Born in Eccles, Lancs on 30 November 1833, she was the daughter of the Rev. Joseph Wolstenholme (1800-1845; e.m. 1836), a Protestant Methodist minister. Orphaned at an early age, she was largely self-taught, but for two years was a pupil at the Moravian school at Fulneck. She became a teacher and then the headmistress of a private girls school at Boothstown, near Worsley, and in 1867 founded a new school at Congleton. A lifelong campaigner for women’s rights, she became noted for her energetic support for women’s suffrage, the reform of laws restricting the rights of married women and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. In 1865 she became honorary secretary of the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Society and in 1872 moved to London to become secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights.
Becoming increasingly a freethinker, she controversially established a close personal relationship with Benjamin Elmy of the National Secular Society; this was only transformed into a legal marriage in the interests of the women’s movement when she became pregnant. She only gradually regained public acceptance, though continuing to work anonymously for the Married Women’s Property Committee. She remained actively involved in the struggle for equal rights for wives and for women’s suffrage, in association with such notable figures as the Pankhursts. In 1889 she became secretary of the Women’s Franchise League and in 1892 formed the Women’s Emancipation Union. In the 1890s she gave active support to the struggle of northern textile workers for improvements to their working conditions. The failure of her husband’s business left her in poverty in the 1890s, but an appeal among her associates provided her with a small annuity until her death at Chorlton upon Medlock on 12 March 1918, shortly after the passing in Parliament of women’s suffrage for which she had long campaigned.