Rachel Barrett was born in Carmarthen in 1875. She was educated at a boarding-school in Stroud and won a scholarship to Aberystwyth College. After graduating with an external degree in 1904 she became a science teacher in Penarth. A supporter of women's suffrage she joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906. The following year she helped Adela Pankhurst when she arrived in Cardiff as the WSPU organiser for Wales.
In 1907 Barrett resigned from her teaching post and enrolled as a student at the London School of Economics. She also helped the WSPU in the by-election campaign at Bury St. Edmunds. Later that year Christabel Pankhurst asked her to become a full-time WSPU organiser. Although sorry to give up her studies she noted that "it was a definite call and I obeyed."
Her duties were postponed because of illness but in the autumn of 1909 she was sent to Newport. The following year she was appointed chief WSPU organiser for Wales. In January 1910 she led a deputation to see David Lloyd George. She had a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that lasted over two hours. The discussion only convinced her of the insincerity of his support for the suffrage cause.
In early 1912 Christabel Pankhurst decided to run WSPU operations in France in order to avoid arrest. Annie Kenney was put in charge of the WSPU in London. She appointed Rachel Barrett as her assistant. Every week Annie travelled to Paris to receive Christabel's latest orders. Fran Abrams has pointed out: "It was the start of a cloak-and-dagger existence that lasted for more than two years. Each Friday, heavily disguised, Annie would take the boat-train via La Havre. Sundays were devoted to work but on Saturdays the two would walk along the Seine or visit the Bois de Boulogne. Annie took instructions from Christabel on every little point - which organiser should be placed where, circular letters, fund-raising, lobbying MPs... During the week Annie worked all day at the union's Clement's Inn headquarters, then met militants at her flat at midnight to discuss illegal actions."
The WSPU now began a campaign to destroy the contents of pillar-boxes. By December, the government claimed that over 5,000 letters had been damaged by the WSPU. The WSPU also began a new arson campaign. Under the orders of Christabel Pankhurst, attempts were made by suffragettes to burn down the houses of two members of the government who opposed women having the vote. The militant campaign was directed from a flat rented by Rachel Barrett, Annie Kenney and Jessie Kenney.
In her autobiography, Memories of a Militant (1924) Kenney recalled that Rachel Barrett was "an exceptionally clever and highly educated woman... she was a devoted worker... she was learned, and I liked her." In the autumn of 1912 Kenney put Barrett in charge of The Suffragette newspaper. She later commented that this was "an appalling task as I knew nothing whatever of journalism".
On 30th April 1913, Barrett and other members of staff were arrested while printing the newspaper. Found guilty of conspiracy she was sentenced to nine months imprisonment. She immediately began a hunger strike in Holloway Prison. After five days she was released under the Cat and Mouse Act. Barrett was re-arrested and this time went on a hunger and thirst strike. When she was released she escaped to Edinburgh. After a meeting with Christabel Pankhurst in Paris, it was decided to publish The Suffragette in Scotland. Barrett, returned to Edinburgh and using the name Rachel Ashworth, published the newspaper until August 1914.
On the outbreak of the First World War the leadership of the WSPU began negotiating with the British government. On the 10th August the government announced it was releasing all suffragettes from prison. In return, the WSPU agreed to end their militant activities and help the war effort. Emmeline Pankhurst announced that all militants had to "fight for their country as they fought for the vote." Ethel Smyth pointed out in her autobiography, Female Pipings for Eden (1933): "Mrs Pankhurst declared that it was now a question of Votes for Women, but of having any country left to vote in. The Suffrage ship was put out of commission for the duration of the war, and the militants began to tackle the common task."
After receiving a £2,000 grant from the government, the WSPU organised a demonstration in London. Members carried banners with slogans such as "We Demand the Right to Serve", "For Men Must Fight and Women Must work" and "Let None Be Kaiser's Cat's Paws". At the meeting, attended by 30,000 people, Emmeline Pankhurst called on trade unions to let women work in those industries traditionally dominated by men.
After the war Rachel Barrett lived with her lover Ida Wylie, a novelist and short story writer. Both women were close friends of Radclyffe Hall and gave her support during the obscenity trial following the publication of her lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall lost the case and all copies of the novel were destroyed.
In 1934 Rachel Barrett, who never married, moved to Lamb Cottage, Sible Hedingham. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 26th August 1953, at the age of seventy-eight at the Carylls Nursing Home in Rusper, West Sussex.
The relationship would be mirrored, though never matched in its intensity, by a number of later relationships between Annie and other suffragettes. The extent of their physical nature has never been revealed, but it is certain that in some sense these were romantic attachments. One historian who argues that Annie must have had sexual feelings for other women adds that lesbianism was barely recognised at the time. Such relationships, even when they involved sharing beds, excited little comment Already, Christabel had formed a close friendship with Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, suffrage campaigners who lived together in Manchester. Her relationship with Eva, in particular, had become intense enough to excite a great deal of comment from her family - according to Sylvia.
Christabel was emphatically not a woman who let her emotions run away with her, and she did not do so in Annie's case. But their first meeting set a pattern that would govern every sphere of Annie's existence for the next fifteen years.
Entries in the diary of a suffragette have revealed that key members of the Votes For Women movement led a promiscuous lesbian lifestyle.
The diaries of supporter Mary Blathwayt, kept from 1908 to 1913, show how complicated sexual liaisons - involving the Pankhurst family and others at the core of the militant organisation - created rivalries that threatened discord.
"Mary, who had been something of a favourite, often wrote quite bluntly about the situation. It does sound as if she was occasionally quite jealous," said Professor Martin Pugh, an expert on the history of the movement, who came across the relevant and explicit pages in Blathwayt's little-known diary.
"This part of the diary puts the whole campaign in a truer perspective," he added. "All these women were under an enormous amount of pressure from around 1912, while the Home Secretary was trying to suppress their activities."
Pugh, of Liverpool John Moores University, said the tensions felt, both physically and psychologically, meant the activists had to find sus taining relationships within their own ranks.
Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters, Sylvia, Christabel and Adela, were the leading figures in the battle to win votes for women. Founding the hardline Women's Social and Political Union in 1903, Mrs Pankhurst, as she was popularly known, went to prison 15 times for her political views and had a close relationship with the lesbian composer Ethel Smyth for many years following the death of her husband Richard in 1898.
"Dame Ethel had realised early on in life that she loved women not men and was fairly bold about things. They were often in Holloway together and shared a cell," said Pugh.
Members of the union were social pariahs and the butt of music-hall jokes, but they were also criminals. Under the slogan Votes for Women and Chastity for Men, they bombed and set fire to churches and stations, threw bricks through windows, cut telegraph wires and tied themselves to railings.
"This was a period in which these women were carrying out something like guerrilla war - they felt they were engaging in battle with the Home Secretary, who was using all the tools of the state to oppress them," said Pugh, who is researching a biography of the Pankhurst family.
Christabel was the most classically beautiful of the Pankhurst daughters and was the focus of a rash of "crushes" across the movement. Pugh now believes she was briefly involved with Mary Blathwayt who, in her turn, was probably supplanted by Annie Kenney, a working-class activist from Oldham.
"Christabel was an object of desire for several suffragettes," he said. "She was a very striking woman."
Many of the short-lived sexual couplings referred to in the diary took place in the Blathwayt family's Eagle House home in Batheaston, near Bath.
Kenney's frequent visits to Eagle House, and to the family's Bristol lodgings, receive most scrutiny from Mary Blathwayt. Pugh's research shows that her name can now be linked to up to 10 other suffragettes.
"Mary writes matter-of-fact lines such as, "Annie slept with someone else again last night," or "There was someone else in Annie's bed this morning," said Pugh. "But it is all done with no moral opprobrium for the act itself. In the diary Kenney appears frequently and with different women. Almost day by day Mary says she is sleeping with someone else."
Kenney, organiser for the South West, volunteered to join the suffragettes after hearing Christabel Pankhurst speak at a rally in 1905. The two were sent to prison together that year after disrupting a public meeting and had an intimate friendship for several years until Christabel became involved with another woman, Grace Roe.
While the affairs and one-night-stands at Eagle House provoked competitive rivalries, it is also clear they held the movement together. Many of the relationships provided emotional support for members of a group isolated from the rest of society.
"Biographers, while acknowledging a small lesbian element in the movement, have all skirted around the issue," said Pugh. "For those times the matter-of-fact tone Blathwayt adopts about the affairs did surprise me."
The union suspended its militant activities to help the war effort in 1914 and women over 30 gained the vote in 1918. Equal suffrage was finally achieved in 1930.