Skip to main content
Read page text

14

HISTORY & POLITICS

Purple, white and green. Dignity, purity and hope. The colour scheme in the branding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded by the former suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903, with her eldest daughter, Christabel, was unveiled at the giant Women’s Sunday event of June 21, 1908, attended by around half a million supporters. With women instructed to dress in the WSPU’s colours, the event was a sartorial demonstration of suffragette militancy, combining daintiness and determination. But the WSPU’s colour scheme was one of many, each suffrage organization having its own. Timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the partial enfranchisement of British women, numerous engaging books look at both the Pankhursts and their opponents and consider the complexities of the suffrage campaign, how it was fought in all its nuances and shades.

Named after Mrs Pankhurst’s own battle cry, Rise Up, Women! is a substantial and impressive product of Diane Atkinson’s long association with the Museum of London. Her book is surely destined to become a key general text, ranking alongside classic tomes such as Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement (1998) and Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes (1974). Raeburn’s frequently cited book, graced with a foreword by J. B. Priestley and drawn from interviews with militants, is sadly out of print. Atkinson’s book provides an accessible, captivating, chronological account that incorporates recent developments in ancestry research as well as first-hand accounts.

Rise Up, Women! traces the suffragettes’ campaign back to the Great Reform Act of 1832, in which women were for the first time expressly excluded from voting for parliamentary candidates. Atkinson also emphasizes that female suffrage featured in a draft of the Charter of 1838 (though Chartists later dropped it for “manhood suffrage”). Despite some surprising misquotations (including an extract from an interview with the WSPU organizer Grace Roe), Atkinson’s book functions as a warm invitation to explore Britain’s archival treasures, notably in the Museum of London, the Women’s Library, LSE and the British Library.

Atkinson presents the suffragette movement as a “drama” with numerous supporting actors and “walk-on parts”, but she ensures that we become fully acquainted with the many personalities behind the names. She also shows how their ideas about female emancipation went far beyond the campaign for the vote. There is blue-eyed Edith Rigby, a doctor’s wife, who wore substantial amber beaded necklaces, sandals, enjoyed Turkish cigarettes and opened a working women’s night school in Preston. She scandalized the neighbours by treating her servants as equals and whitening her own doorstep. In 1991, Atkinson interviewed the oldest surviving suffrage campaigner, 101-year-old Victoria Lidiard, from Bristol. She was jailed for two months in Holloway for smashing a window at the War Office, and later became the first woman optometrist. The Spong sisters are a fascinating family, who helped campaigners to improve their health, fitness and quality of life. The mother, Frances, took part in demonstrations and inspired her daughter Dora Spong, born in Balham, south London, a nurse, sanitary inspector and midwife who worked in the impoverished areas of Tottenham and Batter-

Aim high The lives of the women who fought for the vote

EMELYNE GODFREY

D i a n e A t k i n s o n R I S E U P , WOMEN! The remarkable lives of the suffragettes

670pp. Bloomsbury. £30.

978 1 4088 4404 5

J a n e R o b i n s o n H E A R T S A N D M I N D S The untold story of the Great Pilgrimage and how women won the vote 374pp. Penguin. £20.

978 0 85752 391 4

R o b e r t W a i n r i g h t M I S S MUR I E L MA T T E R S The fearless suffragist who fought for equality

376pp. Allen and Unwin. £18.99.

978 1 76029 739 8

M a r g a r e t W a r d H A N N A S H E E H Y S K E F F I N G T O N Suffragette and Sinn Féiner: Her memoirs and political writings

463pp. University College Dublin Press. £30 (€35).

978 1 910820 14 8

J u n e P u r v i s C H R I S T A B E L P A N K H U R S T

A biography 563pp. Routledge. £120 (US $150).

978 0 415 27947 5

sea. Dora was the first of her sisters to be jailed for obstruction in June 1908. Florence Spong was a weaver and woodcarver, and Annie Spong an accomplished artist, like numerous WSPU campaigners. She painted several Lord Mayors of London, took dancing classes with Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond, and became a physical culture expert whose exercises, designed to benefit body and mind and “relieve awkwardness”, were performed with a musical accompaniment by another sister, the soprano Irene Spong, who served time in Holloway. Fledgling WSPU speakers could learn from Irene how to project their voices over a restless audience. The Spong sisters’ father, James Osborn Spong, invented labour-saving devices. Perhaps this was his contribution to helping the cause of women’s emancipation in the kitchen. Unfortunately, he named his meat mincer The Minnie, after his eldest daughter, a vegetarian like her mother and sisters. After that, “Minnie announced . . . that she preferred to be known as Frances”.

Atkinson also uses family history resources to explore the lesser-known personal stories of the more famous campaigners. Flora Drummond, known as the General, self-assuredly challenged Winston Churchill and led marches, notably the Women’s Sunday, on horseback, sporting a sash in the WSPU colours, epaulettes and a peaked cap. A close friend of Emmeline Pankhurst was the artist and philanthropist Kitty Marshall, whose husband Arthur frequently represented the suffra-

gettes in court. The Marshalls’ Essex home offered a sanctuary for Mrs Pankhurst while their house in Westminster was a place for suffragettes to swap their clothes and don disguises, as they were being followed by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. Atkinson’s research of digitized divorce records reveals how Kitty underwent a traumatic divorce from her first husband, a philanderer, Hugh Finch (a subject I address in my own forthcoming biography of Kitty). Atkinson leaves the reader to decide to what extent the private experiences of the women she writes about influenced their involvement in the suffrage movement. But perhaps these events ought to be set in a greater historical context; what was Kitty’s view of Christabel Pankhurst’s campaign for moral purity and a change in divorce law?

Unusually, Rise up, Women! also offers pen portraits and brief histories of some remarkable “antis”, including, famously, the novelist Mrs Humphry Ward and Gertrude Bell. Herbert Asquith’s adamantine opposition to women’s suffrage is matched by that of his second wife Margot, who is described as “intelligent, spoilt, opinionated, mischiefmaking”, a woman who scoffed at pro-suffrage speeches given by campaigners to Asquith and Lloyd George. Having her windows smashed by suffragettes probably did not make Margot, who was terrified for her young son’s safety, more sympathetic to the militant movement.

According to Jessie Stephenson, a vital strategist of the WSPU, who is quoted in Rise Up, Women!, the suffragist (non-militant) National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was “dry as bones”. Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds: The untold story of the Great Pilgrimage and how women won the vote proves otherwise. Although largely forgotten today, the Great Pilgrimage of 1913 was, the book notes, one of the biggest and most successful demonstrations in British history: marching groups proceeded from six main routes, and their tributaries, all converging on London. While the WSPU stepped up militancy, the suffragists’ Pilgrimage was intended as an “orderly and dignified crusade”. The Pilgrimage was inspired by a mass march of October 1912 from Edinburgh to London, undertaken by suffrage campaigners whose tweed clothing earned them the name “Brown Women”. By contrast, the Pilgrims’ costume consisted of a practical but smart dark coat and skirt, white blouse, sash and rosette in the colours of the NUWSS: red, white and green. For ease of walking in mud, their skirts were raised a daring four inches off the ground. Their banners further informed onlookers on the road or at meetings that they were not arsonists or stone-throwers: “By Faith Not Force” and “Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War”.

Robinson has not merely relied on secondary works, as suffragette historians frequently do. Her work on the sheer volume of women’s suffrage petitions to Parliament is commendable, as is the tour she gives the reader of the contents of a little-known suffragette scrapbook in North Carolina which contains art-

work and photographs. The book is sprinkled with slightly too many nudging asides to the reader, but there is a wittily iconoclastic interpretation of Bertha Newcombe’s painting of 1910, which depicts Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies presenting John Stuart Mill with the 1866 petition to Parliament that contained 1,499 signatures. Mill appears in the painting as “an elongated Mr Pickwick, twinkly, benign, and ultimately ineffectual”, while Elizabeth Garrett, of ostensibly “severe” appearance in real life, “simpers in the background in lettuce green with a lacy shawl”, and the normally soberly dressed Emily Davies is shown wearing “creamy frills”. Robinson also recounts how a (male) journalist was persuaded that the Pilgrims would converge on London by swimming the Thames, and arrive by balloon and aeroplane.

There was a suffragist who took the campaign to the air: Muriel Matters. Robinson asks how she funded her venture to throw hundreds of Votes for Women leaflets from the sky during the opening of Parliament on February 16, 1909. How could she, even with her earnings, afford the costly dirigible? Or was the venture sponsored by the WSPU’s more democratically run breakaway organization, the Women’s Freedom League? Robert Wainwright takes up this thread in Miss Muriel Matters: The fearless suffragist who fought for equality, which opens in north London, 1909, with a shivering Muriel posing for press photographs. She contemplates the airship, emblazoned with “Votes for Women” and adorned with Women’s Freedom League streamers of white, gold and green, and the tiny basket in which she and its pilot, Henry Spencer, will perch above the metropolis. The book then abruptly cuts back to a scene in 1862 in which Muriel’s grandmother attempts to convince an unsympathetic male-run Adelaide Municipal Council to grant her permission to let her cow feed on public land. It is clear by this sharp juxtaposition of events that venturing forth into new territories – the Matters emigrated from Plymouth to Australia in the 1850s – and challenging male authority were part of Muriel’s inheritance.

Born in 1877 in Adelaide, Muriel had nine siblings. Her father, John, was inclined to sudden peregrinations and unreliable investments, but her mother, Emma, held the family together. As a teenager, Muriel encountered Ibsen’s A Doll’s House at around the time when South Australian women were given the right to vote. Ibsen, together with Robert Browning and Walt Whitman, kindled her desire to study elocution. Her recitals were well received in Adelaide where she was described by the press as “commanding and articulate”. By the early 1900s she had come to London, where she avoided the attentions of the pianist Bryceson Treharne, who maintained that women’s brains ought to preclude them from playing Chopin.

Muriel’s talents made her suited to campaigning. She was first engaged as a suffrage speaker at a by-election in Peckham in 1908. Her pioneering caravan tour helped draw in attentive audiences from smaller villages untouched by the rail networks. Wainright intentionally describes the claims to distinction of each town and contrasts its glorious history with depictions of local hooliganism which, though cleverly lampooning the perpetrators, do not diminish the note of menace behind their actions. A highlight for Muriel

TLS F EBRUARY 9 2 0 1 8

My Bookmarks


    Skip to main content