Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Suffragettes in Trousers

I love Murdoch Mysteries, a television detective series set in early 1900s Toronto. Recently I enjoyed an episode (Victor, Victorian) which featured a group of women who regularly dressed up as men in order to experience the freedom of movement that men have. In their (not very convincing) disguises they went into clubs, they smoked and drank, they flagged down taxis. One character exclaimed excitedly about the attention and respect she received dressed as a man, which was clearly so very different from her usual experience.

It’s interesting to realise that in the UK women wearing trousers has been regarded as something controversial until very recently. It was not until 1995 that women barristers were allowed to wear trousers in court. Only four years later school girls were still being told that they could not wear trousers as part of their school uniforms. Forget that trousers are comfortable, practical, and allow freedom of movement, they were – and in some minds still are – what men wear. So it’s hardly surprising that when women seem to be breaking the rules about what women should and shouldn’t do, dress becomes a symbol of their dissent or disobedience, depending on your point of view. 

The dire results of women's emancipation - women in bloomers in the 1890s

You can see this in the case of the militant suffrage campaign. Between 1906 and 1914 women were doing all sorts of things usually held to be male preserves: attending and speaking up at political meetings, albeit at the risk of being brutally ejected; marching in demonstrations; addressing public meetings both indoors and out; and even using violence such as arson, window-breaking and assaults on politicians, to achieve their political ends. Inevitably, these female protestors were deemed to be unnatural, unsexed and mannish – and the quickest and clearest way to demonstrate their transgression was to depict them in trousers.


In fact, a few suffragettes did occasionally disguise themselves as men. In Bristol in 1913, Lilian Dove Wilcox dressed in “a soft felt hat, a dust coat, and trousers” to infiltrate a meeting of Bristol Liberal MP Charles Hobhouse. She was thrown out and “roughly treated” outside. (The Western Times, 22 June 1913). In Leeds in 1913 Lillian Lenton escaped from a house surrounded by police, dressed as a grocery-van boy. One suffragette, Clara Lambert, even had the audacity to enter the House of Commons dressed as a man – taking women’s determination to break out of the prison of imposed gender constrictions to the very heart of the male establishment.

Joan of Arc, a popular icon with suffragettes, in male attire.

You can read more about Clara Lambert and her Parliamentary escapade on the Dangerous Women Project blog. 

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