haunting texts

Winchester cathedral graffiti from 1632

Graffiti from 1632 carved into a pillar of Winchester cathedral

Last semester I was teaching a History of English module. With little in the way of previous teaching materials, I had considerable scope to develop my own – and woah, did I have fun with that.

I grew up in a medieval city, its Anglo-Saxon quarters still somewhat in evidence and traces of its inhabitants and their trades and their prejudices echoed still in the street names. The city itself is a palimpsest, post-war layered on Victorian layered on Georgian layered on Tudor layered on medieval layered on Anglo-Saxon and, crouching in alcoves, the city’s old Roman walls. It’s impossible to live there and not let that somehow soak into your bones, just a quiet awareness that your life is one breath against the city’s dreaming stones.

And yet, all of this history is just part of your life. When you grow up playing on castle ruins (destroyed in the English Civil War and never rebuilt) and running around a medieval great hall and there are Roman coins on a table in your primary school because they were dug up in someone’s dad’s field, and you spend your teenage years perched on tombs and ruining tourists’ photos by sprawling messily on the market cross, it’s impossible to be too reverent about the history that surrounds you. As a child, I was enchanted by illuminated manuscripts – and also by the graffiti carved into the cathedral stones. History is real people, real lives – not just stuff to distantly admire.

I hope that this came across in my teaching as I offered them historical context along with linguistics, information about Anglo-Saxon farming methods taught alongside the case system. I wanted them to understand where these texts came from – the fact that manuscripts were heavily used, the physicality of operating a heavy printing press.

Freshly printed Caxton

Freshly printed Caxton

Happily, the university has a massive school of art and one of their specialities is various forms of printing, so off we went to operate a letterpress. Our guide to the process, Naomi Midgley, showed us around the typecase, how to set up a composing stick and had prepared a forme of a text for us to print. Because I couldn’t resist trolling my students a little bit, I chose a extract of Caxton. Then we got to place the forme in the press, ink it, carefully place a sheet of paper over it, place the tympan and frisket over it, roll the coffin into place, pull the bar towards us to lower the platen then push it to raise it, then roll the coffin back out, lift the tympan and frisket and finally lift the sheet of paper to view the new print. It was an important insight into the physical nature of producing a print and what can go wrong as our inexpert hands applied too much ink, not enough ink, applied too much pressre from the platen, not enough pressure, nudged the paper as we lifted it off and smudged the wet ink. It was one thing to read about the process of producing a printed text; quite another to actually do the labour myself. If I could, I would love to apprentice myself to a printer, to learn how to reach into the the typecase without having to look, to assemble formes, to allow the process of operating a press mark my body with ink and callouses and changed musculature.

As a corpus linguist, one of the things I struggle with is the way that materiality is both present and absent in the texts I use. I use large collections of machine-readable texts, stored on my computer or a server and manipulated using a computer program. I don’t go into archives, rarely physically come into contact with my texts. However, they are scanned using Optical Character Recognition and through this, the early twentieth century newspaper texts I use with constantly remind me of their physicality.

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

In these texts, flecks of dirt or ink, smudges, imperfections in the paper and so on are interpreted as salient by the OCR program: spots of dirt or ink become full stops or commas or dashes or part of a colon or semi-colon, flecks of ink mean that o acquires a tail and becomes a p or q or b or d, smudges turn a c into an o or an e and so on. In corpus linguistics the text is both isolated from the way it was physically produced, yet the method of production haunts the text, is a ghost (or perhaps a poltergeist) in my analysis. I often had to return to images of the newspaper text to interpret my concordance lines or manually correct texts for detailed analysis.

I don’t have an easy answer or, indeed, a conclusion. Perhaps all I can do is suggest what I had to do so many times when the smudges and blobs became too much: return to the text with human senses.

East London Suffragette Festival

East London Suffragette Festival banner

I’m delighted to confirm that I will be speaking on the Hidden Histories panel as part of the East London Suffragette Festival.

The event runs between 10am – 5pm on Saturday 9th August; the panel starts at 11:45am. It’s free and is at Toynbee Hall, London – a place seeped in the radical history of the East End and where many notable suffrage campaigners spoke.

The Hidden Histories panel will be discussing who gets left out of the history books, how history is shaped by what is recorded and who records it, how a multiplicity of narratives are boiled down into stereotypes, and why it is important to uncover these hidden histories.

I’m really excited about speaking because this ties in incredibly well with my research on newspaper discourses of the suffrage movement; it was striking how differently The Times was talking about the suffrage movement to how campaigners themselves saw both the campaign and themselves. I argue that the multiplicity of suffrage identities, aims and experiences were conflated into narratives about suffrage disturbance, outrage, violence and disorder. This extended to blurring the distinction between constitutionalist and militant approaches – a distinction that suffrage campaigners saw as very important and which they frequently wrote and spoke about.

However, there is one place in the newspaper where suffrage campaigners’ voices are heard: in the letters to the editor. In my forthcoming book, I analyse this section of the newspaper separately – and find that the areas of concern are very different. Discussion of suffrage direct action framed in terms of disorder and violence appear much less frequently – instead, there is concern for prisoners, discussion of leadership and clever, witty refutations of stereotypes of suffrage campaigners.

I believe that the media representation of the suffrage movement is not so different to the media representation of other protest movements. Having been involved with various social justice, feminist, race and queer activism(s) for over a decade, I am aware of the ways that even peaceful direct action can be reported as disturbingly, frighteningly violent. Like the suffrage campaigners, we have debates about the forms our protests should take, how to create understanding and sympathy from those who don’t know much about us, how to include people in our movement, how to protect ourselves from violence, intimidation and burnout, how to create and maintain sustainable, compassionate activism.

Uncovering these so-called hidden histories (hidden to whom?) helps us challenge dominant narratives, locate diversity in campaigns and, ultimately, recognise historical campaigners as people not so very different from ourselves. In researching the suffrage movement, I also discovered a history – and a legacy – of activism.

Emily Wilding Davison links

100 years ago on the 10th June, the coroner’s jury at Epsom met to discuss a woman’s death. They discussed whether it was suicide. They wondered if it was an accident. Eventually, they ruled that the woman’s death was “death by misadventure”. The woman’s name was Emily Wilding Davison, and her death was due to the injuries she sustained at the 1913 Derby when she was struck by the King’s horse.

I’m at a week-long programming course at the University of Lancaster and tomorrow I’m presenting at the UCREL Corpus Research Seminar so I’ve not had time to write much – nevertheless, here are some links to things I’ve enjoyed reading.

Elizabeth Crawford on Emily Wilding Davison And That Return Ticket, Kitty Marion, Emily Wilding Davison And Hurst Park and Emily Wilding Davison: Perpetuating The Memory. Elizabeth also asks why Emily Wilding Davison is remembered as the first suffragette martyr and reflects on perpetuating her memory.

Fern Riddell on Kitty Marion: Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman

Briony Paxman and Clare Horrie on Emily Davison and the 1913 Epsom Derby

Rebecca Simpson on The centenary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Lesley Hulonce on ‘Mummy’s a Suffragette’: Contested Womanhood

Emily Wilding Davison’s connections to Parliament

And last but not least, Cath Elm’s review of Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragette.

Doing interdisciplinarity

Second in what seems to be an occasional series about interdisciplinarity. All posts can be found under the interdisciplinarity tag

One of the most daunting things about my thesis was that I essentially had to learn a new discipline. I could have treated my corpus of hundred year old newspaper articles like a contemporary corpus – the corpora I’d used until then (the British National Corpus, the Guardian corpus and two corpora I’d assembled myself, one of music reviews and the other of children’s stories) were of my time and cultural context and, while I obviously researched the area, I didn’t have to learn about a different time period.

However, I knew that if I was to do any kind of (critical) discourse analysis with these historical newspaper texts, I had to learn about the historical context they operated in. If I didn’t, I would be incapable of recognising discourses – they simply would not register as significant to my contemporary eyes. I would not understand their significance, or the impact they had. The nuances would be lost on me and my thesis would make for possibly an interesting corpus analysis, but useless for anyone interested in the historical or social aspects.

The trouble was that I hadn’t done any history since GCSE. At that age I was pretty sure that my interests lay in warfare, sickness, medicine, death and social history, and not in kings, queens and the nobility. The prospect of being taught by my history teacher for another two years was not a prospect I was willing to entertain. Despite loving history, I reluctantly chose not to study it at A level. As such, I had a lot to learn.

Be aware of the field(s)

My first task was simply to understand the historiography – who was writing about the suffrage movement and how they positioned themselves within the field. I tried to understand the debates within the field, and how people’s research responded to others’ research. I learnt something of the waves of research about the suffrage movement – the first waves comprising of personal memoirs and scholarship focusing on the WSPU, London-based organisations and leading figures of the movement, and a second wave starting in the 1970s and focusing more on hitherto marginalised figures, experiences, ideologies and organisations. There were also historians seeking to synthesise these various perspectives.

I also sought to understand the wider context of the time period – what was going on in terms of politics, family life, Empire, work, health? What were the assumptions about gender roles and how women were supposed to behave? These were the things that were going to come up in the newspapers and which I had to be acquainted with.

One of the ways I did this was to read – a lot. The other was to go along to undergraduate history lectures. These were useful in supplying context and when it came to the lecture on the suffrage movement, I was delighted that it was all stuff I was newly familiar with. This suggested that I was on the right track.

I am also immensely grateful to Dr Chris Godden and Dr Lesley Hall who were generous with their time and advice and who didn’t laugh at me when I described what I was researching, but were kind enough to give the impression I had something useful to offer.

Allow it to shape your research on a fundamental level

In my case, I’d played it safe and requested Times Digital Archive data from between 1903 and 1920. Choosing dates was always going to be arbitrary; 1903-1920 encompasses the period of time from the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union to two years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the vote. If I wanted a lot more data, I could have asked for 1860 – the decade in which the campaign for women’s suffrage emerged out of other social protest movements – to 1928, the year in which women were granted the franchise on the same terms as men. That was too much to take on for a PhD project, and I had to narrow my focus. I could have simply chosen a five or ten year period – say 1910 to 1915 – but this wouldn’t have made sense in the social context of the time.

My research in history quickly revealed that the outbreak of World War One led to a complete change in the suffrage movement; it forced them to engage with nationalism as revealed and understood through warfare. It was also clear from looking at the initial data that the newspaper’s shift in focus and the amount of news they actually printed changed after 1914. Including the years between 1914 and 1918 would therefore change the scope of the project and that was too much to take on for a PhD project. My research into history also gave me a starting year – 1908, on the cusp of suffrage direct action.

The historical background, therefore, played a crucial role in shaping the project and delineating its boundaries.

It’s not just the icing on the cake

Related to the previous point: I didn’t want the historical analysis to be something I only brought into play in conclusions.

This ties in with a corpus linguistics issue of having to know your data in order to do in-depth work with it. If you handed me a corpus from a culture that I know very little about – let’s say, for sake of argument, Arabic literature – I would probably be able to make some pretty graphs and identify some words which behave in interesting ways and which are perhaps worth further investigation, but because I don’t know the history and the context in which these texts operate, I would be unable to connect these interesting words to things that were happening that would affect the discourses. I wouldn’t know about events, wars, peace treaties, rulers and governments, innovations, philosophies, schools of thought, cultural shifts.

While my work is in (corpus) linguistics – my background is in linguistics, I’m (currently!) based in an English department and my thesis will be examined by linguists – I don’t think I could write a good linguistics thesis using this particular corpus without also writing about history. It’s something I’ve always had in mind when interpreting data – and not just in the sense of “writing about what I’ve observed”. In corpus linguistics, categorising and grouping your data can in itself be a form of interpretation; I found it was vital to understand the historical context in order to come up with meaningful categories. At the moment I’m looking at the news narratives of Emily Wilding Davison’s actions, hospitalisation, death, inquest and funeral procession; these were all reported, sometimes extensively, in the Times. However, a critical discourse analysis approach requires the analyst to be sensitive to what is missing as well as to what is present, and so it is vital for the analyst to be aware of the wider context of the text. This was where an understanding of the historical context is so important. For example, the Times notes that Yates represented Davison’s family at the inquest into her death. A passing comment, perhaps. However, with my knowledge of the suffrage movement, I was able to recognise this man as Thomas Lamartine Yates, husband of one of Davison’s close friends and unofficial WSPU legal advisor. In some ways, this raises more questions than it answers – was he providing his services because of his wife’s association with Davison or does it say something about Davison’s posthumous changing relationship with the WSPU? – but it makes for a richer analysis.

To go with the cake metaphor, I don’t think of my research as a linguistics cake with a tasty history icing. Nor do I think of it as a linguistics and history battenburg cake, nor a linguistics and history marble cake. instead, the two are inseparably mixed.

Be humble

I am not a historian by training. I have undoubtedly made mistakes and been blind to things – interpretations, undercurrents – that a person with 5+ years of intensive study of history behind them would notice. There’s a lot that I don’t know, and if someone asked me to discuss in detail the politics of Empire during this time period or the campaign for equal franchise in the 1920s, I’d struggle. I hope that I’ve been a respectful and sensitive outsider and my work can offer some useful insights to “proper” historians, but I also hope I can accept their inevitable corrections with grace and humility.

“Nut turkey”

My friend Maria writes the excellent Gastronomy Archaeology blog. If you’ve ever wanted to find out about Renaissance recipes and/or make your own buttered beer, this is the blog for you.

Maria’s blog highlights a complex history of food and eating. Today I stumbled on a 1915 recipe book produced by the Equal Franchise Federation of Western Pennsylvania and was intrigued to find a recipe for “nut turkey”. The cook is directed to “form [the nut mixture] into the shape of a turkey, with pieces of macaroni to form the leg bones”. I admit it – I am having some trouble visualising this and tried to sketch it:

This can’t be right


However, I am intrigued that nut roasts were around nearly 100 years ago and were being eaten at similar meals as they are today – to replace the festive turkey. The cookbook argues that nuts are a valuable, cheap source of protein but I can’t help wondering if there’s more to it than that. Ann Morley and Liz Stanley observe that some British suffrage campaigners had interests in a “very familiar collection of causes […] – feminism, children’s rights, animal rights coupled with vegetarianism, pacifism and theosophy”, noting that with the exception of theosophy, the combination of these causes were thought to have been invented by late 20th century radicalism. Did American suffrage campaigners have interests in a similar constellation of causes? It makes me wonder what we’re seeing here – is the nut turkey something created out of convenience, constraints on tight household budgets or for ethical and ideological reasons?

I also rather liked the non-recipes:

Anti’s Favorite Hash

(Unless you wear dark glasses you cannot make a success of Anti’s Favorite Hash.)

1 lb. truth thoroughly mangled 1 generous handful of injustice. (Sprinkle over everything in the pan) 1 tumbler acetic acid (well shaken)

A little vitriol will add a delightful tang and a string of nonsense should be dropped in at the last as if by accident.

Stir all together with a sharp knife because some of the tid bits will be tough propositions.

I assume that “Anti” refers to “anti-suffragists” but could also be a homophone of “aunty” depending on accent – nice bit of wordplay there.

Hymen Bread

1 lb. genuine old love 7/8 lb. common sense 3/4 lb. generosity 1/2 lb. toleration 1/2 lb. charity 1 pinch humor

(always to be taken with a grain of salt.)

Good for 365 days in the year

I’m in the process of writing a long post on interdisciplinarity and actually enjoying writing my current chapter(!) so I hope you’ll be satisfied by some nut turkey for now.

References:
Stanley, L. and Morley, A. (1988) The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison. London: Women’s Press

7 February 1918

My supervisor and I shared a moment of somewhat nerdy joy today. Her current research focus is Charles Dickens and today marks the bicentury of his birth. However, this February marks 94 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed and I was pleased to see that today the Guardian published the article about the Act from its archives.

As the news report notes, the Act did not extend to franchise to all women, and not on the same terms as men; men could vote from the age of 21 and without property restrictions, but women had different restrictions in place. From the introduction to the Act:

As regards the Parliamentary franchise for women, the Act confers this only on women who have attained the age of 30. In constituencies other than university constituencies there are two alternative qualifications which are as follows :

(1) the woman must be entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation of a dwelling-house (irrespective of value) or of land or premises (other than a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not leas than 5/. ; or

(2) she must be the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered.

The university franchise is conferred on all women of the requisite age who have obtained a degree, or, at Oxford or Cambridge, have passed the final examination and kept the necessary residence.

So women had to be over 30 and either have a degree (not easy to come by for a woman then) or own, rent or be married to someone who owned or rented property in order to vote. It wasn’t equal franchise but this Act did pave the way for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women and men equal voting rights.

The Guardian article is rather lovely in its optimism and I can’t resist sharing this section:

We may mourn for what we had hoped for and have not got, but that need not prevent us from rejoicing at the gains which have been won. The adoption of women’s suffrage is the signal victory of an electoral struggle stretching over two generations and represents the greatest triumph in our day of a generous good sense. It is much more than political victory. Measured by purely political results, it may prove to be of less effect than either its friends or its opponents anticipated, though in certain directions, and particularly on all that concerns the position and interests of women before the law and in the State, it is bound to tell, and in time to tell heavily. But beyond that it will modify the whole attitude and outlook of women in society. It will in a real sense bring spiritual as well as political emancipation. Women will realise themselves a little differently and will be differently regarded by others. We are a political people, and the recognition of political equality is the first step to the recognition of equality in every other field where nature has not set up her own barriers.

Of course it’s a product of its time and there’s stuff in there that’s dated by 21st century standards, but it’s amazingly progressive compared to some of the stuff it was contemporary to.

A footnote

LGBT History Month starts tomorrow, and perhaps fittingly I read this footnote a few days ago.

Rosen 1974, footnote on page 209 regarding Christabel Pankhurst’s sexual and emotional relationships:

Christabel may well have been a Lesbian, but the evidence is circumstantial rather than explicit: she never married, and the copious documents relating to her life and career do not allude to any heterosexual involvements. All the available evidence indicates she had stronger emotional attachments to women than to men, and the markedly dominant/submissive character of her relationships with Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney certainly seems to resemble the psychology of many Lesbian relationships. There is, however, no reason to believe that Christabel’s affection for Mrs Tuke and Annie Kenney ever involved conscious sensuality, and as far as the history of the WSPU is concerned the exact nature of Christabel’s sex-life is less significant than the fact that by 1913 she had grown into a state of mind in which she was completely adverse to any form of co-operation with men.

I find it an interesting footnote for several reasons: the first and perhaps most immediately obvious reason is the speculation as to the dynamics of lesbian relationships. Without further information it’s difficult to say whether this observation has anything to do with the perceived dynamics of butch/femme relationships, but I do find it interesting that lesbian relationships are markedly dominant/submissive, and heterosexual ones are not marked in the same way.

Secondly, it was published in 1974; academic research also has a historical context. 1967 marked the passing of the Sexual Offences Act and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, and this book was published seven years after that. I don’t want to read too much into a single initial capitalisation, but Lesbian suggests something about how that identity was conceptualised – as something static, as something still close to criminalisation and pathology.

Thirdly, as my last post discusses, there’s a transience in how sexual identities are understood. Our understanding of lesbian identities have already changed between Rosen’s 1974 comment and as I write this in 2011 – I think there’s a belief now that same-sex relationships are more equal than heterosexual ones. There’s more understanding of asexual identities and what these can encompass – grey-A, demisexual, homoromantic. But the context, as well as making it difficult for us to understand an individual’s sexuality in our terms, also affects how an individual would have expressed their sexuality. While sex between women was not a criminal offence, it’s not hard to imagine that the early 20th century was not the most lesbian-friendly of times.

Fourthly, I like how it delivers what Dr Lesley Hall describes as a “codslap”. This footnote reads like a response to others’ speculation as to Christabel’s sexuality, and ultimately concludes that whatever her sexuality, it’s less important than how she felt about men being involved with the WSPU campaign.

For me there’s a tension between the importance of acknowledging historical figures’ non-heterosexual identities when we have evidence for them – people like Alan Turing and Edward Carpenter – and not trying to ascribe sexual identities where there isn’t (enough of) that evidence. Short of necromancy or the loan of a TARDIS, we can’t actually know, and besides, sexuality is just one facet of a person’s identity. Other facets exist and may be more important to that person, and perhaps it’s an issue of finding a balance between sexuality being invisiblised and sexuality overshadowing other important parts of an individual’s identity. It’s something I’m still mulling over though, and I definitely don’t have anything conclusive to say.

If you’re a University of Nottingham person, we’ll have a history display in the Portland Atrium tomorrow between 10 and 4 so come along if you want to learn something about LGBT history.

PS if you do have a TARDIS, I have an interesting research proposal for you…

Queering the Museum

LGBT History month is coming up in February, and, in need of a bit of inspiration, I decided to see this exhibition at Birmingham Museum. I’m a bit of a museum geek and part of what interests me about them is who decides and how they decide what goes on display and how these objects are arranged. Some museums try to tell you a chronological story, leading you through different time periods and artistic movements. Some, notably Cairo museum, group similar objects together: sarcophagi there, canoptic jars here, animal mummies down the corridor there. However, curation is not a neutral act; it can support and/or create hetero- and gender normative interpretations of history, art and artefacts. In this exhibition, artist Matt Smith aims to disrupt these readings.

The museum’s description of the event states:

What happens when we stop thinking the world is straight? Through omission and careful arrangement of facts it is easy to assume that the objects held in museums have nothing to do with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

In a bold new project, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, in conjunction with ShOUT! Festival, has allowed artist and curator Matt Smith access to their collections and galleries to tell the stories that museums usually omit.

Museums are expected to reflect society and culture. They make active choices about what is kept for posterity and how it is described and displayed. Turning the traditional on its head, a queer eye has been cast over the museum.

Objects have been rearranged and brought out of store and new artworks have been specifically commissioned to uncover, draw out – and on occasion wilfully invent – the hidden stories in the Museum’s collections.

I think the idea is brilliant and I wanted to like it, but its implementation left me rather less dazzled. Queering the Museum isn’t a separate exhibition but is incorporated into the main displays. I approve of this idea in theory – after all, why should queer history be yanked out of context rather than embedded in more mainstream histories? – but in practice, this made it hard to actually find the queered displays. Unfamiliarity with the museum’s layout and a lack of maps didn’t help.

Some of the exhibits were striking. I liked Jacob Epstein’s ‘Statue of Lucifer’, a statue with the body of a man and the face of a woman, queered by holding a cape of green carnations. The green carnation was used as an underground signifier of sexuality by gay men, and indeed lends its name to a book used in the prosecution of Oscar Wilde. Using it was a play on history and hidden histories, of the tension between overt and covert signs; the visitor, if zie understood the significance of the green carnation, is allowed an insight, the thrill of knowing something other people don’t, the pleasure of being able to interpret an artwork in a way not afforded to others. It makes the viewer complicit in the art, and in doing so, reminds zir of the danger possessing such knowledge could have posed. Of course, I then noticed the information placard by the piece explaining the significance of the green carnation.

Other pieces seemed more humorous – figurines of men cruising, or two women with affectionately linked arms (wasn’t totally sure about the butch-femme dynamic in this though). There was an element of playfulness there that I appreciated, and which also served to challenge the perceived seriousness of the museum. I also liked Smith’s technique of creating stylistically similar objects and juxtaposing them with the “real” artefacts – a creative way of not only drawing attention to his pieces, but also inviting the viewer to question the artefacts around them and wonder about their history.

However, other things didn’t really do it for me. One of the things that disappointed me was the lack of bi and trans visibility. These are identities that struggle to be represented in general – a museum exhibition purporting to make the lesbian, gay, bi and trans community visible shouldn’t contribute to this invisibility. However, as noted, it was difficult to locate all the pieces so they may well have been present. This presented another issue: the difficulty in simply finding the pieces seemed to underline how invisible queer history can be in museums – completely the opposite of the artist and museum’s intentions.

I also wasn’t sure about the static understanding of (homo)sexuality that seemed to be presented. For me at least, part of the fascination of queer history is the different ways sexuality has been understood – I think we do an injustice to people if we try to force the way they understood their sexual identities into the way we might interpret their identities. To give an example or two: would an 18th century assigned-male-at-birth cross-dresser still identify as a cross-dresser if zie was born today and had the option of sexual reassignment surgery? Would James Barry have presented and lived as a man if medicine was a career open to women? Such examples can be described as queer – they challenge the mainstream – but are they LGBT?

Overall, it was something I very much liked the idea of, but was less convinced by the way it was enacted. I don’t think it’s an idea to give up on altogether, but perhaps queering the museum and giving voice to different, secret histories also needs a diversity of people behind it.

creating a history

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.