Sunday, 2 December 2018


A Blue Plaque to the Bristol and West of England Women's Suffrage Society will be unveiled on 15 December 2018. Although I've written about the militant suffragettes, why was it so important to me to arrange for a Blue Plaque commemorating the non-militant suffragists? 

It’s one hundred years since British women voted in Parliamentary elections for the first time following the enactment of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The Act gave the vote to some women over thirty, but enfranchised all men over twenty one. It was to be another ten years before women got the vote on equal terms with men. Nevertheless, it was a milestone in British history, and in Bristol and around the country we have been commemorating and celebrating this tremendous step forward in the continuing struggle for gender equality.

So you’d think that with all the talks, exhibitions, television and radio programmes, newspaper and magazine articles, there has been plenty of scope to tell some of the many stories of how women won the vote.  
Unfortunately, it seems it's not so. Overwhelmingly, there has been one main narrative running through the commemorations, and it is that it was the militant suffragettes led by Mrs Pankhurst who got the vote for women. True, a statue to Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the non-militants, has been put up in Parliament Square. But if you look at events and coverage around the country you will discover that most of them have focussed on the militant suffragettes.

You only have to Google something like “votes for women anniversary events” to see what I mean. In example after example, the focus is on suffragettes. The government logo for their Votes for Women projects is in the colours of the main militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. And in nearly every news report I’ve seen, when women have marched to commemorate women’s suffrage, they’ve sported the purple, white and green of the militant WSPU.

On 31 January 2018, The Guardian’s ‘pick of the best’ votes for women events runs with the headline “Suffragette cities” and under the details of every event selected – including the one I was involved in organising at Bristol M Shed – apart from one or two exceptions, only suffragettes are mentioned. In fact, on the M Shed day we included coverage of the non-militants’ peaceful, law-abiding campaign, as well as the equal adult suffrage movement, and our logo was designed to incorporate the colours of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union – purple, white and green – and the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies headed by Millicent Garrett Fawcett – red, white and green.

The Bristol Votes for Women 100 logo
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that we went to so much trouble not to give the impression that it was just the suffragettes, as a number of women historians and researchers were involved in that event. Some of them, like me, have published work on suffragettes, and some of them have published work on the non-militant suffragists. But none of us would claim that the stories we’ve focussed on, whether about militants or non-militants, are the only ones that need to be told.

And quite honestly we’re getting a bit fed up with having to repeat over and over again “it’s not just the suffragettes”! But it seems that when women try to make the point that there’s more than one story to tell when it comes to women’s history, no one is listening.  

And that’s why I have been so keen to remember the work of the non-militant women as well as that of the militant suffragettes by arranging for the installation of a Blue Plaque to commemorate the Bristol and West of England Women’s Suffrage Society.

I believe that, important as the suffragettes’ stories are – and I’ve told many of them myself – there are other stories. Thousands of them, in fact, because the NUWSS was always much bigger than the WSPU, it campaigned for longer – right up until all women got the vote – and involved many more women and men in its campaign.

The NUWSS organised events on both a local and national scale. In 1913 they organised the Suffrage Pilgrimage which mobilised women from all around the country. Starting in June 1913, women marched to London following six main routes which converged in a mass meeting in Hyde Park on 26 July.

The women walked, rode, cycled or caravanned their way across the land. Some travelled the whole route, others joined for part of it. And when it came to violence against women asking for the right to vote, it didn’t matter whether they were militant or non-militant. Just like the suffragettes, the Pilgrims were subjected to violence and harassment. When they stood up to speak in halls and market places, they were hooted down, stoned, beaten, and mobbed. But still they spoke out, with just as much courage, just as much passion, just as much devotion to the cause as the militants.

The debate about whether it was the militant or the non-militant campaign that did more to win votes for women is still very much alive. But whatever their respective merits, it’s a gross distortion of women’s history to focus on one at the expense of another, to silence so many women’s voices, and ignore so many women’s experiences. And it’s impossible to even have the debate if the contribution of the non-militants is overlooked.

So that’s why I’m delighted that there is going to be a Blue Plaque for Bristol’s non-militant suffrage campaigners to sit alongside the existing Blue Plaques which commemorate Bristol’s militant suffragettes: Annie Kenney, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence and Jessie Stephen.

A Blue Plaque commemorating the Bristol and West of England Women’s Suffrage Society will be installed at 3 West Mall, Clifton, Bristol BS8 4BH, with Thangam Debbonaire MP as guest of honour, at 11.30 am on Saturday 15 December 2018. There’s no charge, and it will be a fairly short ceremony. Everyone is welcome to come.

I’ve set up a crowd funding page in case you’d like to make a donation towards the cost of the Blue Plaque which is at Just Giving

This is an edited version of a talk I did at the Strong Women event for Bristol Literature Festival on 26 October 2018.

Picture Credits
NUWSS Badge Women's Libary on Flickr; No Known Copyright Restrictions
Bristol Votes for Women 100 image design 

Votes for Women 100 was organised by a partnership of the West of England and SouthWales Women’s History Network, Bristol M Shed, University of Bristol, University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), Bristol Libraries and the Diversity Trust. With the generous support of the Regional History Centre at UWE Bristol, the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust, and Government Equalities Office funding secured in a bid led by Bristol Women’s Voice.

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