Suffragettes, Suffragists, and the Centenary of Votes for Women

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m now working on my 10th book, Hearts and Minds, which is to be published by Transworld – part of the Penguin Random House group – to celebrate the centenary of votes for women. Mention ‘the Vote’ to most people, and stock images immediately come to mind: in a haze of green, white and violet, a group of determined-looking Edwardian women strides towards us in long-skirted suits wearing hats and glossy sashes; they carry inflammatory placards – ‘Who Would be Free Must Strike the Blow’ – or bricks; one or two of them are being man-handled by policemen with thin lips and helmets askew. Ethel Smythe’s ‘March of the Women’ is playing in the background. Perhaps we see a young girl with wild eyes and loose hair, strapped down in a prison cell and being force-fed through a tube, or Emily Wilding Davison lying on the Epsom turf with her broken head wrapped in newspaper. Ah yes, we say. The Vote: it’s all about the suffragettes.

In fact, it’s not. The suffragettes played their part, of course, and some lost their health, families, even their lives in defence of their political beliefs. But they were a brave minority: the ones who caught the headlines. Their militancy distracted public opinion from the patient, imaginative and more quietly courageous work being done by tens of thousands of ordinary women across Britain, dressed not in amethyst and emerald but in berry-red and leaf-green. These were the suffragists, or non-violent campaigners. The centrepiece of their crusade was a six-week march, proudly called ‘the Great Pilgrimage’, from the edges of the UK to London, culminating in a rally for 50,000 people in Hyde Park in 1913.

When they set out on the journey, they were housewives, grandmothers, aristocrats, illiterate girls, actresses, colliery-women, teachers, students; frightened, unsure, naive, perhaps a little reckless. Activists certainly, but all these other things too. By the end, they had become women of influence. Citizens of the world. Exhausted, but exultant. The Pilgrimage is what persuaded Asquith that women were not all hysterical harpies; that maybe they did deserve the Vote after all. It was a rite of passage, not just for the participants, but for those of us who have been following them to the polling booths ever since.

These pilgrims weren’t the only non-suffragettes to fight for the Vote. Men and women were actively and imaginatively involved from all walks of life, political and religious persuasions. The ‘anti’s are great to listen to, too, with their talk of women’s inherent physical and intellectual disabilities. ‘No doctor,’ said one harrumphing medical man, ‘can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies… There is mixed up with the women’s movement much mental disorder.’

I am so excited about this book. Can you help me with it? Are there any suffragettes or suffragists in your family? As usual, I’m interested in real people, not ciphers; the ordinary men and women whom historians so often ignore. Please get in touch via jane@jane-robinson.com: I’d love to hear from you.

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