The Suffragettes’ Song (Horrible Histories)

Someone I know linked to this video on facebook. While my PhD research focuses on contemporary (meaning 1908-1914) media representations of the suffrage movement, I’m also interested in present day representations – what gets filtered through to us, and through what lenses.

I wrote about one video last month so was curious about this other one. Unfortunately it’s not that great. It’s a shame because I loved Horrible Histories when I was a kid and, at a book signing, forced Terry Deary to sign my whole collection. I should probably apologise for that.

I commented on facebook that there were wild historical inaccuracies and was asked which bit was wrong. I spent the following half hour going through the video second-by-second and offering a detailed critique because I am a humourless pedant. Yes, this cartoon is an accurate reflection of my life. My objections are as follows:

0:02 – 0:09 – the struggle for the vote was not over; women’s voting rights were subject to various economic, property ownership, age and education restrictions. Full equal suffrage was not achieved until the 1928 Equal Franchise Act.
0:10 – the term “suffragette” was originally coined by the Daily Mail as a pejorative. While some suffrage campaigners reclaimed it (mainly those associated with the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU)), many others did not and described themselves as suffragists.
0:18 – Millicent Fawcett was a key suffrage campaigner but was not the founder of the suffrage cause. The women are also wearing purple, white and green sashes; these were associated with the WSPU. Fawcett belonged to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), a constitutionalist organisation that had internal clashes with the WSPU.
0:21 – women’s rights had been an issue for a long, long time; see e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”.
0:38 – there were men in Parliament who supported women’s suffrage, notably Keir Hardie.
0:48 – it’s unclear, but I think the lyrics are “peaceful protest started in 1903”. This coincides with the founding of the WSPU, but the WSPU only began their direct action campaign a couple of years later. Suffrage campaigners had been organising petitions, deputations and lobbying MPs for years decades previous to this.
0:56 – Emmeline Pankhurst was a founder of the WSPU and of a different lineage in suffrage organisations. There was a huge diversity of organisations – well over 50 in the UK – and the Pankhursts’ tactics were not a direct continuation of Fawcett’s. Fawcett continued to lead the NUWSS until 1919.
1:09 – suffragists chaining themselves to railings wasn’t really that common and I believe its significance has been wildly overstated; if you want militant direct action, window-breaking and arson seem far more widely reported.
1:50 – 1:59 – the coroner’s report into Wilding Davison’s death was “death by misadventure”; there is no evidence to suggest she was trying to get herself killed and return train tickets in her pocket suggests the opposite. It’s suggested that she was trying to pin WSPU colours to the King’s horse’s bridle or was trying to cross the racecourse.
2:05 – 2:26 – the WSPU called off their militant campaign and supported the war effort; however, other suffrage organisations took a pacifistic stance and opposed the war.
2:31 – some historians believe that women would have gained the vote earlier had WWI not got in the way
2:38 – for working class women, particularly those from Northern, trade union backgrounds, the vote was merely a small step towards improving their working conditions, living conditions, accessing healthcare, better education and improved welfare. In addition, only a subsection of relatively privileged women could vote. Being able to vote did not improve women’s lives overnight, nor did it end their exploitation.
2:45 – not all women were fighting under the suffragette name! Many identified as suffragists.
2:46 – similarly, some historians believe that women would have got the vote earlier had the WSPU not gone on their massive arson campaign.

I think it is interesting in that it tells us more about our perceptions of the movement, what we think is important to know and to teach, and how we organise history into a neat narrative.

As the newspaper texts I work with make obvious, suffrage campaigners and politicians had no idea which of their actions were going to be historically significant. The texts I was reading last week from June 1910 are excited/angry/hopeful/concerned about the possibilities of the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill; the Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons and was referred to a committee, but before this happened, Parliament was dissolved in preparation for a general election and Bills not passed into law were dropped. At the time, suffrage campaigners thought this Bill was likely to succeed; history tells us it didn’t.

There isn’t a neat narrative as expressed in this video. Instead there were setbacks and surges of activity. The things that suffragist campaigners thought would definitely get them the vote this time ended up being disappointments. Today, people are more likely to have heard of Emily Wilding Davison’s interruption of the Derby – not endorsed by WSPU leadership – that they are of carefully planned events, such as the large demonstration in June 1908. At the start of the campaign in the 1860s, no one could have predicted the direct action tactics that would end up being used by the WSPU between 1909 and 1914, nor could they have predicted WWI or women’s role in the war.

Catchy tune though – I can already tell this is going to get stuck in my brain to pop up at the least opportune of moments.

Bookmark the permalink.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Teaching the suffrage campaign « mixosaurus

Leave a Reply