“Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament”, 2012

Very quickly because I’m in the middle of bashing at this chapter, but saw this today and thought it was interesting (I am nothing if not predictable): In pictures: Suffragettes storm the Houses of Parliament for feminist lobby, with more background on it from the Olympics Opening Ceremony.

From the article:

When Gail Collins stepped out in front of the deafening 80,000-strong crowd watching the Olympics opening ceremony, wearing a high-neck Edwardian blouse and the purple, white and green sash that marked her out as one of Danny Boyle’s 50 suffragettes, she couldn’t hear the noise, just the beating of her heart. “It was one of the biggest days of my life,” she said. “Getting married, having my children and being in the opening ceremony. I felt proud, really proud that we had got there.”

In the months before the ceremony, the women forged a particular bond – with each other and the women they were representing. So when the experience ended, what did the Olympic suffragettes do? They kept marching.

Dozens of suffragette performers, led by Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, plan to march on parliament, at the vanguard of a major feminist rally organised to urge MPs to stop “eroding erosion of women’s rights” and make more progress on women’s equality.

[…]

No longer under the guidance of Boyle – who included the suffragette section in the ceremony after becoming enthralled by the memorial plaque to Emily Davison, found on the back of the broom cupboard door where she once hid in the House of Commons – the group may treat observers to a scaled-down version of their performance. It may even include the critical moment, which to the annoyance of many wasn’t featured in the TV coverage, when the women formed a human scaffolding to carry a Christ-like Davison above their heads.

I find it fascinating because it demonstrates present day understandings of suffragettes very clearly. One of my chapters has the working title “Public figure and private nuisance: the problem of Emily Wilding Davison” and focuses on discourses of Davison and the WSPU in the days and weeks after her actions at the 1913 Derby. Davison, the WSPU’s wild child, often acted unpredictably and in ways that challenged the autocracy of the WSPU leadership. However, her actions were often innovative and headline grabbing – none more so than when she was struck by a horse at the 1913 Derby. I argue that the newspaper representation of this shows the WSPU bringing her under their aegis so they could make her their martyr. Davison occupied an interesting and complicated place within the WSPU and the wider suffrage movement, so I find the image of a “Christ-like Davison” intriguing.

I also want to find out more about remembering and history and what it means to summon these ghosts and remake them for present day issues, but that will have to wait until after I submit.

References:
Rosen, A. (1974). Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union 1903-1914. London: Routledge
Stanley, L. and Morley, A. (1988) The Life and Death of Emily Wilding Davison. London: Women’s Press

Teaching the suffrage campaign

The video I discussed in my last post has got me thinking about wider issues in how and what we teach about the suffrage movement. What is discussed and disseminated about the suffrage movement is a political issue; what we teach, and in doing so deem important enough to pass on, probably says more about us and our priorities than about the suffrage movement.

From the Suffragette, 1909

Passive forms of resistance – for example, the chaining self to railings issue, which as far as I can tell from my data was either systematically underreported to the point of invisibility (unlikely, given news values) or didn’t happen with any frequency – is widely discussed and disseminated today. Forcible feeding is another issue widely discussed now. Part of this is because hunger strikes have a resonance today – as a child growing up in Britain I knew of Bobby Sands, and over the past days I’ve read of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain and the Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan. Emily Wilding Davison’s death is also widely discussed in present day material, despite it not being sanctioned by WSPU leadership and ambiguous as to her intentions – it’s probably among the best known acts of the suffrage campaign. It’s dramatic, but then so was lots of other suffragette direct action – planting a bomb in David Lloyd George’s unfinished house for example.

I’d argue that what these models of resistance have in common is their emphasis on female passivity, injured female bodies and the pain and humiliation suffered by women; as Laura Mayhall says, they’re about the “individual exhibition of women’s bodies in pain”. It’s an image of the woman as martyr, who experiences personal agonies in order to bring about social change. And I think there’s something damaging about that – it teaches children, girls in particular, that the way you protest is through personal suffering. It’s protest turned inward; the depth of your resistance shown through how much pain you are willing to bear. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing to represent as the extent of suffrage protest.

The suffrage movement campaigned through political channels (petitions, deputations, canvassing MPs), peaceful protest (demonstrations, rallies, public speaking, tax resistance), the arts (writing, drama and visual arts) and militant direct action (window breaking, attacking politicians, arson). There were multiple channels of resistance and I think it’s important that these are taught. To me, this says something about how imaginative and diverse protest can be, the many forms it can take and perhaps something of the importance of these many types of campaigning. In these heady times of austerity cuts and the rise of co-ordinated grassroots anti-cuts groups, I think it’s important that we’re aware of the rich history of democratic protest and its potential to effect change – not as single, isolated, dramatic events, but as a narrative of resistance.

References:
Mayhall, L (2003) The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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