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.

International Women’s Day: Suffrage

I found this brilliant video by Soomo Publishing about the US suffrage movement.

More information on their website.

While it is presented as a linear narrative and simplifies some of the movement’s complexities, there are some great things about it. I like how working women’s voices are included and the video format is very useful at demonstrating how strikingly visual the suffrage movement was – something that can get lost among the text and black-and-white photos.

I especially like how anti-suffrage views are presented: advocated by a woman who is supported by men, and that these views enter into the song as part of a dialogue. The lyrics – “Well, I think you’re psycho/I think that it’s sick/I’m queen of my home, raise my babies/That’s it/Don’t need to vote” are a neat summary of the separate spheres discourse and the elevation of the private, domestic sphere as a rhetorical strategy by anti-suffragists.

However, the problems of the video are similar to the problems of the suffrage movement, and indeed reflective of (some? many?) types of feminism. It’s presented as a narrative where by the end, white, able-bodied, young women step out in confidence and in doing so, present the attainment of suffrage as a triumphant endpoint. There were indeed suffrage campaigners who saw suffrage as a symbolic gesture of equality and who campaigned for women’s suffrage as an end unto itself; these women were often white, financially comfortable and upper and middle-class. However, there were also women, often working class and active in trade unions, who saw the suffrage as a means to gaining employment rights, improve their working conditions, gain healthcare for themselves and their families, and increase support for welfare. These women didn’t have the comfort of financial stability – they were vulnerable if they lost their jobs or couldn’t work, and to them the suffrage was not merely symbolic. Instead it was a step towards dignity and independence with endless practical implications. These women can be left out of the suffrage narratives. Some, like Annie Kenney, negotiated a role within organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union; others, like the radical, trade unionist, Northern suffragists examined by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, were “rediscovered” by feminist historians.

As Avory Faucette tweeted earlier today, “Big love for #IWD for all my trans women, queer women, Women Of Colo(u)r, Women With Disabilities, neuroatypical women, fat women, & all women left out of dominant picture”. There are still problems in feminism not addressing the needs of all women, clearly shown in this article about addressing white privilege in feminist organisations. As with the suffrage movement, feminism risks ignoring or dismissing the women with least power but to whom we should be listening to most carefully. The nature of intersectionality means that:

…racism, patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities, classes, and the like. Moreover, intersectionality addresses the way that specific acts and policies operate together to create further disempowerment. For instance, race, ethnicity, gender, or class, are often seen as separate spheres of experience which determine social, economic and political dynamics of oppression. But, in fact, the systems often overlap and cross over each other, creating complex intersections at which two, or three or more of these axis may meet. Indeed, racially subordinated women are often positioned in the space where racism or xenophobia, class and gender meet.

The groups of women mentioned by Faucette are positioned at these intersections of cissexism, homophobia and heteronormativity, racism, ablism, health and beauty norms.

So for me, International Women’s Day isn’t just about celebrating women and the strides made in gender equality – although that’s exciting and important too; after all, it’s encouraging to be able to look back and see you have changed something. It’s also a day of reflecting on the many areas where work remains. I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s coverage of IWD and liked these articles on the hurdles obstructing equality around the world and migrant and refugee women. It’s important that IWD isn’t just a day of celebration, but also one of anger, protest and, to use the noun so popular when reporting suffragist actions, some old-fashioned outrages.

References:
Liddington, J. and Norris, J. (1978) One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. London: Virago

How to erase identities and make everyone bad guys

A couple of months ago, I posted about the politics of representation. I found the observation that representation in the media can involve “crushing difference in favour of identities constructed by those in positions of power” particularly striking. What you see here is me trying to work out the process of how it happened in the suffrage movement.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic table of differences between suffragists and suffragettes. Of course, it’s not that simple – see Sandra Holton (1986) for more – but for the purposes of this argument, let’s run with this.

Suffragists Suffragettes
considered the more inclusive term members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament prepared to engage in direct action

However, what I’ve found in the texts I’m working with looks a bit more like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

I found that suffragette and suffragettes were comparatively low frequency terms and didn’t have many words associated with them. Instead, there were lots of words associated with suffragist and suffragists – even the direct action words like disturbance*, disorder, outrage*, violence and crime* which I then focused on. This seemed out of keeping with the historiography.

What seems to happen is that there’s a process where the two are conflated:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Galtung and Ruge (1965) work out a set of principles they call “news values”. These decide how likely it is that something will be reported as news, and include factors such as whether the incident forms part of a pre-existing narrative, how recent it was. how unusual it was and so on. Some of the relevant factors to this are conflict, negativity, personalisation and continuity: basically, well-known suffragettes scuffling with the police and getting arrested is more interesting to newspapers than a deputation of nice ladies handing in a petition to their MP.

Therefore, because of news values, the stuff about the constitutionalist approach gets erased:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Because we’re now not talking about constitutionalists, it doesn’t make sense to characterise a group by its opposition to constitutionalists, so that can go too:

Suffragists
considered the more inclusive term
members of a militant organisation
constitutionalists
challenged the constitutionalist approach
campaigned by lobbying Parliament
prepared to engage in direct action

Ta-da! You have now ended up with something like this:

Suffragists
members of a militant organisation
prepared to engage in direct action

This, if you’re in a position of power, is pretty awesome. If you can label everyone in the suffrage movement as violent and dangerous, you don’t need to listen to their concerns about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about ill-treatment in prison and police brutality. Hurrah!

The suffrage movement is unusual because the term suffragist, in the Times at least, comes to mean something very different to how it was understood amongst those within the movement. However, I think the process – of conflating a range of motivations, organisations and individuals under one term, erasing the less newsworthy bits, using the term in such a way as to imply it still covers the full breadth of these motivations, organisations and individuals, then dismissing everyone as irresponsible and destructive – is still very relevant today.

As I write this, there are riots in Tottenham, Wood Green, Enfield, Brixton, Walthamstow, Hackney and possibly Peckham. The people involved are being described as looters, protesters and rioters. In light of what I’ve illustrated here, I wonder what’s being erased through using these descriptions. Obviously it’s in the interests of those in power to portray those involved as vandals, thieves and general undesirables – it stops them having to pay attention to legitimate concerns…about equality, about welfare, about working conditions, about police brutality.

References:
Galtung, J & Ruge, M. 1965. The Structure of Foreign News. The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers. Journal of Peace Research, vol 2, pp 64-91
Holton, S. 1986. Feminism and Democracy: Women’s suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900-1918. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press