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Written by Jackie Taylor

The Whitaker celebrates the life of Carrie Whitehead (1866 – 1945) for International Women’s Day 2021.

Why would we choose to focus on the life of someone born over 150 years ago?

Because she was a women who chose to challenge women’s role in society during her lifetime and by doing so, she helped to open doors for the women of the future.

What was life like for a woman born in 1866?

When Carrie was born women had very limited rights:

· women could not vote in national elections
· women had no access to higher education
· a married woman and all she owned belonged to her husband
· a husband could beat his wife and children to control them
· the age of consent for sexual relations with a girl was 12

By the time Carrie was in her 20s, things had improved slightly:

· some universities accepted women on equal terms to men
· some women were training to be doctors and lawyers
· married women could now legally own the money they earned and could inherit property
· the age of consent had been increased to 16

Who was Carrie Whitehead?

Carrie was born into a reasonably well-off family, in Rawtenstall, Rossendale. She was one of five children. Her grandfather, David, has established a large cotton manufacturing firm in the area and her father took over the running of one of the mills when Carrie was four.

This brief description portrays a comfortable and possibly privileged upbringing, but there are two factors that suggest that Carrie was very much in touch with the harsh realities of social conditions locally and nationally. Firstly, it was common in Lancashire for mill-owners, mill-managers and their families to live close by the people who worked in the mills. Secondly, we have a collection of letters in the Whitaker museum collection showing that one of the older Whitehead women (probably Carrie’s mother, Anne) was an activist for social justice and in correspondence with some of the key figures of the day who were fighting for suffrage, property rights and fairer treatment of women.

How did Carrie choose to challenge?

For someone born into an era when the expectations of women in public life were so low, Carrie achieved some remarkable things.

By the early 1890s, while she was in her 20s, she had written three novels (under the name of Caroline Masters). The books, which told stories of Lancashire people working in the cotton mills, sold internationally.

Carrie Whitehead’s VAD Red Cross Card – Image from VAD Red Cross.

During the 1914 – 18 war, Carrie worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse for the Red Cross during the First World War, at the New Hall Hey Hospital, caring for injured servicemen.

In 1915, less than a year after the outbreak of war Carrie proposed that a granite cross be erected in the town, as a memorial for those who had given their lives in the war and comfort to those left behind. She helped to commission and erect the memorial. This permanent war memorial, unusual in that it was erected during (and not after) the war, is recognized as being the first in the country.

By 1920 she had become the first female councillor and the first female governor of two schools in Rawtenstall.

In 1920, recognizing the need for demobilized servicemen to have social support after the war, Carrie helped to set up the Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers Club in Rawtenstall. This continued to act as a meeting place for over 80 years.

In 1921 she became a Justice of the Peace (3).

In 1927, at the age of 61, she embarked on a trip around the world, including a 1000 mile journey exploring the Amazon.(3)

In 1933 Carrie became the first female Alderman of Rossendale. (3)

In 1935 she became the first female Mayor, a role which she also took in 1936 and 1937. (3)

As can be seen from the listing above, Carrie Whitehead was a formidable force. She grew to become a prominent figure in Rossendale, devoting herself to improving the social fabric of the town for the benefit of its residents. As a woman she was a pioneer and an exemplary role model, showing that women could break away from traditional roles. In recognition of her role as an influential woman, her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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