I don’t remember where I first came across the suffragettes. I was an avid reader as a child, the sort whose parents attempted to ban reading at the table because their beloved offspring would become so engrossed in a book they’d forget to eat, and the sort whose parents were thwarted in this ban when their beloved offspring would read sauce bottles and milk cartons and cereal packets pointedly and out loud. I had certainly come across them by secondary school, and I remember being frustrated when my GCSE history textbook contained a few pages on the suffrage campaign but it wasn’t on the syllabus.
The textbook had the sort of information you’d expect – women chaining themselves to the railings, suffragettes, an image of a poster of a large, evil-eyed cat with the limp, helpless body of a long-skirted woman in its month, photographs and a short case study of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby. It wasn’t much, but I was fascinated.
Some ten years later and I found myself actually researching the suffrage movement. In some ways, not studying the movement as presented by my GCSE textbook was perhaps beneficial; it meant I had fewer preconceived ideas about the movement. The more I read (and continue to read), the stranger the focus of that textbook appeared. Why the focus on women chaining themselves to railings, when my reading suggests that was a fairly minor part of suffrage activities – things like large demonstrations, deputations and window-smashing seem more prevalent both in the literature and in the texts I’m studying? Why the focus on the Women’s Social and Political Union rather than reflecting the diversity of the movement and the myriad groups involved? And why the consistent use of the term suffragette, rather than the more inclusive term suffragist?
It’s remarkably persistent too – I’ve lost count of the times people have asked me if my research focuses on these popular representations of the suffrage movement, and I’ve had people email me back to ask if I meant to write suffragette instead in my abstracts. I don’t think it’s a lack of interest – far from it. People seem intrigued by the movement, its actions and figures within it. This event, called “Remember the Suffragettes: a Black Friday vigil in honour of direct action” was held in November 2010 and clearly acknowledges suffragette direct action and its consequences.
I don’t have answers about why this simplified portrayal of the suffrage movement exists, why the Pankhursts and the WSPU and women chained to the railings linger in people’s memories and have this resonance. The cynical feminist in me says that we like our women feisty but not dangerous, that chaining oneself to railings is provocative yet non-threatening, that we are more comfortable with women’s martyrdom that we are with their bombs and arson. We like equal rights and are a bit shocked that women couldn’t vote less than 100 years ago, but we’re a bit scared by what it might take to attain those rights. We’d rather hear about action and grand gestures than endless rounds of legal and political debate and scrutiny. My thinking here is almost certainly simplistic, but I rather suspect that our focus on these particular aspects of the suffrage movement (and neglect of others) says more about our concerns than theirs.