from Leicester explained how her fellow male workers could choose a man to represent them while the women were left unrepresented.
Kenney, who was involved in other militant acts and underwent force-feeding many times, was always determined to confront the authorities and highlight the injustice of the Cat and Mouse Act a suffragette nickname for the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 which allowed prisoners who were ill (especially from hunger strike or force feeding, to be released on licence for a period, until well enough to be returned to prison to complete their sentence. On one occasion in January 1914 when she had just been released from prison and was very weak, it was reported in The Times that at a meeting chaired by Norah Dacre Fox, the WSPU general secretary at Knightsbridge Town Hall:
Miss Kenney was conveyed to the meeting in a horse ambulance; and she was borne into the meeting on a stretcher, which was raised to the platform and placed on two chairs. She raised her right hand and fluttered a handkerchief and, covered with blankets, lay motionless watching the audience. Later, her licence under the "Cat and Mouse" Act was offered for sale. Mrs Dacre Fox stated that an offer of £15 had already been received for it, and the next was one of £20, then £25 was bid, and at this price it was sold. Soon afterwards Miss Kenney was taken back to the ambulance. Detectives were present, but no attempt was made to rearrest Miss Kenney, whose licence had expired.
Kenney had been given a Hunger Strike Medal 'for Valour' by WSPU.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst called an end to suffragette militancy and urged the women to become actively involved in war work by taking on jobs that had traditionally been regarded as in the male preserve, as most of those men were now absent at the front. This was set in train through the pages of The Suffragette, relaunched on 16 April 1915 with the slogan that it was 'a thousand times more the duty of the militant Suffragettes to fight the Kaiser for the sake of liberty than it was to fight anti-Suffrage Governments'. In autumn 1915 Kenney accompanied Emmeline Pankhurst, Flora Drummond, Norah Dacre Fox and Grace Roe to South Wales, the Midlands and Clydeside on a recruiting and lecture tour to encourage trade unions to support war work. Kenney took her message as far afield as France and the United States.
Annie had a succession of close female friends within the suffragette movement. She would share a bed with Mary Blathwayt, Clara Codd and Adela Pankhurst. She and Christabel Pankhurst went on holiday to Saak together, but it is not clear if that relationship was ever physical. Mary Blathwayt noted in her diary Kenney's several female sleeping partners when she stayed at the Blathwayt's home, Eagle House. Blathwayt's jealousy has been proposed as the reason. Annie was indulged by the Blathwayts. She was a frequent visitor to Eagle house and unlike everyone else she planted four trees. They paid for presents and watches and paid her medical and dentistry bills for both her and her sisters.
Kenney married James Taylor (1893–1977) and settled in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, after women over 30 won the vote in 1918. A son, Warwick Kenney Taylor, was born in 1921. She died of diabetes at the Lister Hospital in Letchworth on 9 July 1953 aged 73. Her funeral was conducted according to the rites of the Rosicrucians and her ashes were scattered by her family on Saddleworth Moor.
In 1999, Oldham Council erected a blue plaque in her honour at Lees Brook Mill in Lees, near Oldham, where Kenney had started work in 1892. On 14 December 2018 a statue, funded by public subscription, was unveiled in front of the Old Town Hall in Oldham.
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