Edith Ayrton Zangwill: Feminist Activist and Author

Edith Ayrton Zangwill was born in 1879 in Japan and was the daughter of William Ayrton (Physicist and Electrical Engineer) and the stepdaughter of his second wife Hertha Ayrton.

Edith was brought up in the Jewish faith. She was both a feminist activist and an author. 

Edith Ayrton became Edith Ayrton Zangwill upon her marriage to the author Israel Zangwill. They married on 26th November 1903 at a registry office. They met when Edith’s stepmother Hertha Ayrton (also profiled on the Shalom Sussex website) sent Israel examples of Edith’s early short story writing for his comments.

Israel and Edith had three children together: George (born 1906), Margaret (born 1910) and Oliver (born 1913). Margaret suffered from a mental condition and was put in an institution.  The younger of their two sons became the prominent British psychologistOliver Zangwill.

Edith’s link to Sussex is through living for many years with Israel Zangwill in East Preston, West Sussex, in a house called Far End. Between 1906 & 1926, Israel and his wife lived at this address where there’s a blue plaque commemorating them. Their son Oliver Zangwill (1913-1987)
was born in Littlehampton and became a neuropsychologist.

Edith initially became a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Then in 1907 despite complaining of frail health and not feeling able to be a militant suffragette, she joined the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union which had only female members).

In 1912 she helped form the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage (JWLS) which had male and female members. The JLWS was interested in seeking both political and religious rights for women. More radical parts of the organisation were known as “Blackguards in Bonnets” by some in the Jewish community.

After describing suffragette meetings in Worthing that had been disrupted, local historian Frances Stenlake writes:

“The speaker at the last of this series of meetings had more luck. She was Edith Zangwill, wife of Israel Zangwill, ‘the author famed for his stories of Jewish life’. From a wagon drawn up at the roadside to serve as a
platform, she exercised her ‘notable charm of manner’ and had to contend with little interruption.”

From: Frances Stenlake – Women’s Suffrage Campaigners in Worthing 1909-1915

Greta Allen was a suffragette nurse living in Lewes. She was also the paid WSPU organiser for Brighton & Hove. Greta Allen placed calls in The Suffragette for assistance with activities in Newhaven, Seaford, Worthing, Bognor (e.g. a meeting with the well- known suffragette, Mrs Zangwill).

Some examples below:

20 Dec 1912 – G Allen thanks Mr Zangwill and others for speaking during a meeting in Chichester disrupted by ‘hooligans’.
10 Jan 1913 – Worthing branch announces Mrs Zangwill is due to speak in Worthing at a supporter’s home.

Image of Edith sourced from https://spartacus-educational.com/

Jewish suffrage supporters came together on 6th February 1914 with other disillusioned suffragists to create the United Suffragists.

The new group was created as a reaction of the militancy of the WSPU who had started an arson campaign and the lack of success of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Members of the new group included Edith’s stepmother Hertha Ayrton and her husband Israel Zangwill

Hertha inherited a lot of money from suffragist, Barbara Bodichon, and gave a lot of it to fund the WSPU. Hertha believed in militancy, but like Edith lacked the health for it.

After WWI ended and some women got the vote in 1918, Edith became an active campaigner on International disarmament and pacifism.

Edith in later life – Image sourced from https://spartacus-educational.com/

Edith wrote multiple books including The Call, published in 1924, tells a story similar to that of her stepmother Hertha’s life.  To summarise, it describes a young woman scientist called Ursula who in the beginning sympathises with the Suffragettes but does not approve of their militant and violent tactics and is reluctant to join.

Books written by Edith Ayrton Zangwill: 1904 – Barbarous Babe  1905 – The First Mrs Millivar 1909 – Teresa 1918 – The Rise of a Star 1924 – The Call tells a story similar to that of her stepmother Hertha’s life.

Voices and Votes: A Literary anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign by Glenda Norquay (pp. 40-54) contains an extract of The Call. In the beginning Ursula feels that “Woman Suffrage would surely come with the gradual emancipation of women, where was the hurry?”  However, she then witnesses a trial in court where a pimp who lives off the meagre earnings of a prostitute abuses a young innocent girl of nine or ten.

In the novel, the pimp is given a lenient sentence of three months in prison by the male judge by comparison with another man given one year for stealing boots. She also draws comparisons with the harsh treatment of women (especially poor) hunger strikers in prison who are given a much harder time of it. It is this that leads her to take the plunge and join the Suffragette movement despite her initial reservations as mentioned above.  

The House, published in 1928, deals with Edith’s own nervous breakdown following the death of her husband. Zangwill died in 1926 in Midhurst, West Sussex.

Edith’s story is often overshadowed by her favourite relatives, but this active Jewish feminist and author should not be forgotten.

Edith died at 18 Suffolk Road, Edinburgh, Scotland and the cremation took place in Edinburgh on 08/05/1945. She was 65 or 66 at her death.

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