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Leicester Special Collections

Mary and Equality

Newspaper clipping photograph of Mary Attenborough

Newspaper clipping of Mary Attenborough, accessed ULA/PCB10, p.71

A Brief Background to Women's Rights

The first half of the twentieth century was marked by increased opportunities for women in both education and the workplace, with the University of London being the first to award degrees to women in 1878.[1] In 1918, after many years of campaigning, women were finally granted the right to vote, with Nancy Astor becoming the first female MP to take her seat in the House of Commons in 1919. Mary, born in 1896, found herself at the forefront of these important changes to women’s roles in society; hence her upbringing and early life would influence her wide and varied career in Leicester.

A Busy Career

Frustratingly, records of Mary’s early life, which would provide us with a glimpse into an early sharpening of her views are scant; several sources mention her as being a suffragette, yet there are no accounts of this that warrant further exploration. An interview with Mary, from the Leicester Evening Mail in 1936, does provide a glimpse into her early background and views:

 ‘On speaking afterwards to Mrs. F. L. Attenborough, who is, of course, a university woman, I was informed that she was one of four daughters, with only one brother, who was the youngest of the family.  Her father insisted that the girls should have an equal chance with the boy. She considers that even if a woman marries and does not continue with her career, a good education is of great value.’[2]

Mary took an active part in working for equality for all, and her career is astonishing for a woman of that era. Her obituary lists many of the organisations she was affiliated with: being made a magistrate in 1942, and was ‘actively concerned’ with the Judicial and Matrimonial Courts.[3] She was a founding member of Leicester Women’s Luncheon Club, which came into being in 1934; and played an active role in establishing the Ladies Luncheon Club and other work such as helping to establish the Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate), the first of its kind in dealing with marriage therapy and relationship counselling.[4] Additionally, to enrich the university’s social life, she arranged dances and chaired the Little Theatre in the University of Leicester.

Newspaper clipping from the Leicester Evening Mail, detailing the activities of the Soroptimist movement in Leicester

Leicester Evening Mail account of the Soroptimist movement; note the comment made by Frederick. Accessed ULA/PCB2, p.191

Mary and Soroptimism

Mary was also involved in the Soroptimist movement, which had started out as a small club founded in California in 1921, but by the mid-1930’s had several branches in America, Europe, and Australia, with 39 branches in Great Britain, and boasting a membership of 2,000.[5] Its mission is dedicated to ‘transform the lives and status of women and girls through education, empowerment and enabling opportunities,’ a statement that must have clearly resonated with Mary.[6] A report from the Leicester Evening Mail highlights the impact that Soroptimism had on the city of Leicester, which in the view of one Soroptimist was ‘a busy city’, but whose people ‘were intelligent as well as kind and anxious to help solve problems of the day.’[7] It was even praised by Mary’s husband, Frederick, who declared: ‘Nothing any woman ever did, ever surprised me. It took a European war to convince the finest intellects in this country that women should have the vote. It had always been evident to me.’[8]

The kind, charitable, and empathetic virtues that Mary espoused had clearly rubbed off on her sons, Richard in particular, who recalled that from an early age, his parents instilled in him a moral, social, and political impulse: ‘They believed it was no use whatsoever offering sympathy; the point was to do something.[9] He also recalled that his mother was ‘the most tactile, energetic, and outspoken woman I’ve ever encountered. I never saw her idle… if she saw an injustice, she would not only speak out against it, but fight to put it right.’[10]

Page written and researched by Shuyang Sun


[1] ‘A History of Women’s Education in the UK’, Oxford Royale University, <>

[2] ‘Values of University to Industry’, Leicester Evening Mail, May 28th, 1936, accessed ULA/PCB 2, p.193

[3] Obituary of Mary Attenborough, Leicester Evening Mail, 13th July 1961, accessed ULA/PCB10, p.70

[4] ‘Mrs Attenborough Killed in Crash’, Leicester Mercury, 13th July 1961, accessed ULA/PCB10, p.71

[5] ‘An Arrest was Made in the Cause of Soroptimism’, Leicester Evening Mail, 13th May 1936, accessed ULA PCB2, p.191

[6] ‘Our Vision & Mission’, Soroptimist International: Great Britain & Ireland, <>

[7] ‘An Arrest was Made’, p. 191

[8] Ibid.

[9] Quoted in Funeral programme for Lord Attenborough, 2015, p.6, <>

[10] Attenborough, Hawkins, Entirely Up to You, p.99