Becker, Lydia Ernestine (DNB01)

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BECKER, LYDIA ERNESTINE (1827–1890), advocate of women's suffrage, daughter of Hannibal Leigh Becker and Mary his wife, daughter of James Duncuft of Hollinwood, was born in Cooper Street, Manchester, on 24 Feb. 1827. She was the eldest of fifteen children. Her grandfather, Ernest Hannibal Becker, was a German, naturalised in England, who settled in business in Manchester. Her father had calico-printing works at Reddish, near Stockport, and afterwards chemical works at Altham, near Accrington, Lancashire, where from about 1838 to 1865 she chiefly lived. During her residence in the country she developed a great love for botany and astronomy, and in 1864 published a small volume entitled 'Botany for Novices.' She read a paper before the British Association in 1869, 'On Alternation in the Structure of Lychnis Diurna, observed in connection with the Development of a Parasitic Fungus.' She wrote an elementary treatise on astronomy, but it was circulated in manuscript only. When she removed with her father to Manchester in 1865 she started a society of ladies for the study of literature and science, and took a room and gave free lectures; the results, however, were not encouraging. The subject of women's suffrage appears to have been first brought to her notice at a meeting of the Social Science Association at Manchester in October 1866, when a paper by Madame Bodichon (Barbara Leigh-Smith) [q. v. Suppl.] was read. Thenceforth she became one of the most active workers in the cause, and when the Manchester women's suffrage committee was started by her assistance in January 1867 she became secretary. Her article on 'Female Suffrage' in the 'Contemporary Review' for March 1867 made her name widely known. Later in the same year the Manchester committee joined with similar organisations in other parts of the country, and the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage was formed. Miss Becker continuing as secretary. The public attention given to the subject was increased by the discussion which followed a paper on 'Some supposed Differences in the Minds of Men and Women with regard to Educational Necessities,' which she contributed to the British Association at Norwich in 1868. In March 1870 the 'Women's Suffrage Journal' was started, and Miss Becker acted as its editor and chief contributor to the end of her life. She published in 1872 an important pamphlet on the 'Political Disabilities of Women,' first printed in the 'Westminster Review,' and in 1873 another pamphlet entitled 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity : a Reply to Mr. Fitzjames Stephen's Strictures on the Subjection of Women.' Her labours for the society were incessant. She directed its policy and organised the movement as a whole. There was hardly an important women's suffrage meeting or conference held in any part of the kingdom in which she did not take part. Her public speaking was marked not only by extreme clearness of utterance, but by its lucid statement of fact, its grasp of subject, and logical force. She naturally came to be a familiar figure in the parliamentary lobbies, where her political capacity was fully recognised.

At the election of the first Manchester school board in 1870, she was a successful candidate for a seat, and she was re-elected at the seven subsequent elections, always as an independent or unsectarian member. She kept special watch over the interests of the female teachers and scholars, and in the general work of the board she bore an active and influential part.

For many years she never missed the annual meetings of the British Association, and often took part in the discussions. When she attended the meeting in Canada in 1884, she wrote some descriptive letters to the 'Manchester Examiner and Times.' She died at Geneva on 18 July 1890, and was buried there in the cemetery of St. George.

A portrait of Miss Becker, painted by Miss S. L. Dacre, hangs at the office of the central committee of the Women's Suffrage Society, Westminster, pending the time when it can be offered to the National Portrait Gallery.

[Memorial number of the Women's Suffrage Journal, August 1890; Manchester Examiner and Times, 21 July 1890; Britten and Boulger's English Botanists, 1893, p. 13; Royal Soc. Cat. of Scientific Papers, vii. 118; Shaw's Old and New Manchester, ii. 75 (with portrait); communications from Wilfred Becker, esq., Manchester, also from Miss Helen Blackburn, Westminster, who is engaged on a life of Miss Becker.]

C. W. S.