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Town's first woman councillor takes centre stage in new play

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: February 22, 2014

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WOLVERHAMPTON'S first female councillor, Emma Sproson, features in a brand new play called 'The Sistren' which will be performed by the city's Gazebo Theatre Company (currently celebrating its 35th anniversary) in March, in recognition of Women's History Month.

Emma Sproson became Wolverhampton's first female councillor in 1921, and after receiving the news of her election she waved a red flag from the balcony of the Town Hall, behaviour which earned her the nickname 'Red Emma'.

Emma earned her spurs as a campaigner for women's rights several years before, after becoming a Suffragette, serving time in prison.

She was born Emma Lloyd in West Bromwich in 1867, one of seven children whose father was a canal boat builder. When just 8 years of age the family moved to Daisy Bank, Bilston, and a year later Emma started work as a home help. Then as a teenager she moved to Lancashire to become a Sunday School teacher.

It was during this time she developed a keen interest in socialism and feminism, and her interest in politics really began after she attended a meeting where she asked a question, but because she was a woman she was refused an answer.

In 1895 at the age of 28, she returned to Wolverhampton and in the same year joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP)where she met her future husband Frank Sproson the local party secretary.

She went on to have three children by him. Frank, as secretary of the ILP, invited Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst to speak in Wolverhampton, and they stayed with the Sprosons at their home in Hordern Road where the Pankhurst sisters suggested Emma take part in a Suffragette march to Parliament Square in London. It was now February 1907 and Emma had turned 40.

More than 700 suffragettes made two vain attempts to force entry into the Houses of Parliament. Mounted police were called and Emma, together with sixty-six other women, was arrested and served 14 days in Holloway Prison. The conditions in prison were appalling and she became ill, but a postbag of letters pulled her through. She was now determined to carry on the protest and soon after her release from Holloway another attempt was made to storm Parliament and once again she was arrested, this time along with another Wolverhampton suffragette, Elizabeth Price.

The Suffragette campaign was overshadowed by the outbreak of the First World War, but discreet lobbying continued until 1918 when the Representation of the People Act was passed, giving the vote to women aged over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. This was quickly followed in November 1918 by the Eligibility of Women Act, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. And finally ten years later in 1928 the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed granting women over 21 the same voting terms as men.

Emma Sproson first put her name forward as a Labour candidate for Wolverhampton council in 1919, but failed to win the Park Ward. She tried again the following year but was similarly unsuccessful. But in 1921 she was victorious and became Wolverhampton's first female councillor, representing Dunstall. When Emma Sproson died in 1936 at the age of 69, the people of Wolverhampton remembered her as 'a remarkable and colourful personality, champion of women's rights and of course Wolverhampton's first female councillor.'

In the new play, 'The Sistren', the character of Emma will feature alongside 'Great Black Briton' and community leader Claudia Jones, founder of the first Black British weekly newspaper and mother of the Notting Hill Carnival, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of 'A Vindication of the Rights of Women' and mother to Mary Shelley, author of 'Frankenstein'. In a funny and powerful performance, these three stalwarts of women's rights are brought together in the afterlife to help a woman in her hour of need in the modern age.

Performances take place at The Arena Theatre, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton, on March 12 and 13, and at the Heritage Centre, Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton on March 14. Tickets are now available. For further information please contact Pamela Cole-Hudson on 01902 497222 or email facebook.com/gazeboarts.

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