TODAY, in a local or general election, women think nothing of popping to the polling station and marking a cross on a voting slip.

Yet to be able to do so, they have the women of a former era to thank - their sacrifice, tenacity and bravery led to the equal rights we have today.

In common with towns and cities across the country, women in Bradford fought for their rightful place in society. Against backgrounds of hardship, toil and prejudice, they overcame great hurdles to give women a better life.

In her book Struggle and Suffrage in Bradford, author Rachel Bellerby looks back at what it was like to be a woman in the city between 1850 and 1950, a century of great change.

Bradford-born Rachel, whose descendants have lived in the city since the early 19th century, looks at all aspects of life, from home to education, work, leisure and migration into the city.

For working class women life could be exceptionally harsh. ‘Household chores were very much the preserve of women, with change happening very slowly,’ writes Rachel, adding that up to the 1970s female students learned sewing and home economics, while males did woodwork and mechanics.

Doing the laundry was a job in itself. ‘Wash day could literally take up an entire day, usually a Monday’ she writes. ‘In a small house, washday could take over the whole of the downstairs, particularly in wet weather.’

Rachel highlights the groundbreaking work of American Margaret MacMillan, who came to Bradford in 1892 with her sister Rachel. From the outset she was involved in politics as a member of the Independent Labour Party.

Many children lived in poverty and Margaret’s theory was that youngsters couldn’t be expected to work well at school if they were hungry, tired or wearing inadequate clothing. Realising that not all home-based problems could be easily solved, she focused on trying to make sure that at the school could at the very least provide a nurturing environment.

Her work came to fruition in 1906 with the passing of the Provision of School Meals Act, allowing all schoolchildren the right to a midday meal.

Bradford-born Miriam Lord, whose services to nursery and community education were rewarded with an OBE, also features in the book as a woman who made a difference.

The marked discrepancies in employment between men and women, mostly in terms of wages, were particularly acute in Bradford because of the textile trade, writes Rachel. ‘Women carried out the tasks that were paid less,’

Votes for women had its roots in the male suffrage campaign of the early Victorian era. In the 1840s, Bradford became part of agitation for male suffrage, with more than 5,000 men and women attending a rally at Temperance Hall in 1841. They were campaigning for all men aged over 21, whatever their backgrounds, to be able to vote.

In 1864, on a hot August day, Lord Palmerston turned up to lay the foundation stone for the Wool Exchange in Market Street and was greeted by absolute silence rather than the cheers and applause of the crowd. He was seen as the barrier to working men getting the vote.

A few years later, the town’s women gained a supporter in Liberal MP for Bradford Edward Miall who, in 1869, promised: ‘Happy will be the day when in England and throughout the world…woman takes her real and proper position - as companion and men's helpmeet in national affairs…We shall have gentler politics when the gentle sex takes to politics.’ By the 1880s, the protest had grown to votes for women as well as men.

Adela Pankhurst, the youngest of the famous sisters, toured the north of England during the votes for women campaign, drumming up support through her rousing speeches. One of her most successful meetings was a 1908 mass public rally at Shipley Glen. Between 40,000 and 100,000 people attended what Emmeline Pankhurst called 'a triumph for our cause' in the Votes for Women paper of June 1908.

Rachel’s book examines the role of women in wartime, when the city’s female population ‘stepped forward to take the place of men in the workplace, to man the Home Front and to volunteer to help those affected by the war, as well as continue to look after the home and family.’

The help given by Bradfordians to immigrants is highlighted. In the First World War Bradford took in hundreds of Belgian refugees, with people lining the streets to welcome them as they entered the city.

Women played a key role in getting them settled, serving on various committees, in particular Shipley Distress Committee.

In the Second World War, Bradford, along with many other cities, was one of the locations to welcome children in the Kindertransport scheme.

As well as continuing to work in local mills, in the Second World War many women volunteered at factories around the country. ‘In December 1941, a contingent set out on a special train to volunteer at the Royal Ordnance factory in Staffordshire,’ the book reports. ‘The elderly, middle-aged and young women were given a civic send off.’

The dominance of the textile trade is a constant throughout the book. Mill owners preferred women workers as they could pay them less and they believed that women employees were less likely to be involved in strikes.

Perhaps for women the reality of balancing the family budget or paying the rent as a single person made them more reluctant to be involved in any political activity, writes Rachel. ‘Also, since meetings preceding a strike often took place on an evening, women with dependent children would simply not have been able to attend easily.’

The book spans a period up to the 1950s, but also looks at how the legacy of women’s efforts helped to shape the Bradford we know today.

*Struggle and Suffrage in Bradford by Rachel Bellerby is published by Pen & Sword and is priced £14.99