Millicent Fawcett, Suffrage Heroine & Consummate Politician

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(Women’s Library)

It is wonderful news that there’s to be a statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett in London’s Parliament Square. Not only will it celebrate the life of a remarkable person, unjustly neglected in the past, but it’ll be a timely monument to the power of peaceful persuasion, solidarity across social, political and generational divides, and mutual support. Those are the things she and her colleagues – men and women together – stood for. Marched for. Died for, even. Maybe people will realise at last that there is a difference between militant suffragettes (the minority of activists) and non-militant suffragists like her, and appreciate that neither group could have won the vote without the other.  It’s particularly thrilling that she should be the first woman honoured in this way, given her lack of interest in personal celebrity. She played the long game with humility, good humour, acuity and – eventually – success.

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(Women’s Library)

Millicent Fawcett, nee Garrett (1847-1929), came from a fascinating and progressive family. She was brought up in Suffolk, the daughter of a pawnbroker turned maltster and ship-owner, and educated rather scantily at the ‘Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen’ in Blackheath, London. She left at 15. Her sisters included Louisa, a member of the influential ‘Langham Place’ group of early feminists, and Elizabeth, who famously became the first woman Doctor to qualify in the UK.

At 18, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, an economist, academic and Liberal politician. He was blind and somewhat relied on his willing wife to act as an amanuensis. She continued to move in the radical circles inhabited by her family, and shared Henry’s interest in women’s rights. Her sister Elizabeth had presented the first massed petition for women’s suffrage to MP John Stuart Mill in 1866; their friend Emily Davies pioneered higher education for women and opened Girton College in 1869. Millicent herself supported the founders of Newnham College in Cambridge a few years later.

She became increasingly involved in the women’s suffrage campaign. Her talent for public speaking and administration shone through; she was a great tactician and diplomat, too, and in 1897 was appointed president of the newly-formed National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). People warmed to her. She was a terrific knitter and gleefully learned to ride a bicycle as soon as they came into fashion. She combined these unexpected enthusiasms with a clear-headed ability to prioritise issues, manage people and express herself engagingly and with authority. No less importantly, she had a healthy sense of fun and was an inveterate optimist. (Fun isn’t something traditionally associated with the suffrage campaign, more’s the pity; there’s plenty of it, however, if you know where to look.)

 FullSizeRender (1)        (Oldham Local Studies and Archives)

Millicent spent most of her career immersed in the practical and strategic complexities of winning the vote and changing the world. She realised the advantages of consolidation; of making progress by risking two steps forward then conceding a step back. Her most glorious achievement was her association with the Great Pilgrimage (see previous posts, and my book ‘Hearts and Minds’ when it comes out in January). After the six-week march was completed, she asked recalcitrant Prime Minister Asquith whether he would finally agree that women deserved to be called ‘people’, and so to be included in any future Representation of the People Act. Albeit reluctantly, he was forced to acquiesce. Women were people, too.

When I took part in the Women’s March last January, I thought of Millicent Fawcett as I walked through the streets of London with thousands of like-minded people. The atmosphere was so powerful, full of love, strength of spirit, shared intent. I can hardly wait to return next year to visit her statue and lay a posy of flowers in the suffragist colours – red, white and green – at her feet. I owe her that tribute, at least. We all do.

Marching through History

I’m sorry to have been away so long. I’ve been engrossed in writing and enslaved by a deadline I met just before Christmas. Just now I’ve been tackling the publicist’s author-information form for Hearts and Minds, my people’s history of the fight for the vote. At the heart of the book is the story of the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, when hundreds of women (and some men) took to the roads of Britain to march for six weeks in support of female emancipation. They were suffragists: the non-militant majority whose courage and adventurousness has been eclipsed by their more sensational sisters, the suffragettes.

 

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Caroline Watts’s ‘Bugler Girl’ design for the NUWSS (1908)

I’m getting this background publicity business done well in advance. An awkward job: it’s hard not to sound unbearably pompous when blaring your own trumpet and I’ll be glad when it’s done. Can anyone tell me how to be graceful while shamelessly bigging yourself up? Who does it well? I can do the reviews and the relevant experience bit, but ‘Tell us five interesting things about yourself’? I’ve left that one blank. I could mention being banned by the local library when I was seven for using a jam-tart as a bookmark – thus neatly combining my two favourite things in the world, food and words – and how that forced a love of book-collecting on me. Or that I’m heavily into Formula One, especially live races, despite being a middle-aged matron who’s a member of an Oxford SCR, sings in a very seemly chamber choir and drives a Volvo. Or that my cat Captain Oates types and sends emails. None of that’s going to cut it in the market-place, though. Best to let the book speak for itself. First-hand history is more fascinating than any glossy commentary.

 

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Oxford Journal Illustrated, July 1913

One of the questions on my publisher’s form intrigued me, however. ‘What do you feel most passionately about?’ it asked (or words to that effect). I immediately thought of what I’ll be doing this Saturday, 21 January. Along with millions of women and men around the world, I’ll be joining a march to mark the Presidential inauguration (https://www.womensmarchlondon.com). A similar event took place in Washington in 1913, organised by Alice Paul and campaigners for women’s suffrage in America to coincide with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The march on Saturday is in support of tolerance, compassion, diversity, freedom of expression and the power of love. As well as for us, I’ll be taking part in memory of my pilgrims, who came together from different backgrounds and generations to capture the hearts and minds of the country and its Parliament. In doing so they discovered the tradition of people-power and peaceful protest (think of the Jarrow marchers) that has been a hallmark of our society ever since – thank goodness.

There’s a direct link between the summer of 1913 and this wintry Saturday in January and it makes me prouder than I can say that I’ll be a part of it.

Women of the Road

There are not many episodes to which you can point and say with absolute confidence that they changed history. Or maybe that’s rubbish: perhaps every episode changes history to a degree – but you know what I mean. The Great Suffrage Pilgrimage, which lasted for six weeks during the early summer of 1913, was one such occasion. An Awfully Big Adventure, it marked the end of the British public’s disenchantment with militant suffragettes and the political realisation that the Vote was something ordinary women not only wanted, but needed and deserved. The Pilgrimage gave women a voice; a dignified, unified, determined and spirited voice which for once, was not drowned in derision. That’s quite something.

As readers of this shamefully sporadic blog will be aware, the Great Pilgrimage really gets me going. Hardly anyone knows about it now; few credit its marchers with playing any significant part in the struggle for the Vote, and people simply don’t realise what an extraordinary odyssey it was both personally and politically. You wouldn’t believe some of the stories I’m uncovering about its characters and their experiences on the road in the course of my research for ‘Hearts and Minds’…

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Marjory Lees and friends, Oldham archives.

However I’m so glad that in my enthusiasm for the ‘gists’ I decided not to ignore the ‘gettes’, despite my feeling that their part in the fight is a little over-exposed. As if one could – or should – ignore them. I made the arrogant mistake at the beginning of this project of thinking that everything we needed to know about the suffragettes was already out there. Wrong again: through talking to family members, reading first-hand accounts, listening to oral histories, I’m picking up details about the militants which have suddenly made them human, rather than cyphers. I don’t mean that I’ve realised the depth of their emotions (anyone who’s seen the film Suffragette will appreciate that) but I now know that they were brave, inventive, terrified, terrifying, and incredibly resourceful individuals. (If you ever guess what they used for a football in the prison exercise yard at Holloway, I’ll be astonished.)

I’m so enjoying my research. Travelling all over the UK and beyond – it’s the United States next week – has been exhausting but exhilarating. We should be intensely proud of our grandmothers, great grandmothers and their friends, whether they were peeresses or mill-hands, and of the men who supported them, for risking reputation, health, even life with such conviction and general good humour. Even grace.

Back to the Great Pilgrimage. I’m tempted, once centenary year comes round in 2018, to organise a smaller-scale march to commemorate my heroines. Maybe not with horse-drawn caravans packed with supplies of cake and copies of the Common Cause, and maybe not in long hot skirts caked in mud and hats bristling with pins (useful for prodding over-familiar or abusive hecklers), but in the same spirit as the original one. A crusading spirit, that is, of sisterhood, mutual support, hope and utter certainty that once women are free to make their own decisions, the world will be a better place for us all.

Join me, anyone?

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Common Cause, 1913.

‘Jerusalem’ and the Women’s Institute.

I gave a talk on A Force to be Reckoned With yesterday, and some interesting topics came up in the discussion session afterwards, while we were all munching cake. One question asked there (and at most places I visit, to be honest) was about the history of singing ‘Jerusalem’ by the Women’s Institute. How did it come about?

‘Jerusalem’ was composed by Hubert Parry in 1916 as an anthem ‘to brace the spirit of the nation’ in the depths of the First World War. When Millicent Fawcett heard it, she asked Parry if the women’s suffrage movement might appropriate it. ‘Jerusalem’ was more modern than the slightly dreary ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ and less strident than Ethel Smythe’s terrifying ‘March of the Women.’ Parry agreed, and ‘Jerusalem’ was first sung by massed women at the Royal Albert Hall at a suffrage rally in 1918.

Grace Hadow was one of the founders of the Women’s Institute; she was also a suffragist and a keen musician. After holding a nationwide competition for a WI anthem in the early 1920s, the results of which made her weep with despair, she hit upon the idea of transferring ‘Jerusalem’ from the suffrage movement to that other great women’s movement, the Women’s Institute. Both organisations were about empowering women; their members were bracing (as Parry had hoped) and inspirational. So it is that from 1924, ‘Jerusalem’ and the WI have been inextricably linked.

That’s not all the WI inherited from the women’s suffrage movement. Historically they share the same signature colours of green, white and violet, and both were inspired by suffragettes – like Grace Hadow and Edith Rigby – who fought for women’s freedom of expression with conviction and lasting success.

Victorian women travellers & the bliss of ignorance

I’ve been thinking about the intrepid women travellers of the Victorian age. When I left university I went to work for a firm of antiquarian booksellers, and we specialised in travel and exploration. That’s what sparked my interest in eccentric, high-achieving women: my first book – Wayward Women – was a biographical dictionary of women travellers and my second – Unsuitable for Ladies – an anthology of 16 centuries of women’s travel writing.

What’s brought them back to my mind is the temporary absence of my younger son, who’s spending five weeks working in a distant rain-forest. His brother’s about to leave for Madagascar. They’re both uni students, both passionate about wildlife, and both completely confident about their expeditions, even though they’re travelling independently. I’ll only be sitting at my desk for the next two months, yet I’m the one who’ll be fretting.

My Victorian heroines don’t seem to have worried about their travels at all. They had no precedent to guide them, and knew they were risking not only their reputations but their lives when they embarked ‘unprotected’ (by male companions) around the globe. Yet off they went, certain that God would look after them; if not God, then their unassailable Britishness, and if not that, then a conviction of the innate courtesy of all peoples towards a benevolent woman.

The extraordinary thing is that by and large, they not only survived, but flourished on their travels. Think of Isabella Bird, Alexandra David-Neel, Marianne North, Mary Kingsley – the list of indomitable Victorian travellers is endless. Was it self-confidence that kept them going, or sheer naivety? Is ignorance bliss? As I foolishly imagine a lurid series of worst-case-scenarios for my boys, I’m inclined to think it is.

Freedom, Tyranny & Corsets III

The final installment of my (almost entirely spurious) argument that development in underwear design has benefited the people of these islands during the past 50 years like nothing else. The speech was originally given in the Spirella Ballroom, Letchworth Garden City, in April 2013.

But then came the sixties. Think about it! For men: soft and roomy boxer-shorts, or if you preferred, cotton jersey jockeys, or some colourful, easy-dry nylon trunks. You could still have your robust y-fronts or your Smedley’s long-johns if you chose, but at least the choice was there. Your foundation was a matter of comfort and convenience, not some ineluctable tradition. For women who didn’t want to burn their bras, everything got lighter, more like a second skin; you could wear bikini briefs, and throw away your girdle without compromising your femininity or, necessarily, your reputation. And things got better and better. One glorious day, tights were invented. Lycra came in the 1970s. When I went inter-railing for a month in 1978, I took 30 pairs of paper knickers with me, and jettisoned them one by one as I went – it was wonderful! Actually that makes me sound like someone in a rather dodgy version of Hansel and Gretel, but you know what I mean.

Now we don’t give our foundation garments a second thought. And there’s the progress. They don’t obstruct us anymore, or preoccupy us – most of us – or impinge on our personal freedom, either physically or morally. Reactionaries will no doubt argue that the self-discipline involved in obstructive underwear was a good thing, and that the permissive age – which would never have been permissive if we’d still been in stays – marked the beginning of the end. But surely modesty is not worth anything if it’s externally imposed? It has to come from within, from the heart. The change in underwear design in the 1960s gave us the latitude to think about moral choices for ourselves. It’s changed us from creatures with an exoskeleton to creatures with a backbone of our own; given us a chance to evolve, to grow up. Whether we’ve all done so is of course a matter for a different debate..

It’s not about eroticism, this. Of course some underwear is designed to be sexy, and provocative, and since the 1960s we’ve perhaps enjoyed the novelty of the thong, the g-string, sheer materials, peepholes and so-on. I don’t particularly want to stray into Anne Summers territory, but I realise some of you will wonder where the sense of progress is in a wonder-bra or a posing pouch. My point is that I’m not talking about special occasions here; I’m talking about everyday life. Maybe I’m being naive, and my everyday life – which doesn’t generally involve wonder-bras and posing-pouches – is different from everyone else’s.

But I think not. Most people’s lives are measured out, like J Alfred Prufrock’s, in coffee-spoons, not cocktail glasses. Comfy briefs, not thongs. That which makes the greatest improvement to the greatest number of people for the greatest amount of time, is progress.  If all is well under the surface, we’re able to look outwards, beyond ourselves, advance into the world and do great things. I’m sure the founders of the Spirella Company will be twisting and twanging in their graves at the thought, and the ghosts of all those corsetieres who haunt Letchworth on misty winter evenings will be wailing with indignation, but I beg to move – without chafing or any undue restriction – that the greatest progress of the last 50 years is due to the demise of the corset, the decease of the stay and the girdle, the death of the combination and the pantaloon. Without them, we are free.

Freedom, Tyranny & Corsets pt II

Here’s the middle section of my farewell to fussy foundation garments. This whole thing hardly does my reputation as a serious historian any good (such as it is) – but it was such fun to write and deliver.

Let’s put this in perspective a bit. Underwear didn’t really exist before the 19th century, unless you count the codpiece, and that was more a matter of apparatus than anything else. Men’s breeches were often lined, for the sake of warmth as much as modesty, but under their gowns and bodices, women were fairly free-range, apart from a chemise. When crinolines came into fashion, with their wide and unforgiving hoops, so did pantaloons. This was pragmatically due to a number of mortifying wardrobe malfunctions involving ladies falling over and their skirts behaving like rigid funnels or satellite dishes, exposing their defenceless little legs and nether regions like an upturned insect’s. The passion for pantaloons was quite uncontrollable, actually – soon tables were wearing them, grand pianos, pet pugs. Amelia Bloomer debuted her enclosed pantaloons in 1851 – until then they tended to be open-crotched – and by then knickers were here to stay, slightly less voluminous with the passing of each decade.

For the Victorians, of course, who liked imposing things on people, underwear was all to do with control, and moral fibre. The whale-bones in a woman’s stays spoke of a disciplined, upright nature. Leave your stays off, and you would slob into moral degeneracy as well as physical flabbiness. Men wore corsets and girdles, too; a nice firm back and tightly-controlled stomach were the southerly reflections of that most essential of masculine attributes, the stiff upper lip. No-one ever built an Empire in skimpy underwear. Except the Romans. And the Greeks.

Personally, though, underwear could be dangerous, and terribly obstructive.  Especially for Edwardian women, who felt compelled to have themselves laced so severely that their ribs splintered, and their babies miscarried. Even in the 1920s, when waists were abolished, they bound their chests to nothingness. In the 1930s, getting dressed and undressed was tediously time-consuming. You coffered your breasts in a sort of fabric bosom-cupboard; enveloped yourself in your dreary knickers from thigh to waist; wriggled into your elaborate Spirella corset, coaxed intransigent stockings up your legs, and clipped the tops into your slightly knobbly suspenders. It took so much time and effort, and added inches, and unsightly bulges and corners, to the silhouette.

The fifties were better, but this was a grim decade. Everyone was supposed to conform to the perfect family image of hand-knitted wholesomeness; women were supposed to be all perky and neat, so underneath her full skirt with its nipped-in waist, or her turtle-necked sweater and slacks, a lady’s closest friends were her roll-on and her highly-structured brassiere. Image was so important in the fifties, and you have to concentrate very hard if you’re rigidly maintaining a ‘look’. I defy anyone to relax and think about things that really matter, while the lower half of their torso is gripped in an elastic sort of surgical stocking thing, and their top half architecturally cantilevered with steel ribs and multiple rows of metal hooks and eyes.

[One more installment to go]