Forgotten Women: The Suffragists and the Fight for Enfranchisement (Part 2)

In part one we explored the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement and the divisions within it. By the 1910s the exploits of the suffragettes were overshadowing the efforts made by the suffragists and other non-militant groups. In addition, the government was grappling with various issues such as labour unrest, Ireland, the arms race with Germany and a in showdown with the House of Lords remained intransigent over the issue of women’s suffrage. Violence was met with violence as the suffragettes were met with police brutality and being force fed while in prison.

Despite the disproportionate attention given to the suffragettes, recent research has cast doubt over the centrality of militancy. In the second and last part we will see how the suffragists fought back, how the Great War put the campaign on hold and how the right to vote was finally secured.

PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT PART 2:

As mentioned earlier, many suffragists initially supported the WSPU, but by 1908 the growing militancy of the latter made many suffragists uncomfortable about any further association with the suffragettes. There were concerns that the work of the suffragists would be harmed by the suffragettes and could turn away those who had been converted to the cause of women’s suffrage, as well as law and order issues that could impact on the wider arguments for giving women the right to vote. In 1909, any moves to unite the NUWSS and the WSPU were doomed as even Millicent Garrett Fawcett rejected proposals that the two groups should be amalgamated. The NUWSS after a large majority passed a resolution that “strongly condemned the use of violence in political propaganda” but also condemned the Government’s response to the suffrage agitation. As Fawcett explained in her autobiography:

“In 1908 the NUWSS made a definite break with the WSPU on account of the latter having finally abandoned the policy which they had at first adopted of suffering violence but using none. Stone-throwing, window-breaking, and other forms of violence were organised by the WSPU, and we felt we had no choice but to publish protests against everything of this kind. We also had to take means to exclude the Militant Suffragists from membership in our societies……To put the whole matter in a sentence, we were convinced that our job was to win hearts and minds of our countrymen to the justice of our cause, and that this could never be done by force and violence.”  (p. 192)

Both the NUWSS and the WSPU did cooperate from time to time on a national level – such as through peaceful rallies held in the parks of London or large indoor spaces such as the Royal Albert Hall – however there were tensions between the two groups, and while Fawcett never openly criticised the suffragettes, many in the NUWSS leadership and members were not shy about voicing their criticisms. Equally many in the WSPU were disparaging of the NUWSS leadership and rank and file.

The failure of the Conciliation Bill to pass meant that the suffragettes stepped up their acts of militancy. By 1912, attacks by suffragettes on members of the public and property such as setting fire on crowded public spaces, breaking shop windows, damaging works of art, tampering with railway signals and injuries suffered by Post Office workers when handling parcels containing volatile chemicals sent to leading politicians either directly or indirectly hardened public opinion against them. As Jad Adams pointed out in a recent issue of BBC History magazine:

“Some things they did disgusted the public, such as the slashing of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery. The suffragette who did this thought it would aid the cause, but the logic escaped art lovers. Starting fires in theatres and planting bombs in churches endangered lives. By the end of the campaign, the authorities feared that a suffragette would be seriously injured by members of the public outraged at their vandalism.”

It’s also important to note that despite the headlines, women’s suffrage did not attract widespread popular support. Trying to extrapolate data about how much support there was for or against female enfranchisement was always tricky as polls were never wholly reliable and both pros and antis produced their own polls which would highlight how much their position attracted support: but on the whole they were often contradictory and never one hundred percent trustworthy.

Fawcett and other suffragists were worried about the suffragettes playing into the hands of the anti-suffrage side, who pointed out that militancy simply crystallised the view that women were irrational and emotional and not to be trusted with the vote. As Julia Bush said, this made “even those politicians who favoured enfranchisement reluctant to respond to pressure exerted by suffragette extremists.”

Militancy was not to last long however, as it and the WSPU declined, the suffragists and the NUWSS experienced a revival and grew in strength as they attracted support from a wider and more diverse section of society. Unlike the WSPU whose membership solely consisted of women, the NUWSS also had male members, many of them fathers, brothers, husbands and other male relatives and friends of existing members. They provided much needed support through fund raising, making speeches, distributing literature and carrying banners during rallies.

The most crucial development, however, was bringing working class women into the suffragist fold. During the 19th and the early years of the 20th century, the suffragists were more an upper and middle class movement but by the 1910s, the suffragists had reached out to the lower middle and working class groups. By this point, working class women had entered the work force in greater numbers and several sectors such as retail and service were female dominated. Although membership in several trade unions was barred to them, there was the Women’s Co-operative Guild which ironically many working women preferred to join instead of the unions.

Initially working class women and organisations that represented them never had female enfranchisement on their agenda. Working class organisations either only nominally supported women’s suffrage or were indifferent or antagonistic. They preferred to focus their efforts and energies into improving the conditions of women workers and to secure that the rights given to male workers were also extended to women. The Women’s Co-operative Guild specifically focused more on the importance of the woman’s moral influence in the home but also encouraged them to develop their own interests beyond that of mother and homemaker. By the 20th century however, some working class women began to take an active interest in female enfranchisement with one of their unlikely allies being the Labour MP Keir Hardie. But Hardie was in the minority, as the vast majority of the Labour Party and the Trade Union movement were hostile not only to women’s suffrage but even to women – especially married ones – working.

Arguably the most prominent female trade unionist who joined the suffragists was Selina Cooper (1864-1946). Born in Lancashire, she went to work in the mills then later became active in the trade unions, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. She was later elected as a Poor Law Guardian and by the 1890s was drawn to the suffrage movement after meeting a group of suffragists who were in her hometown (Burnley) to attract more members to their cause. Eventually she attracted the attention of Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS due to her oratory and organisational abilities.  Her efforts ensured that her local Labour party became a supporter for women’s suffrage and the Women’s Co-operative Guild became allies with the NUWSS through finally adapting a stance supporting the enfranchisement of women through peaceful means.

Cooper and the Guild were prominent examples of working class members of the NUWSS and initially too some working class women did join the WSPU. However as militancy reached its peak, they began questioning their support as they recoiled from the militancy of the WSPU. Working class members felt that militancy for its own sake was counterproductive and objected to the WSPU’s martyrdom stance; increasingly too they began to feel out of place within an organisation which increasingly drew its membership and support from the upper and middle classes.

The gradual alienation of working class members from the WSPU was also mirrored by the Pankhurst family’s attitude towards the working class. Christabel particularly felt that the organisation was too reliant on working class support and moved to exclude them, which also echoed Emmeline’s quarrels and break with Hardie’s Independent Labour Party. As Liddington again pointed out, “working class women…..were useful to give substance to the WSPU’s claim to demand the vote for all women but were never admitted to the WSPU’s inner councils.” This is in direct contrast to the NUWSS where several of their working class members held positions of responsibility within the organisation. The increase in number of the NUWSS membership made it harder for the government to ignore them and while there is on-going debate about the effectively of militancy, it ensured that women’s suffrage remained on the agenda when it could have quickly faded under the weight of other domestic and foreign issues.

 

THE SUFFRAGISTS STRIKE BACK:

As a reaction against the charge that they were too complacent and lacking passion, as well as to counter the perception that all those who were calling for the enfranchisement of women were all like Emily Davison, the NUWSS and their allied organisations decided on a more radical approach. Not for them throwing stones or heckling politicians or chaining themselves to railings: but rather they would set out by road “not in a spirit of defiance,” in Jane Robinson’s words “but of evangelism.” It was decided that they would take to the road by caravans to help spread their message in various parts of the country.

The idea of using caravans wasn’t new as this was one of the WFL’s preferred strategies as they distributed suffrage literature and made speeches in various parts of the country. The first was organised by WFL member Muriel Matters and travelled through the south-east of England. Several NUWSS activists also did the same; such as Helen Fraser who did a caravan journey from Selkirk in Scotland to Tynemouth in the north east of England, making speeches in favour of women’s suffrage along the way. Another example was a trip undertaken by students from Newham College, which again began in Scotland and made its way south via West Yorkshire, the Lake District and finally ended at Oxford. These trips were characterised by a group of women travelling in a caravan filled with the necessities for the journey such as food and clothing, as well as facilities for eating, cooking and sleeping; stopping by places to make speeches, distribute literature and raise funds. Caravan trips also led into networking between and assistance from local NUWSS branches and allied organisations. They also resulted into some new recruits to the cause.

By 1912, the idea of using caravans to take the message of women’s enfranchisement was gaining ground and the NUWSS were persuaded of its merits. But they pointed out that they would be unable to support caravan tours on a massive scale so instead the idea of walking was mooted, taking inspiration from the medieval pilgrimages to Rome, Canterbury and Santiago de Compostela. Such pilgrimages were undertaken by foot or horseback (or atop a donkey) and in the spirit of self-sacrifice, which for many suffragists was appealing and would help counter the suffragettes’ accusation that the suffragists lacked passion and conviction for the cause.

The idea of the Great Pilgrimage was the brainchild of Katherine Harley (1855-1917), president of the Shropshire Women’s Suffrage Society and a NUWSS member since 1910. Her brother was Sir John French who would go on to command the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War, while her sister was Charlotte Despard former WSPU member turned founder of the WFL – the use of caravans to spread the message of women’s suffrage was a main fixture of the WFL’s activity. Harley was a devout Christian and saw the fight for women’s enfranchisement not just in political terms but in spiritual terms too.

In early 1913, the NUWSS leadership gave Harley the green light to roll out her idea of a Great Pilgrimage. A born organiser and an indefatigable one at that, she and other fellow NUWSS members worked out on the itinerary – the idea was to begin the Pilgrimage in Carlisle on June 18 stopping along major towns and cities such as Rhyl, Liverpool, Manchester, Wolverhampton, Oxford and culminating in a huge rally at London’s Hyde Park on July 26. Once the itinerary was set, Harley turned to the practicalities of organising the other details of the Pilgrimage – participants were required to wear sensible clothing consisting of jacket, skirts that were not too long, a white shirt and sturdy shoes. The clothing was to be accessorised with a white cockleshell (inspired by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela) and ribbons or cockades in the suffragist colours of green, red and white. In addition they were only allowed one item of luggage together with a rucksack provided by the NUWSS; and they were also advised to bring with them umbrellas and mackintoshes in the event of rain.

pilgrimagenotice

Behind Harley and her organising committee was the full weight of the NUWSS machinery and their allied organisations. As mentioned above, the caravan tours were one way to network and get to know fellow activists in other parts of the country, and the Great Pilgrimage would provide an opportunity for the various local NUWSS groups and allied organisations to come together and help. Those who were taking part were given tips and lists of places to obtain board and lodging, food and drink, where to replenish supplies and contact details of the local NUWSS group and that of allied organisations. These local groups were crucial to the success of the Pilgrimage; not only did they provide practical and logistical support but also did their part through hosting rallies, fundraising and selling and distributing literature and assorted paraphernalia.

Two key aspects of the Great Pilgrimage are worth mentioning here. First, it was very much a collective effort, in the words of a famous supermarket advert that “every little helps”. Mindful that not everyone could and would want to undertake the full route, participants were encouraged to do varying distances dependent on their inclination and circumstances. Others participated by giving their time, skills and money to the cause – sewing banners, creating posters, offering the use of their cars for those unable to walk but who still wished to take part. The participants came from a wide stratum of society: from upper and middle class women such as Lady Rochdale, Maud Lady Parry (wife of the composer Sir Hubert Parry himself a noted supporter of women’s suffrage), Sara Lees and her daughter Marjory to working class women such as Selina Cooper. Secondly was the presence of men walking alongside women. As mentioned earlier, men who were sympathetic to women’s suffrage also had their own organisations but crucially they were also admitted as members of NUWSS. Just as in previous campaigns, men were also active participants in the Great Pilgrimage not only with providing practical but also moral support.

Great Pilgrimage 1913

Great Pilgrimage 1913 2

Great Pilgrimage 1913 3

The Great Pilgrimage attracted support and derision as well as indifference and apathy. In some places, they were greeted with applause, a receptive audience and new converts to the cause while in others they were subjected to attacks, jeers, abuse and heckling. An example was in High Wycombe as described by Jane Robinson where a group of suffragists had parked two of their caravans in the town centre and the day started with promise – more than enough money was raised through the selling of literature and there were people who seemed genuinely interested. Trouble began as soon as Lady Rochdale and Katherine Harley mounted the platform and began to speak when:

“As usual, the majority of the crowd consisted of young men, who immediately started shouting and singing at the tops of their voices…..then [they] devised a game of British bulldog, rushing en masse from one platform to the other until each wagon in turn was hit by a tsunami of people. This was extraordinarily dangerous. After some time the police managed to break up the meeting, extract the shocked platform speakers and order all the suffragists to their rooms around the town without delay but they couldn’t control the crowd, some of whom were now making for the caravans.”

Order was only restored with the help of the local doctor and more police reinforcements. There was some damage to the caravans but by some miracle, the funds they had raised during that day were intact and safe. They spent the rest of their time in High Wycombe under police protection and the pilgrims were informed of the cause of the violence, mostly due to the influence of the antis who warned the locals that the “approaching pilgrims…were completely deranged and a danger to life and limb.”

Another main factor for violence such as the one described above was the confusion between suffragist and suffragette as they were one and the same in the eyes of the public. Any nuance and difference was eliminated under newspaper headlines and photographs. The banners carried by the pilgrims didn’t exactly help either; it’s easy to forget that despite basic education becoming compulsory, large swathes of the population were still illiterate. People failed to note that the NUWSS slogan of “Law Abiding and Non-Militant” and either misread or did not understand. Photographs and illustrations in newspapers then were in black and white and it wasn’t easy to distinguish between the WSPU colours of white, purple and green and the NUWSS colours of green, red and white. The antics of the suffragettes were blamed on the pilgrims, and speakers devoted much time to pointing out that the suffragists and suffragettes were different and that while militancy was in the minority the vast majority wanted to obtain the right to vote through peaceful and legal means.

The Pilgrimage culminated in a rally at Hyde Park on July 26 which was attended by 50,000 people. They had come from various parts of the country and the rally provided an opportunity for several selected pilgrims to address the crowd about their experiences on the road, while Fawcett voiced the view that the Great Pilgrimage would mark the “turning of the tide” and the optimism that enfranchisement for women would become a reality.

Suffrage-page-banner-Millicent-Fawcet

Pilgrimage map

Jane Robinson in her latest book Hearts and Minds held that the Great Pilgrimage also went beyond women’s enfranchisement. As many of the pilgrims during the rally at Hyde Park mentioned, being on the road opened their eyes to the poverty, the “need for a ‘mother spirit’ to come into the community and the redemptive powers of political enfranchisement.” What they also achieved was to show their opponents that no way were they passive and meek, “[t]he Pilgrimage changed all that. They were fully engaged now, having made sacrifices, faced danger and learned at first hand the effects of inequality, not just on disenfranchised women, but on working people and their families across the country.” Women had showed that they could organise themselves politically to find a voice and demonstrate the depths of their sincerity and commitment to a cause – in this case their enfranchisement and that of the millions of men who also lacked voting rights.

Soon after the Great Pilgrimage, the NUWSS met with the government with another petition and a transcript of the resolution passed during the rally at Hyde Park. But in less than a year later, a major conflict would erupt and unwittingly aid the cause of not only female enfranchisement but also universal male suffrage.

 

THE WAR YEARS AND VICTORY AT LAST?

The outbreak of the First World War diverted the government and the country from prevailing domestic issues and the whole country swung behind the war machine that would consume everyone’s efforts for the next four years. While the fight for women’s enfranchisement did not exactly go away many of the activists drastically scaled back on their campaign, as they turned their attention to doing their share for the war effort.

The WSPU officially disbanded as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst directed their energies and organisational skills to help men enlist and women to take on work that the men had left behind. Their most successful campaign came in 1916 when during the aftermath of the “shells scandal”, they led a deputation to petition David Lloyd George (by this time Minister for Munitions) to allow women to work in munitions factories thereby freeing up more men to be sent to the front. Cynics pointed out that the deputation was not a surprise as the Lloyd George already had prior knowledge of the march but it led to women entering the work force in greater numbers than ever before.

The NUWSS and the WFL on the other hand kept up with its fight to enfranchise women but quickly realised that the war would show that women had what it took to become a full citizen and provide a compelling reason to enfranchise them. Fawcett and the rest of the NUWSS leadership campaigned tirelessly to get women to do their bit and offer them assistance in order to do so. As Fawcett’s biographer David Rubinstein observed:

“The war had not lasted long before she realised that the unprecedented economic activity of women, particularly in heavy industry, provided excellent ammunition for the attempt to improve their political and industrial status. Women’s opportunities for industrial employment, previously hampered by the fourfold barrier of employers’ tyranny, trade union hostility, government indifference and their own weakness had been significantly improved by war time conditions. In January 1916, she wrote an article for The Englishwoman on themes she was to elaborate in other articles and speeches. After taking the opportunity to tilt the inclination of ‘the “intellectuals”’ to criticise support for the war she claimed that ‘the matchless spirit, the undaunted courage and confidence’ of men in the armed forces had been paralleled by the ‘magnificent adaptability, the industrial efficiency, and the patriotism of women.’ It had taken a European war to break down old prejudices about the capacities of women – not least on the part of the Prime Minister, she pointed out in an earlier article. Women were now ‘pouring in thousands into trades and occupations from which hitherto they have been excluded,’ including the transport industry and above all munitions. She added to her account of new opportunities and achievements a demand that ‘as far as possible’ women should be paid the same wages as men for the same work, both for their own sake and so that the achievements of trade unions to which, she added uncharacteristically, ‘the whole nation owes a deep debt of gratitude,’ should not be destroyed.” (p. 233)

Other suffragettes and suffragists threw themselves into war work – fundraising, knitting and sewing for the troops, taking on work in factories and other male dominated jobs as well as supporting women and families left behind by the men. The majority however went into nursing whether at home or abroad. Suffragettes such Sophia Duleep Singh served in military hospitals while suffragists such as Katherine Harley and Elsie Inglis opened hospitals at the front where they were exposed to constant bombardment and danger. Harley and Inglis’s exploits were all the more remarkable considering that the British government and army had turned down their offer of setting up a field hospital. Instead they offered their assistance to the Serbian government who promptly accepted their offer and the women set up their hospital close to where the fighting was taking place.

With the suffragettes disbanded, the suffragists diverted into war work and the antis insignificant, the government was, in Martin Pugh’s words “freed by this….to exercise their own judgement in settling the question by methods nowhere envisaged by the extra-parliamentary activists before 1914: through an age-restricted female franchise accompanied by further franchise extension to men.” This came about during 1915 to 1916 as more men enlisted and with the introduction of conscription, there was the question of the electoral register and the observation that these men in uniform would lose their eligibility to vote in the event of a General Election as they were not domiciled where they were registered as voters.

In addition there was a growing campaign in Parliament to reorganise the electoral register to include servicemen without the vote. Asquith’s resignation in 1916 and the arrival of a coalition government under David Lloyd George as Prime Minister helped set in motion a new reform bill that would supersede the 1886 Act. Many of those in the new government were much more sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage. The war years had strengthened the cause not just for women’s suffrage but for universal suffrage – that all citizens of a minimum age, regardless of property qualifications, could vote.

By 1917, a bill was introduced to extend the vote to all men (except for those in prisons or in mental institutions) from the age of 21 onwards and abolishing the property and educational qualifications set out in the earlier 1886 Act. As for the women, it was proposed to enfranchise all women from the age of 30 onwards. The MPs and peers who were in favour of enfranchising women thought it would be better to add the clause for women’s vote to the existing bill rather than proposing a separate one for women’s vote on the grounds that it stood a better chance of winning and its eventual passage in 1918 proved these politicians to be right.

What of the activists? Many of the suffragists were not prepared to accept that women would not be given the right to vote on equal terms with the men, especially as it would mean that majority of those munitionettes, nurses, bus conductors, police constables and many others would not benefit. But yet again, Fawcett proved to be the voice of reason – while she admitted that she was hoping for enfranchisement on equal terms this was the best they could expect for at this time. It was better; she said there is “an imperfect scheme that can pass to the most perfect scheme in the world that could not pass. We want the living child, and not the dead child.”

The Representation of the People Act was finally passed in February 1918 and a victory celebration was later held at the Queen’s Hall. For Fawcett and the suffragists, the new act was a hard fought victory and enfranchised millions more women than they had originally suggested. However, women still were not on equal terms with men and the suffragists were aware that the war was not yet over; it would take another decade before women would receive parity with men when it came to voting. There was also a new front – tackling barriers and discrimination that prevented women from seeking out opportunities for better work, better pay – in short to live a fully independent life as citizens.

 

DRAMATIS PERSONAE AND LEADING ORGANISATIONS:

Millicent Garrett Fawcett – https://janerobinsonauthor.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/millicent-fawcett-suffrage-heroine-consummate-politician/

Selina Cooper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selina_Cooper

Katherine Harley – https://sheroesofhistory.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/katherine-harley/

Elsie Inglis – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_Inglis

H.H. Asquith – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._H._Asquith

David Lloyd George – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lloyd_George

Emmeline Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmeline_Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christabel_Pankhurst

Charlotte Despard – http://spartacus-educational.com/Wdespard.htm

Muriel Matters – https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/

National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Social and Political Union – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Union_of_Women%27s_Suffrage_Societies

Women’s Freedom League – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Freedom_League

 

FURTHER READING:

Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)

Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)

David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)

Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)

Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)

Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)

Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)

Brian Harrison. ‘Women’s Suffrage at Westmister 1866-1928’ in Michael Bentley and John Stevenson (eds) High and Low Politics in Modern Britain (Oxford, 1983), pp. 80-122.

Martin Pugh. ‘Politicians and the Women’s Vote 1914-1918’ History, vol 59, no. 197 (1974), pp. 358-374.

“How the Battle was Won”, BBC History magazine, February 2018, pp. 26-31.

http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/g4/cs2/g4cs2s6b.htm

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/womens-suffrage-and-the-first-world-war/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/why-did-british-women-fail-to-get-the-vote-by-1914/

https://wuhstry.wordpress.com/2017/09/15/suffragettes-and-the-census-the-1911-protest/

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2014/05/did-most-women-want-the-vote/

How the vote was won

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Some thoughts on Iolanthe

On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

Iolanthe

Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.

Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor  and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.

More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law –  “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.

Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:

PEERS:

Young Strephon is the kind of lout

We do not care a fig about!

We cannot say

What evils may

Result in consequence

But lordly vengeance will pursue

All kinds of common people who

Oppose our views,

Or boldly choose

To offer us offence.

FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:

With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,

A fearful prospect opens out,

And who shall say

What evils may

Result in consequence?

A hideous vengeance will pursue

All noblemen who venture to

Oppose his views,

Or boldly choose

To offer him offence.

Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.

However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.

 

The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/

 

 

Exhibition Review: Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (V&A)

Long before there was Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, there was Winnie the Pooh. For over 90 years, the bear with very little brain and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin have entertained and enchanted both children and adults alike.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Exploring a Classic” and it opens with the enduring legacy of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. There are merchandise dating from as early as the early 1930s with soft toys, puzzles and a child’s tea set that was presented to Princess Elizabeth of York, down to those based on the Walt Disney adaptation from the 1960s with toys, clothes, spin off films and TV specials. Pooh and his friends have also become iconic as demonstrated by editorial cartoons heavily based on the illustrations from the books. The stories themselves have become the inspiration for two self-help books that became bestsellers during the 1990s – The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Crucially, the Pooh stories themselves have gone global with translations in various languages and they have never been out of print.

From the enduring legacy, the exhibition moves towards chronicling the history behind the books and the collaboration between A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, both of whom worked for Punch magazine; the former as an assistant editor while the latter was an illustrator. Milne wrote the Pooh stories based on his son Christopher Robin and his menagerie of soft toys. Already an established writer, Milne relished the challenge of writing a children’s story believing that “[a] writer should take his job seriously even though he’s taking it to the nursery.”

The use of simple words and dialogue belied a quick witted verbal humour which appealed not just to children. In addition Milne’s use and misuse of language, grammar and punctuation facilitated his storytelling as they were there for both dramatic and humorous effect. But Milne’s prose is only half the story – as the exhibition shows, the success behind a children’s book is a harmony between text and illustration and this is where E.H. Shepard comes in. His technique and pared down drawings draw attention to the narrative; in addition he also used subtle details to synchronise his illustrations to the text.

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All of these are presented through displays of letters, manuscripts and drawings that illustrate how the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends came to life. One of the key highlights for me was the map of the 100 Acre Wood which was based Ashdown Forest, not far from the Milnes’ country home in Sussex, where Christopher Robin Milne used to play as a child. The drawings by Shepard, many of them works in progress, illustrate the creative process by which both men worked together to synthesise drawings and text.

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The exhibition has something for everyone – the drawings, books, merchandise and soft toys will appeal to those who grew up reading the Pooh stories or who discovered them after watching the Disney adaptation, while the large scale recreation of several key scenes from the books not to mention the multi-media displays would appeal to children who are just beginning to discover the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. If there’s any exhibition that would appeal to anyone between the ages of “two and one hundred and two” then this certainly is it.

 

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on at the V&A until 8 April 2018. For more information please visit the exhibition website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

The blogger visited the exhibition on 7 February 2018

Photos from the exhibition taken by blogger

Forgotten Women: The Suffragists and the Fight for Enfranchisement (Part 1)

“Of the two sexes of which the species is composed, how comes it that all natural right to political benefits is confined to one?”

Jeremy Bentham, 1789

“The elderly women of my childhood grew up believing that they would never be allowed to vote. Women within living memory. In the UK.”

Quote from internet site, January 2018

 

The legislation that governs women’s rights in society is astonishingly recent. The Married Women’s Property acts made it legal for wives to hold money and property in their own name. Until 1970 it was perfectly legal to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job, and rape in marriage was not made a crime until 1991 in the UK. Inequality was seen as inevitable, natural and right – that married women (and most women were married) were property, with no rights at all or legal existence. That a woman who had murdered her husband was executed for treason as if she had committed a crime against the state. That women who spoke up and defied convention and what was regarded as the natural order of women subordinate to men were classified as mentally disturbed and shut away, sometimes for years. For centuries rape was prosecuted not as a sexual crime against a woman, but as a theft from her family – their good name and honour smirched and their property so devalued that no-one would want it in marriage. In the words of Amanda Vickery, “male mastery and female servitude were written into the DNA of society.”

Votes for women is the most visible face of a wave of female emancipation and struggle for civil liberties and political rights that began in the 19th century to take on an unstoppable momentum. Like the women in the quote above, my grandmother and great aunts didn’t get the vote until they were in their 20s. Even in her late 60s my grandmother (born in 1905) didn’t vote until the general election of 1972, when my mother and I almost literally dragged her into the polling station and when she asked what she should do said “Make a cross! Anywhere, against any name, but make it!” – so determined were we that she should use the vote that women seventy years before had suffered and fought to acquire for her.

Experiences such as above are perhaps now distant memory as it’s now easy to take for granted that women now have the vote. With this year being the 100th anniversary of the granting of suffrage for some women and the 90th anniversary of giving women this right on equal terms with men, it’s not surprising that there is a rush of books, exhibitions, talks, documentaries and discussions about the struggle of women to obtain the right to vote.

However the problem that I have noticed with the aforesaid rush of books, exhibitions, talks and documentaries is that they focus disproportionately on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes. While there is no denying that Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) grabbed the headlines then and capture the public imagination now, the irony is that the granting of suffrage to women in 1918 and 1928 was the result of long years of hard work and struggle by thousands of women who preferred to make their point through peaceful, legal and quasi-legal means; and it can be argued the suffragettes’ campaign of violence and intimidation of public figures alienated many who might have otherwise supported them and gave weight to their opponents’ argument that women were not fit, mentally, morally or intellectually, to be granted the vote. While the suffragettes have dominated the discourse over the history of women’s suffrage this blog hopefully will attempt to redress the balance by focusing on the suffragists, women who preferred peaceful means and reasoned debate to make their voice heard.

 

THE BEGINNINGS OF THE SUFFRAGE CAMPAIGN:

We can trace the beginnings of the women’s suffrage campaign in 1866, when a group of women’s rights activists petitioned John Stuart Mill to sponsor a bill granting women the right to vote, as during this time Parliament was locked in a series of debates whether or not to extend the terms of the 1832 Reform Act and enfranchise urban working men and those in the country with small landholdings.

Concurrent to this was the myriad of campaigns aimed to secure women such rights as keeping their own property and money even after marriage, the right to an education and to enter a profession as well as calling for reforms in marriage and family law. It was also at this time where women such as Josephine Butler became active in causes such as the temperance or anti-slavery movements and prison reform as well as working with the poor and sick. Many of these causes and those who espoused them overlapped each other; it was through these campaigns that many like-minded women were led into coming together to effect change.

Early gains such as the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1886 together with advances in technology gave women some legal protection, opportunities to work outside the home and pursue leisure on a greater scale. Beginning in the 1860s, there were already calls to extend the suffrage to women, and this call became even louder as the decades went on. Many women’s rights activists believed that suffrage was one of the rights that women ought to have, this right being seen as a means to an end which was social reform on a much wider scale.

Primarily the campaign to secure women the right to vote on the same terms as men as set out in the existing Reform Acts (1867 and 1886) was a movement dominated and organised by middle class women. In time they would be joined by both upper and working class women but the bulk of the activists came from the middle class.

Why was this so? Just as with campaigns for the right to education, seeking paid employment and reforms in family and property law, nineteenth century feminism was a response to the desire by middle class women to take advantage of the educational and vocational opportunities open to middle class men but that were denied to them. Society itself was changing – industrialisation and technological advances were giving women better opportunities: not just with regards to work but also leisure. Social sciences were also questioning conventional assumptions about men and women especially about the alleged weakness of the latter. As Constance Rover observed:

“There was a general feeling amongst middle class-women that their status was in some ways inferior to that of women of other classes. The upper class woman had her social position to give her some influence; also the upper classes were prone to arrange marriage settlements and bestow dowries upon their women. The former gave a wife a measure of economic independence and the latter, although humiliating in some respects, at least had the effect of letting the wife feel she had brought with her a positive contribution to the new household. In the eyes of the middle class woman, the woman factory worker, although underpaid and exploited, had a measure of independence as a result of her work and wages which she herself lacked.” (pp. 36-7)

Although J.S. Mill’s attempts to introduce a women’s suffrage bill ended in failure, another attempt was made, this time in 1884, when another round of debates was on going to further extend the franchise – this time to those who paid an annual rent of £10 or who owned land of the same value. Yet again women were excluded after another Reform Act was passed in 1886 and this despite the fact that more women especially married ones would have met the property qualifications set by Parliament.

Despite this setback, the late 19th and early 20th century saw greater female participation in public life. Apart from being involved in campaigns for social reform and canvassing for votes and campaigning for local and national politicians there were also baby steps towards granting women the right to vote and to stand for local elections. Initially women could stand and vote for positions on local education and Poor Law boards. By 1910, women could stand as town and county councillors and even become mayors. New legislation also ensured female participation – for instance the Education Act of 1902 abolished the school boards and required county councils to include at least one woman in their education committees. There was also the Unemployed Worker’s Act (1905) which mandated that women should be included in local distress committees.

Whether serving as Poor Law guardians or county councillors or heading up local Conservative or Liberal Party organisations, women were getting a taste of political participation and exercising the duties of citizenship. Many believed that by demonstrating their capabilities on the local level they could prove that they were fit to exercise the right to vote on a national level.

 

A HOUSE DIVIDED:

Despite feminist rhetoric about sisterhood and solidarity the reality was that women’s suffrage just like any other campaign or cause was always going to be divided. Inevitably there would be differences with regards to defining about the terms and conditions about their struggle – would they want the right to vote based on the existing qualifications? Or do they want the vote regardless women owned property or not? There was also the inconvenient point that even after 1886, not all men had the vote and they ranged from those whose annual rent or land holdings were valued at less than £10 or those who were in jobs (such as domestic service) that provided board and lodging as part of their employment package.

There was also the question of methodology. While late Victorian women’s suffrage activists furthered their cause through meetings, public speaking, debating, petitioning leading politicians and cultivating support from influential people; others felt this didn’t go far enough and by the beginning of the twentieth century, others were getting impatient and felt the need to restore to drastic measures in order to make the government and the public sit up and take notice.

And while opponents of those who were calling for extending women the right to vote were mostly men, perhaps unsurprisingly the most vocal of those who opposed women’s suffrage were women as well, including prominent ones such as the author and social campaigner Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphrey Ward) and the archaeologist and Near East expert Gertrude Bell. Male opponents focused on the common belief that men and women were characterised by different moral and intellectual qualities endowed by God to enable them to perform their respective duties. There was too the general consensus that women were more emotional, easily swayed by sentiment, less reasoned and logical as well as being more sensitive. Biology was also used as an argument against women’s fitness to participate in public life (which included voting) as women’s conditions such as menstruation and pregnancy would make it hard for them to exercise their mental faculties and judgement in a clear and rational way – or as Anne De Courcy succinctly puts it in her biography of Margot Asquith (another opponent of female suffrage) – the belief that “once a month, women go mad.”  There was also the question whether women would be able to understand and comprehend issues of national and imperial importance such as the economy, defence and foreign policy.

Female opponents of women’s suffrage on the other hand argued that women had their proper sphere and giving them the vote would undermine the home and family, and that women should be content to exert their influence in that sphere. They were horrified that women they regarded as less educated and intelligent as themselves should be enfranchised, or that the lower classes should be afforded power and entitlement, because who knew how that power would be used?

This is not to say however that these female antis were totally opposed to women’s suffrage; on the contrary, they were vocal supporters for female participation at the local level and worked hard to increase participation in county politics. There was also general cynicism about national politics and the fear that women would be used as a tool for manipulation by politicians. Just as with the other great issues of the day, women’s suffrage had its multitude of voices and two of the loudest camps differed over strategy and how to win hearts and minds.

 

PEOPLE’S FRONT OF JUDEA VS JUDEAN PEOPLE’S FRONT AND ALL THE OTHERS AS WELL…..

Martin Pugh in his March of the Women mused that despite the coverage and studies that the suffrage campaign has generated, on a whole, several aspects remain neglected and studies as a whole remain unbalanced. The Pankhurst family and the suffragettes especially the WSPU have long dominated the narrative with regards to the campaign to secure women the right to vote.

During the late 1880s, the women’s suffrage movement was very divided and de-centralised. There were many small groups, often small local or workplace societies. In 1907 the Artists’ Suffrage League was formed, and the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage: over the next few years they were followed by such societies as the Actresses Franchise League, the Women Writers Suffrage League, the Barmaids Political Defence League, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, the Tax Resistance League, the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society and the United Suffragists. The latter was created for both men and women, and was said to be disapproved of by Christabel Pankhurst.

The formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897 was one way to make the movement much more coherent and unified as well as in David Rubenstein’s words calling for a “closer union and cooperation between the various societies.” They elected as their president Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), sister of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson who was the first woman to qualify and practise as a doctor as well as be elected town mayor. Millicent Fawcett was the widow of Liberal MP and politician Henry Fawcett. She was also in known in her own right as an author and for her crusades for women’s and children’s rights.

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While the NUWSS was predominantly a middle-class organisation, they also had support from the upper classes; among them Lord and Lady Selborne and Lord Robert Cecil (son of the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, three times Prime Minister of the UK). In addition, the organisation did not ally themselves with any political party and were dedicated to winning hearts and minds through peaceful rallies, speeches, articles, pamphlets, deputations and cultivating important allies within the Establishment in order to secure support for their cause. They also sought to bring their message far and wide through local NUWSS branches and allied organisations, as well as supporting women candidates and men sympathetic to the cause standing for elected posts.

In addition the NUWSS also engaged in debates with their opponents and did so using careful arguments and logic. Recognising that the weight of scientific opinion was against them, the likes of Fawcett refrained from wading into any physiological or psychological argument. As Pugh pointed out: “the aim, for them, was to develop whatever natural capacity men and women had to start with.” They also contested views that women were weak and that they lacked the stomach to cope with political life by arguing that women especially those from the working class were already exposed to dangers and struggles that took no notice of notions of femininity and questioned the claim that femininity was fragile – if it was, they argued, then the human race would have long ago have died out.

By the 20th century it seemed that there was no progress being made: especially as the Liberals were returned to power in 1905. Unlike the Conservative Party whose leadership was sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage, the Liberal leadership was hostile to it. In 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith became Prime Minister and with his hostility to the cause, the struggle entered a much more dangerous phase.

Several women’s suffrage activists felt that the NUWSS didn’t go far enough and direct action was the solution to shake the government and the political establishment out of its torpor and sometimes open hostility to the cause. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded under Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) with the slogan “deeds not words” and they quickly gained attention for acts of organised militancy and violence. Not only were they content to heckle politicians especially those who were seen as hostile to women’s suffrage but eventually their acts also included throwing stones and even later setting fire or planting bombs at their homes.

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These women became known as “suffragettes,” a pejorative term coined by a journalist named Charles E. Hinds, and in time the WSPU took this word as a badge of honour. Those who refused to follow the militant route and stuck to peaceful means and logic to obtain the vote became known as the “suffragists.” In an echo of the Life of Brian’s People’s Front of Judea versus Judean People’s Front, the movement was never coherent and although the goal was the same, the methods to secure it were different. Suffragists were seen as too passive and patient, but Fawcett perceptively argued that women’s suffrage would come not as an isolated incident, but as a necessary corollary to the changes already taking place. The suffragists were also accused of being too complacent and too reliant on reason as well as lacking in passion and urgency – this was what was used by the Pankhursts and the suffragettes to rally women to their cause.

The Suffragette WSPU

The suffragists did support the WSPU in the early years due to the view that the suffragettes were helping the cause through their “pluck and determination” (in the words of Lady Knightley, a suffragist). Many in the NUWSS believed that the actions of the suffragettes were making people sit up and take notice in a way that more peaceful campaigns had failed to do, and many suffragists lent their support to the demand by the suffragettes to be treated like political prisoners.

Even the rank and file would often disagree with the leadership over politics as much as tactics and within the suffragette movement, there were varying methods of participation. Many of the suffragettes attended meetings, marched peacefully, sold and distributed literature or raised funds. Pugh observed that “[a]s a result militancy tended to be concentrated in London and a few regional capitals; it was not necessarily a central part of WSPU activity and the dramatic events that captured the headlines were largely the work of itinerant activists who travelled out to the provinces when a visit by a leading politician offered a suitable target.” In the regions as well, there was greater cooperation between the suffragettes and suffragists for the reasons above.

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However, it was militancy that was gaining the headlines and increasingly even within the WSPU there were those who recoiled from the actions of their fellow members such as Emily Davison (whose fanaticism even the WSPU leadership found hard to swallow). Many of these suffragettes questioned the autocratic views of the Pankhursts and believed that militancy had lost its way and was damaging to the cause. Jill Liddington in her book One Hand Tied Behind Us noted that:

“The WSPU operation became more and more military in character, with Christabel issuing orders for her troops to carry out. No dissent could be tolerated…..[m]ilitancy coupled with the attendant newspaper publicity, had begun as an inspired idea in Christabel’s head in 1905. But it seemed to carry with it the seeds of its own destruction: each act had to be more violent than the previous one in order to hold public attention; and violence only attracted public interest, never mass support. In the end the WSPU resorted to arson……as the WSPU membership was reduced down to an elite corps, so its politics correspondingly narrowed.” (p. 210)

A group of suffragettes led by Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) became so disillusioned with the WSPU’s lack of democracy and increasing militancy that they broke away and formed the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). The WFL could be described as a halfway house between the NUWSS and the WSPU; they did engage in stunts such as chaining themselves to railings as they attempted to present petitions and through caravan trips to spread the message of Votes for Women, but their militancy was channeled into much more peaceful means through civil disobedience and passive resistance.

The WFL did this through means such as refusal to pay tax. A woman called Dora Montefiore refused to pay her tax in 1906 on the grounds that if she didn’t have the right to vote then she shouldn’t be subjected to taxation. Bailiffs were sent to her home to confiscate her property, so Montefiore barricaded her home for a few days and survived with the help of sympathetic neighbours and tradesmen who smuggled in supplies until the bailiffs broke through and carted off objects that could be sold to meet her unpaid tax bill. Being wealthy, she managed to buy them back but the “Siege of Montefiore” as it became known became useful as a propaganda tool. It demonstrated the contradiction that women were expected to submit to taxation of their income without having any say through the vote on how that tax money should be spent.

Montefiore’s act of defiance generated publicity and the WFL saw another opportunity with the upcoming census which was to take place in 1911. Due to the government’s programme of social welfare, they were pinning their hopes on the census delivering the information that would assist in crafting legislation that would see through reforms such as in housing, health, education and economy. After the issue of women’s suffrage had been yet again omitted at the King’s Speech in 1910, the WFL decided to call for a boycott of the census. Their aim was in Liddington’s words “not a violent confrontation…..but a peaceful civil disobedience to challenge the very meaning of citizenship. What did it mean in an otherwise supposedly mature democracy like Edwardian Britain, to be a grown woman, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?”

Failure to participate in the census resulted in a fine and many of those who took part in the boycott either spent the day in shelters organised by the WFL and those who supported the boycott. Others defaced their forms, for instance an Ethel Smyth from Woking wrote in her form “no vote, no census” while a Mary Hare from Hove scrawled “women don’t count therefore will not be counted.” However it is difficult to gauge if the boycott was successful or not; the NUWSS and other women’s groups such as the Women’s Co-operative Guild objected to the boycott as they believed that the data collected from the census could be used to assist reforms that could benefit the public and especially women. The census takers did manage to collect the data of some of the women who participated in the boycott through enquiries to neighbours and well- meaning family and friends. Crucially, the government declined to prosecute those who refused to take part in the census or defaced their forms. Already facing criticisms over the force feeding of suffragettes in prison, the authorities did not want to make martyrs out of the refuseniks.

As mentioned earlier, not all men had the vote and several women’s suffrage activists had been campaigning since the late 1860s to remove the male gender bar. By 1900, 61% of men were disenfranchised and they were barred due to not owning or occupying property of a certain minimum amount. The rise of the Labour movement resulted into greater calls for full adult suffrage but many of them stopped short of calling for the same right to be extended to women. Equally many suffragists and suffragettes also opposed full adult suffrage, preferring to keep the status quo of property ownership or occupation as the qualification.

The question was what was more important – adult suffrage or women’s suffrage? Many suffragists argued that women’s suffrage was much more important; a woman can never be a man so for as long as the vote excluded women, they could not change their circumstances in order to obtain the vote under the present system. However men could in theory reach the minimum qualification in order to obtain the right to vote. Those who were in favour of universal suffrage were called “adultists” and in the early 1900s, the People’s Suffrage Federation was established with the aim of obtaining “full adult suffrage regardless of sex on a three month resident qualification.” It sought to unite women’s suffragists and adultists by ensuring the enfranchisement of women was included in any calls for further amendments to the existing Reform Acts. They also believed that full adult universal suffrage was integral towards a fully representative and democratic government.

But the adultists were a small group compared to those calling for women’s suffrage. As the suffragettes stepped up their campaign of militancy, the suffragists knew that they had to find a way to show that the militants were a minority and to reassert reason and logic in the bid to enfranchise women.

 

Further Reading:

Martin Pugh. March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage (Oxford, 2002)

Sandra Stanley Holton. Feminism & Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain (Cambridge, 1986)

David Rubinstein. A Different World for Women: The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett (London, 1991)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. What I Remember (London, 1924)

Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement (London, 1912)

Jill Liddington & Jill Norris. One Hand Tied Behind Us: The Rise of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (London, 1978)

Jill Liddington. Selina Cooper, 1864-1946: The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel (London, 1984)

Constance Rover. Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914 (London, 1967)

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census (Manchester, 2014)

Lucinda Hawksley. March, Women, March (London, 2013)

Susie Steinbach. Women in England 1760-1914 (London, 2004)

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women won the Vote (London, 2018)

http://www.jliddington.org.uk/

 

 

TV Review: The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen (BBC1)

The last time Britain saw a coronation was in 1953 and to this day this country remains one of two in Europe (the other being the Vatican) where the head of state is enthroned in a centuries-old ritual steeped in religion and tradition. The build-up leading to and what happened on 2 June 1953 has been told and re-told several times and this documentary could have been like previous ones but this has a unique twist.

Two in fact. For arguably the first time, the Crown Jewels and regalia were filmed in close range and using high definition cameras which meant that viewers could see the detail and workmanship of each crown and regalia featured. Secondly and more importantly, the viewers have Her Majesty the Queen as their guide. Watching both official and home footage, the Queen shared her memories of the event and whilst she has not seen the footage from her own coronation for 65 years, she recalled that it was “a very long day. When you’re taking part in something you don’t see it.”

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This was a far cry from the coronation of her father George VI in 1937 where despite it being held over 70 years ago, she can still remember how it all unfolded:  as she cheerfully admits that she didn’t have a role in the ceremony, she was only present to sit and watch. George VI wanted his daughter to be prepared when her time came and insisted that she write down her memories of the big day and the result now resides in the Royal Archives – an impression of a sacred ceremony through the eyes of an 11 year old.

The Queen’s coronation is significant as it was the first to be televised and aware that more people would be watching the ceremony than in any previous coronations, the stakes were high – no mistakes on the same scale as those that plagued Victoria or George VI’s coronation were to be allowed. Sixteen months were given in order to prepare and rehearse for the ceremony itself, and Lady Anne Coke (now Lady Glenconner) who served as one of the six maids of honour and James Wilkinson, one of the 400 choir singers who took part, were on hand to share their memories of the build up to and during the big day.

Juxtaposed too with the footage of the actual event was the Queen talking through two of the most important pieces of the regalia – the two crowns she wore for the ceremony. For the first time in 65 years Her Majesty was reunited with the St Edward’s Crown which weighs five pounds and was made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II. “Is it still as heavy?” she wondered as the crown was placed in front of her. “Yes, it is,” she nods picking up the crown. “It weighs a ton!” The documentary mentioned a little-known fact about this crown – only the sovereign, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Crown Jeweller are permitted to touch it.

More manageable was the Imperial State Crown which weighs around three pounds but as the Queen herself observed she has to be careful while wearing it especially during the State Opening of Parliament while she’s reading her speech: “You can’t look down in it, though, or your neck would break. And it would fall off.” While the Imperial State Crown might be the newer of the two crowns, it is studded with historic gems from the Black Prince’s Ruby (actually a spinel) reportedly worn by Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt to the sapphire from the ring of Edward the Confessor and the pearls that belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and which were purchased by her cousin Elizabeth I. The latter’s namesake mused as she held the dangling gems in the palm of her hand: “Pearls are sort of living things. They need warming up and these have just been hanging here. Quite sad, really.”

The coronation

Discomfort was also the order of the day. Not only did Her Majesty have to contend with two heavy crowns and sit through a five hour ceremony, even her mode of transport was uncomfortable as well. The Gold State Coach made in 1760 for George III had been used for every coronation since 1821 and despite its magnificent appearance never endeared itself to the monarchs who have had to ride in it. Victoria was not a great fan of its “distressing oscillations” and William IV himself despite having spent much of his life in the Navy described riding the carriage as like being tossed about a rough sea. Count the present Queen then as also not a fan as she told Alastair Bruce: “Horrible! It’s not designed for travelling in at all. It’s only sprung on leather, you know.”

While the focus of the programme was the Queen, the regalia took centre stage as well. In the capable hands of narrator Keeley Hawes and former Historic Royal Palaces curator Anna Keay, the commentary was informative and concise as they took the viewer through the history and significance of the regalia and the ceremony itself, with a few significant anecdotes along the way – such as how the Cullinan diamond was sent to Britain (via ordinary mail) to the Crown Jewels being hidden during the Second World War. The Queen mused about how lucky it was that the one person who knew where they were hidden didn’t die before the war was over and the jewels could be retrieved.

However the weak link in the documentary was Alastair Bruce, he’s described as an expert on royal ceremony but he added nothing new or insightful about the ceremony or the regalia and his conversation with the Queen sometimes bordered on the fawning. But that’s one quibble; the real star of this documentary was the Queen herself – smiling, giggling, looking in awe at her younger self and as sharp as ever. For Her Majesty alone, watching this was a privilege and worth it!

 

The Coronation with Her Majesty the Queen was telecast on BBC1 on 14 January 2018

 

TV Review: Victoria Christmas Special (ITV) – Comfort and Joy

Bloggers’ note: We apologise for the delay of this review. This is what you get when being out of the country when the special is aired and afterwards real life gets in the way

 

Titled “Comfort and Joy”, there’s not much of one or the other during the programme’s two hour run. Albert is busy recreating what in his mind was the perfect family Christmas (until Ernst tells him otherwise) while Victoria is keen to forget Christmases past and isn’t amused when Albert invites her mother to the festivities without consulting her. Christmas also brings two unwelcome visitors – King Leopold who is still plotting to marry off Ernst, this time to Princess Gertrude of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (Nina Pavlovic), and the Duke of Cumberland (now King of Hanover) demanding the return of a suite of jewels belonging to his mother Queen Charlotte that he claims was left to him.

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Apart from Albert’s obsession that the celebrations should be pitch perfect, the other main story line of this special is Victoria receiving an unusual present from King Gezo of Dahomey (Derek Ezenagu), in the form of a girl rescued by Captain Forbes (Ben Lamb) and christened Sarah (Zaris-Angel Hator). He recounts to the Queen and the court how she came to be a slave – captured with the rest of her family during a tribal war, she was earmarked for human sacrifice while her parents and siblings were all slaughtered. Captain Forbes persuades King Gezo to hand the girl over to the “Great White Queen” and thus Sarah’s life is spared.

Upon meeting Sarah, Victoria recognises right away that the girl is of royal blood and is impressed by the Captain’s reports of how Sarah is a quick learner and has blossomed under the care of his wife (Catherine Steadman). Despite being repulsed at the idea that the girl is given to her as a gift, the Queen invites Sarah to stay with her and the rest of the family at Buckingham Palace. Albert isn’t too sure about this but Victoria over-rules his misgivings: especially as he’s invited her mother for the festivities without telling her.

The rest of the special consists of little storylines that tie up those from series 2 – Harriet finally learns of Ernst’s syphilis, and Lord Alfred, who is still in mourning for Drummond is touched by maid of honour Wilhelmina’s attempts to comfort him and finally proposes marriage to her. Downstairs, Mrs Skerrett has come into an unexpected windfall from a distant relative and the inheritance will be more than enough for her and Francatelli (who has also proposed marriage to her) to set up home and the bed and breakfast business that they have dreamed of.

While this special does tie up a few storylines from series 2 and gives us a preview of what to expect for a series 3, the narrative over all felt a tad disjointed; the two main storylines – Albert’s zeal with his preparations for Christmas and desperation to believe that Christmas was the one bright spark in an otherwise unhappy family life as well as Victoria’s wish to forget her unhappy childhood and finding a kindred spirit in Sarah do seem to complement one another. But the other storylines particularly downstairs were simply fillers and while one might care for Ernst and root for his happiness, it’s hard to feel the same with the others – Penge’s little storyline as well as Skerrett and Francatelli’s feels forced and crowbarred into the narrative.

Hovering in the background is the of course the history. Although it’s now established that the first Christmas trees were brought into Britain by Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III in the 18th century, it is still generally assumed that it was Prince Albert who was the first to introduce them into this country. However Prince Albert does deserve credit for popularising Christmas trees as following illustrations and accounts of the royal family’s Christmas celebrations, the idea of having a tree inside the house decorated with baubles and lights eventually supplanted the old sprigs of holly, yew and mistletoe that were a staple of Christmases past.

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The Duke of Cumberland’s claim to the jewels on the other hand was not resolved in the simple way that the special would lead us to believe. Victoria held on to the jewels until 1858 on the grounds that they belonged to the British crown, while her uncle claimed that Queen Charlotte left them to a male heir – which after the death of King William IV meant him. A settlement was finally reached with the Duke’s son George where the jewels were handed over to him and Victoria began a new collection which she designated as Crown property to avoid a repeat of the fiasco over Queen Charlotte’s pieces.

Apart from Albert’s role in popularising how we now celebrate the festive season, this Christmas special also explores the issue of slavery. Although the slave trade was outlawed in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in the 1830s in Britain and its empire, it was still widespread in other parts of the world and the Royal Navy was deployed in stamping out the practice and freeing slaves. Sarah herself was none other than Sarah Forbes Bonetta (1843-1880): her maiden surname coming from Captain Forbes himself and his flagship HMS Bonetta. After her rescue, the real Sarah was indeed presented to Queen Victoria who agreed to serve as her godmother and pay for her upbringing and education. Sarah and the Queen did enjoy a close relationship and the former was frequently a guest at the various royal residences and played with the royal children. Upon her marriage to a businessman James Pinso Davies, they had three children, and the oldest Victoria Matilda was named after the Queen and as she did with Victoria’s mother the monarch was honoured to act as the girl’s godmother. In the special there are touching scenes between Victoria and Sarah and sadness is palpable as the Queen grants Sarah’s request that she would like to return to live with the Forbes family. Yet again as we have seen in series 2 and in real life, this story line depicts Victoria’s lack of racial prejudice and what were for the time very enlightened attitudes. However while the relationship between Victoria and Sarah is moving, the parallel storyline of Skerrett’s inheritance which turns out to be 20 slaves (she learns that the uncle she has never met was a slave trader) doesn’t ring true at all and feels very disjointed from the main narrative. I would have preferred to have seen more of Sarah’s personality and interacting with Victoria and her children all of which are documented in the accounts of Captain Forbes and the Queen herself.

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sarah forbes bonetta

 

This Christmas special is a feast for the eyes as Buckingham Palace and its gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland and we are treated to a panorama of the way the royal family celebrated Christmas, which would have a considerable influence on how we observe the festive season to this very day. It also taps into the universal and perhaps timeless desire to relieve and create happy memories and a happy home, as exemplified by Albert’s obsessive preparations and stubbornness in the belief that his childhood Christmases were as magical as he thought they were. However I wished that Daisy Goodwin stuck to the main elements of her narrative rather than to muddle it further with various indifferent and clearly forced subplots that either lead nowhere or are resolved so quickly that no-one cares about them.

Somewhere in this two hour special is a decent drama that did touch on historical issues and family dramas which could have been so much better had the writing stuck to the core story lines. Hopefully we’ll see a much tighter and coherent narrative in series 3 but perhaps I’m too optimistic.

A Country House Christmas: Remembrance of Christmases Past

Originally titled Treasure on Earth and published in 1952, this small book was written by Phyllis Elinor Sanderman (born the Hon Phyllis Legh) and is a thinly disguised account of the Christmases that she experienced at Lyme Park, the Legh family residence in Cheshire. It’s a charming and affectionate look at Christmases past and would not look out of place as a Downton Abbey Christmas special with the big house being readied for Christmas, as well as the rituals and traditions that underpin Christmas at Lyme. The narrative is written in the third person, and while a few names have been changed Lyme is renamed Vyne Park while the author’s parents the 2nd Baron and Baroness Newton are Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne, but it’s easy to pick up that the author is describing her parents and home.

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However while what we see in Downton Abbey’s celebration of Christmas is pretty much a pastiche, A Country House Christmas while short delves into detail about how Christmas was celebrated in a house like Lyme Park before World War I. There are the family theatricals, the visiting relatives, the exchange and giving of presents: not just between the family but the annual distribution of beef to the tenants and presents for their children presided over by Sir Thomas and Lady Vayne. Phyllis’s anticipation of the big day jumps off the pages of the book as does her passion for the house and its history and contents. There are more than enough descriptions of the house which despite the absence of any photographs allow the reader to imagine Vyne Park and its inhabitants, upstairs and down.

Apart from the description of the house and the rituals associated with the festive season there are affectionate portraits and characters sketches of the servants: Truelove the butler, Fraulein Thur the governess, Perez the chef and Mrs Campbell the housekeeper. These sketches are woven into the descriptions of the preparations for Christmas and the acknowledgement that the servants are the engine that keep the house running. Prominent among the servants of course is Truelove – defined by Phyllis as “unquestionably the ‘Eminence Grise,’ the power behind the throne, holding the reins of government; with the ear of the queen, the confidence and (albeit reluctant) admiration of the reigning monarch, and with both titular rulers dependent on him and knowing it.” There is also a description of the wider community outside the confines of the house and the relationship between the Vaynes and the estate as demonstrated by Sanderman’s description of the present giving to the children of tenants presided over by Lady Vayne:

“When the children of the estate employees came up on Boxing Day to have tea and receive their presents, it was he [Truelove] who acted as master of ceremonies. After tea in the servants’ hall, it for the occasion with Chinese lanterns, they would troops upstairs in the Long Gallery, where the tree in all its glory for the second day in succession provided, except for the blazing fire, the only light in the room…..Then when everyone had walked around the tree and admired it thoroughly, Truelove would read out from a list, not the children’s names but their parents’ names and their respective ages – a nice distinction.

‘Jim Bowden’s little girl aged six years’ – and a small girl in her best frock and button boots would clatter across the shiny boards to where Lady Vayne stood beside the tree, received her gift with a bobbed curtsey and clatter back again……the same ceremony again, till from the youngest to the eldest they had all their presents. Then Truelove would make a speech.

It was the same every year – ‘I’m sure we’re all very grateful to Her Ladyship for providing this beautiful tree and presents. When I was a boy and Christmas came round I was pleased if I got a monkey on a stick. But of course times have changed. Now I want you all to give three hearty cheers,’ etc.

There was always the loyal response. Then the gallery would resound to the blowing of tin trumpets and whistles, the clicking of pistols and popping of crackers, and the broad North Country accents of excited young voices.”

The narrative is set in 1906, five years before the passage of the Parliament Act and eight years before the outbreak of the First World War; both of which would deal a death blow to the power and prestige of the aristocracy. Superficially, this account can be seen as a paean to aristocratic life with its unchanging routines, deferential servants and tenants, dressing up for dinner and the entertaining demanded of a house like Vyne but it goes deeper than that, as there is also the self-awareness that this aristocratic world and lifestyle could vanish.

And vanish it does. The narrative fast forwards to and ends in 1946, when as an adult Phyllis returns to Vyne again as the house has been given to the nation because the Vaynes, harassed as they are by rationing and rising taxes, can no longer afford to keep the house as it was during that Indian summer before 1914. One would have thought that Sanderman would be nostalgic for the “good old days” but clearly she isn’t as she writes in the introduction to the 1981 reprint of her book:

“The hard fact must be accepted that houses such as Lyme are now anachronisms, no longer able to fulfil their original function, namely that of dwelling-houses for the leisure class. They must either fall into decay or be turned into institutions – hospitals or schools – or become museum pieces, visited and enjoyed by the public at large.”

I would highly recommend this book, not just as a charming story of Christmases past but also a more thorough look at how the festive season was celebrated in a country house in a way that period drama such as Downton Abbey have never quite managed to capture.