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Pilgrimage of greats Why the march of the suffragists should be commemorated

About twenty-five years ago a retired academic I know moved house, which meant registering with a new doctor. She went along to the surgery and provided her details to the receptionist, who entered them straight into the shiny new Practice computer. When my friend gave her title – Professor – the computer froze. A message flashed up on the screen: “status incompatible with gender”.

My friend sighed in exasperation. There were not many professional areas women could not access when her GP’s computer said “no” in the 1990s and there are even fewer now. But, in her mother’s day, the story was different. During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first two or three decades of the twentieth, women were defined by low expectation and limited opportunity. Traditionally they acquiesced while the powerful debated; they looked down while the educated scanned the horizon. Without a vote, they had neither the influence nor authority to challenge the domestic stereotype. They were voiceless; locked out of the system that defined them.

I had “status incompatible with gender” firmly in my head when I embarked on research for a book, Hearts and Minds, celebrating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which allowed (some) women to vote for the first time.

Mention “votes for women” to most people, and a succession of stock images invariably leaps to mind. In a haze of green, white and violet, a group of determined-looking Edwardian ladies strides towards us wearing sashes and top-heavy hats, or the aprons and clogs of the factory floor. They carry placards – “Who Would Be Free Must Strike the Blow” – or bricks; a few of them are manhandled by policemen while the others raise their fists in protest. Ethel Smyth’s “March of the Women” plays sternly in the background. Alternatively, we see a young prisoner with wild eyes and loose hair, strapped down in her cell being forcibly fed through a tube, or Emily Wilding Davison on the Epsom turf with her broken head wrapped in newspaper. Votes for Women? It’s all about the suffragettes. And what is there left to say about them?

I went to our local museum, thinking they might have images of suffrage campaigners to inspire me. I could write about the “ordinary” women of the UK, perhaps, who lacked the charisma and high profile of Pankhursts or Kenneys but were no less passionate in their fight for enfranchisement. The volunteer on duty that day said no, they didn’t have any photographs, but she did remember her grandmother talking about the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913, and how proud she had been to play a part.

This “Pilgrimage” – unknown to me – was a six-week march through Britain culminating in a London rally involving thousands of women and men, and it entranced me. It had nothing to do with the suffragettes. It was all about the suffragists. I quickly learned the difference. In general terms the “gettes” were militant campaigners belonging to Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and almost exclusively


female. They wore the amethyst and emerald colours with which we are familiar. The “gists” were the non-violent majority, advocates of constitutional change who believed in deeds and words. They belonged to Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), wore green, white and red, and included men.

The Great Pilgrimage was the highlight of a fifty-year campaign by the suffragists, an inspiration for Jarrow, for Greenham Common, for every women’s march that’s taken place since Trump arrived. Crowds of pilgrims set off on six major routes across the country: from Newcastle and Carlisle in the north (including marchers from Scotland), Cromer and Yarmouth in the east, Aberystwyth in Wales and Land’s End, Portsmouth, Brighton and Margate in the south. Further routes fed into these main ones like tributaries, all flowing to the capital city. People joined in or dropped out along the way, each sparing as much time as possible from the round of daily life. Some stayed the whole course, travelling as far as 300 miles between the middle of June and the end of July 1913. They marched because they believed in the power of peaceful persuasion, at a time when the militant suffragette campaign was at its height. They were expected to cover up to 20 miles each day, day after day, in rain as well as the full sun, holding meetings morning and evening to explain their mission. Most were on foot (perhaps unused to walking any distance at all) while others rode in caravans, on horseback or on bicycles.

Pilgrim Lady Rochdale commented that she was privileged to meet all sorts of women on the road, from duchesses to fishwives. By the time she reached London she considered herself indistinguishable from a fishwife herself: “hot and smelly” and proud to be so. A young mother from Kent took her children with her, while a suffragist daughter accompanied her eighty-year-old father and an elderly married couple lifted everyone’s spirits as they strode along together. “Are we fools or heroes?” asked one of them of a friend. “A little bit of both”, he replied. An undergraduate from Oxford was thrilled by the good humour of everyone he met on the march. “I have lunched with pilgrims”,

‘Ceiling’ by Ella Baron he claimed proudly, “I have tea-d with pilgrims, I have dined with pilgrims, and the whole time, I have heard more stories that I wouldn’t tell to my sisters than ever before!”

There were problems, however. Not just practical ones associated with walking through successive pairs of boots and swarms of blisters, but more dangerous difficulties occasioned by the fact that all suffrage campaigners were perceived by the majority of the public to be violent militants. The pilgrims were frequently assaulted; at meetings they were pelted with an unlovely artillery of rocks, cowpats, rotten vegetables and dead rats plump with maggots while the filthiest obscenities flew through the air like bullets. More than once death threats were made and very nearly carried out. This was no picnic. But it did make a difference.

It was not the arson, the bombing, the canvas-slashing or window-smashing of the militants that finally persuaded Prime Minister Asquith to give women the vote. It was this suffragist campaign for the hearts and minds of Britain, forced to counter the negative publicity attracted by the suffragettes while struggling to demonstrate to Parliament and the public that women were responsible enough to be trusted with democracy. When asked after the pilgrimage whether he would now admit that women had finally won the right to be called “persons” in a political sense, and therefore to vote, Asquith is said to have replied – albeit rather doubtfully – that yes, he supposed women were persons after all. The war delayed legislation, but this march changed lives.

So why had I not heard of it before? Simply because everyone’s attention has been arrested by the suffragettes, whose fame flares so brightly it consumes the lower-profile (but no less adventurous) achievements of their suffragist sisters. For almost a year I travelled as a pilgrim myself to unearth in archives and private collections around the UK the forgotten diaries and letters of those who took part in the march. I trawled through regional newspapers (mortifyingly coming upon an editorial by my great-grandfather, a Lincolnshire journalist, deploring women’s aspirations to venture out of their natural sphere); I read contemporary suffrage journals and pored over parliamentary records. Most importantly, I looked beyond the beguiling testament of the suffragettes. My reward was huge: in learning about the Pilgrimage I found a glorious sort of Edwardian road movie with characters of different political and religious creeds, social classes and generations, discovering for themselves the heady and joyous power of women coming together in the name of freedom, peace and social justice.

Before I left my local museum that day right at the beginning of my research, I asked what exactly the volunteer’s grandmother had done. It turned out she wasn’t a pilgrim herself; she had neither the money nor the time to join the march. Instead she saved up scraps of her family’s food for a week and then, when the pilgrims passed by her village, offered them a tiny packed lunch to help them on their way. That was how she won the vote. I salute her.

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