I’ve had an exciting few Dreadnought days, with a walk, a play, a panel and my own suffrage pilgrimage to Aldeburgh in Suffolk...
In a series of events around the region, the Dreadnought South West project commemorates the 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage organised by the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women’s franchise campaigners from all over the country walked to London along six main routes, including one through the south west starting at Land’s End. The Pilgrimage began on 18 June 1913 and ended with a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July, where Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, addressed the crowd.
I was thrilled to be involved in some of the Dreadnought events here in Bristol.
On 7 July ten of us braved the heat to walk around Clifton looking at sites connected with the militant suffrage campaign in Bristol. In 1907 leading suffragette Annie Kenney came to the city to launch a local branch of the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU), the militant organisation led by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. For the next few years the city was the setting for countless meetings and rallies; local MPs were heckled; windows broken; buildings burned; and the WSPU shop wrecked by anti-suffrage students.
A new play specially written by Natalie McGrath, Oxygen formed the centrepiece of Dreadnought’s tour across the south west. I saw it at the Trinity Centre in Bristol on 11 July. While telling many women’s stories, the play focusses in particular on the lives of two sisters, one a militant, the other a non-militant. The complexity of the sisters’ relationship reflects the complexities of the campaign for the vote, and illuminates the connections and distances between both branches of the suffrage campaign. There’s also a real sense of the dilemma of attempting to balance the personal and the political as friends and home take second place to the cause: the young sister leaves the elder to take care of their demanding father, the elder fails to respond to a call for help from a pregnant friend.
The play has a wide expressive range, moving from speeches to crowd scenes to private encounters. The language is poetic and evocative, summoning up the spirit of the suffrage campaigners in its use of key phrases of the time: shoulder to shoulder, the common cause, dread[ing] nought. Our sympathy is engaged at a deep and immediate level: in the recital of the names of the towns the women pass through; in the prison scene (“We strike!”); in the beautiful songs; and in the one-minute silence for Emily Wilding Davison.
Anger and indignation about the oppression of women lie at the heart of the action. We are reminded why women wanted the vote: to end sweated labour, the exploitation of women, child poverty. In one of the most moving scenes, the women imagine that in one hundred years these problems will all be solved. If there is still anyone who thinks that feminism is no longer needed, then Oxygen is a reminder of how much remains to be done – and how much women can do. It is a beautiful, stunning piece with a fabulous cast. Ultimately, in spite of its often sombre tone, it is (as the song 'Oxygen' has it) “Full of hope for us”.
Suffragette Militancy Panel
I was joined at Bristol M Shed on 13 July by June Hannam, Professor Emerita at the University of the West of England; Lois Bibbings, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol; and Dawn Dyer of the Local Studies Team at Bristol Central Library, with Wendy Larner of the University of Bristol in the chair, to discuss the effectiveness and ethics of suffragette militancy.
June reminded us of the varied types of militancy – it was not just arson but included things like tax and census resistance – and considered how women’s engagement in the campaign contributed to their personal development (eg gaining confidence). Dawn described her involvement with the 100 Women of Bristol booklet, and looked at images of militants – for and against – on postcards, noting the violent misogyny of some of the “antis”. Lois drew parallels between conscientious objectors and militants: both were “gender dissidents” in the way they challenged traditional male and female roles. Finally, I suggested that suffragette militancy was “an experiment that failed” because in its attempt to adapt traditional forms of violence to its cause, it could not live up to its ideal of not causing harm to anyone.
My Suffrage Pilgrimage
And finally, my suffrage pilgrimage. Why Aldeburgh? Because Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who greeted the suffrage pilgrims in Hyde Park, was born in Aldeburgh in 1847. She had a long and varied career campaigning for women’s rights in education, the welfare of working-class women, and against child-abuse, as well as for women’s suffrage. She died in 1929.
Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (born in London in 1836) was one of the first women to pursue a career in medicine. She was for a time a member of the NUWSS, later joined the militant WSPU (aged 72), but left when militancy escalated. She retired to Aldeburgh in 1902, where in 1908 she became England’s first woman mayor. She died in Alde House in Aldeburgh in 1917.
Elizabeth’s daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873-1943), stayed in the WSPU and went to prison in 1912 after taking part in a window-smashing raid.
For information about the Suffrage Pilgrimage and Dreadnought South West see www.dreadnoughtsouthwest.org.uk