For Women's History Month, we're shining a light on some of the women from our archives who deserve to be celebrated. Barbara Vesey, from our Special Collections and Archives team, highlights Agnes Dawson and her sisters – leading figures in the world of education, women’s rights and London politics.
Agnes Dawson (1873-1953), educator and feminist, trained at Saffron Walden College. By 1917 she was headteacher at Crawford Street Infants’ School in Camberwell. She was an enthusiastic supporter of Montessori active education for young children. In a pamphlet she wrote she called for nursery schools to be built wherever there was a demand, in order to assist working-class women.
A member of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) Agnes campaigned for the union to support women’s suffrage and equal pay, and to oppose mixed elementary schools, since female teachers would be denied status and promotion in male-dominated mixed schools. She stood for the national executive of the NUT unsuccessfully in 1916 and 1917. In 1912 she became the first president of the Women Teachers’ Franchise Union. In 1919 she was president of the National Federation of Women Teachers (NFWT; a group within the NUT). Although a Labour Party member, she dissuaded the central council of the NFWT from affiliating, believing that women in the Labour Party would be ‘swamped’. She later helped lead the campaign for the NFWT to leave the NUT and become an autonomous union, the National Union of Women Teachers.
She was a constitutional suffragist and stated that the only militant act she ever undertook was to sit up all night at a friend’s house during Census night 1911.
In 1925 she resigned her teaching job and stood successfully for the London County Council as a Labour Party candidate for North Camberwell. She did this full-time, sustained by money from NUWT members. When Labour gained control of the council for the first time in 1934, Agnes became chair of the powerful Finance and General Purposes sub-committee. After much campaigning she persuaded the leader, Herbert Morrison, to remove the marriage bar on women teachers in 1935.
In 1937 Agnes left her advisory post with the NUWT and did not stand again for the LCC. She retired to Newport, Essex, where she continued public work as a Justice of the Peace (JP). From 1925 she lived with Anne Munn, a former teacher, whom she called her ‘pal and partner’, until Anne’s death in 1952.
Her two younger sisters, Elizabeth Dawson Tidswell (1875-1966) and Clara Dawson Follett (1877-1955), also became teachers and, in the 1920s, members of the NUWT.