How should we remember the Suffragettes in 2018?
Eleanor Lake, 1st Year History
Artwork by Sumeyya Soylu, 3rd Year Anthropology
A hundred years after the passage of the Representation of the People Act, 2018 offers us a moment to pause and reflect on how modern-day feminists should remember our nation’s early activist icons.
The suffragettes challenged the status quo by fighting for the political representation of women in the face of intense public criticism. Their actions ranged from moderate demonstrations employed by the suffragists, through to hunger strikes and violence. Their achievements and sacrifices must not be forgotten but it is important that we recognise that, while fighting for women’s rights, many prominent figures in the movement for female enfranchisement were simultaneously complicit in the subjugation of other peoples across the British Empire. It is also important to change the way we tell the story of the battle for political representation. From the curriculum assigned to children in schools, to the statues commissioned in our city centres, the dominant historical narrative amplifies the achievements of privileged white women, neglecting the diverse contributions of minority ethnic and working-class groups. A hundred years on, it is our duty as feminists to recognise this complicated legacy and bring history’s forgotten figures to the fore.
Indian women provided an important contribution to the British suffrage movement that is rarely recognised in the traditional historical narrative. Take, for example, the controversial 2015 film Suffragette starring Carey Mulligan, which was rightly accused of ‘whitewashing’” the fight for representation by excluding women of colour. This misrepresentation prompted journalist Anita Anand to write her biography of Princess Sophia Duleep Singh in 2015.
Sophia was a dedicated campaigner for women’s enfranchisement who utilised her aristocratic status by becoming the biggest individual donor to the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union). Sophia was present at critical moments in the movement’s history, such as ‘Black Friday’ in 1910, when a women’s suffrage event was brutally broken up by the police. 150 women were physically and sexually assaulted by policemen and male civilians. Three of them died as a result of their injuries, including Mary Clarke, the sister of Emmeline Pankhurst. Sophia saw a police officer attacking a suffragette, and personally fought him off, proving that she was a force to be reckoned with – and a princess who was not afraid to get her hands dirty. Acts of bravery by women like Sophia, and the wider contributions of women of colour to the fight for gender equality, need to be included in this story.
Although wealthy aristocrats with affiliations to the British ruling class were permitted to work alongside key figures like Emmeline Pankhurst, most women of colour were excluded from the organisation’s inner-circle. Moreover, key suffrage figures maintained imperialist views and dismissed the rights of women in British colonies. Prominent suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and Norah Dacre Fox, advocated British colonial hegemony: Pankhurst wrote: ‘it is a great thing to be inheritors of an empire like ours great in territory and potential wealth.’
Feminism today is still criticised for prioritising the concerns of white women and failing to recognise racial oppression. An important step to making the feminist movement inclusive is unpicking its own complicity in the oppression of other peoples. The way we remember the suffrage movement needs to acknowledge its limitations, and the harm caused by many of its protagonists. If we as a nation continue to idolise prominent figures like Pankhurst without criticism, we perpetuate a legacy of oppression.
It is also important to note that the contributions of working-class women have often been excluded from narratives of the suffrage movement. For many, the campaign for political rights did not transcend class boundaries. The WSPU, for example, advocated a limited franchise that would extend the vote only to women who owned property. Christabel Pankhurst told her sister Sylvia in 1914: ‘working class women are the weakest portion of the sex’. This view, shared by her mother Emmeline, was based on the idea that politicians were more likely to respect middle-class women over the female proletariat. Unfortunately, this was often the case and many on the anti-suffrage side argued that working class women were too ‘degraded’ and uneducated to use the vote wisely. This argument was often effective: the influential archaeologist and traveller Gertrude Bell was just one of many prominent women who signed the anti-suffrage petitions due to the perceived danger of giving working women the right to vote.
Although working-class women such as Annie Kenney and Teresa Billington made a profound contribution to activities, the WSPU continued to exclude them. This conservative approach, however, had the adverse effect of alienating many progressive liberal and radical representatives in parliament, who argued that the enfranchisement of upper- and middle-class women would only reinforce the exclusion of the working-class men and women from political representation. The NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, offered a different approach, incorporating a broad social base, advocating universal enfranchisement and eventually forming an alliance with the Labour Party. Northern working-class women debated the idea of female suffrage within their trade unions, further cementing their association with the Labour Party. This alliance put pressure on the Liberals to support women’s enfranchisement and ensured that votes for women would have to be included in any future franchise reform. It was only through the work of the democratic suffragists that the movement was able to convince enough parliamentarians to support them.
The 1918 Act, however, ignored the efforts of working-class women; only enfranchising women over 30 with property. But working-class women continued to fight for their rights, and in 1928 eventually secured the right to representation for all women – just ten years later.
All feminists today should draw attention to these hidden figures of history who rarely feature in the public perception of the suffrage movement. Historical representation is important to enable disadvantaged groups to establish their own identities and have their own space in historical education, rather than being side-lined. The stories we tell through our public memorials, popular films and school syllabi about the campaign for women’s enfranchisement need to acknowledge both the flawed characters of its iconic figureheads and the diversity of those women who agitated for the vote. In this way, the term ‘suffragette’ will not only evoke the stereotyped figure of the snobbish, middle-class white woman like Emmeline Pankhurst but a variety of women from all corners of society, from Northern trade unions or the Indian aristocracy, who all fought for the right to political representation.
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