Suffrage imagery

Sometimes I like going into the library and just browsing, skipping the catalogues and directed searches, and just poking about until I find something interesting. Sometimes you find things you didn’t know existed – Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice opened my undergraduate eyes. At other times you find seemingly random things. A couple of months ago I was flicking through a book on “fashioning the body politic” and to my interest, found an article on fashion and the suffragette movement. I photocopied it, thinking it would be an interesting diversion but not really relevant to my thesis, but it’s turning out to be surprisingly useful.

I’m currently analysing a report of a WSPU procession and having an understanding of suffragette visual signifiers is proving essential. The procession was in honour of Emily Wilding Davison and accompanied her coffin through London to the station, where it was taken to Morpeth and buried. The procession itself is more like a state funeral – colour coordinated dress, music, groups of women marching in formation, banners, a cross-bearer, and young girls dressed in white and carrying laurel wreaths. It’s astonishing in terms of scale and organisation – there’s a sense that every visual element is there for a specific reason and to have a specific effect. One of the aspects I’m interested in is the procession as publicity – this was an opportunity for the WSPU to create a new kind of visual spectacle. Rather than being purely a political demonstration, this procession celebrated the life of a suffragette. The banners read “Fight on and God will give the victory” “Thoughts have gone forth whose power can sleep no more” and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, celebrating Davison as a fallen soldier who had given up her life for the cause.

The WSPU leadership seemed to have been ambivalent about Davison. Her propensity for unpredictable and independent direct action outside the guidance of the leadership seems to have caused tension; for example, she set fire to postboxes before arson became an acceptable tactic and this did not appear to have gone down particularly well. She was knocked down by the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby – it is unclear whether she intended to stop the horse, pin WSPU colours to its bridle or was merely crossing the racecourse after she thought the horses had passed – and died three days later. The inquest recorded her death as “death by misadventure”. What I find interesting is the WSPU reaction to her death. The paper reports no immediate WSPU response, although a day or so later WSPU colours were draped on the screens around her bed. This rather muted response contrasts with the extravagant procession; I’d argue that the WSPU leadership realised the potential for publicity after her death, wanted to capitalise on it, and so brought Davison’s actions under their aegis. The resultant procession involved thousands of sympathisers and the crowds gathered to watch were so thick the police could only keep the way clear for the procession with “utmost difficulty”.

The procession was rich with symbolism. One of the mistakes I’m trying not to make is interpreting the imagery as a present day reader would; the cultural touchstones are different, and this is illustrated clearly in the use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” on the banners. My immediate association with this phrase is the bitterness and outrage of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry – written some four years after this procession and published seven years after it. Today this phrase has connotations that weren’t widely present in 1913. Instead, I’m trying to look at early twentieth century interpretations of colour and flower symbolism, religious and classical allusions, and banners. What does it mean when the WSPU members wear purple, white and black rather than the WSPU colours of purple, white and green? Does it really symbolise the death of hope? This is where the article on fashion in the suffragette movement comes in – not just because it touches on some of the areas I’m interested in, but also because it draws on sources that look really exciting. I badly want to get my hands on Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907-1914.

Naturally the library doesn’t have it. Am tempted to take up a Cambridge friend’s offer to swap beer for books.