Soldiers in Petticoats11 May 2017
‘From Kensington to Billingsgate
One hears the restless cries!
From ev’ry corner of the land:
Political equality and equal rights with men!
Take heart! For Missus Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!’
‘Sister Suffragette’, from Mary Poppins
When I watched Mary Poppins as a child, these lyrics went completely over my head. But when I rediscovered it a few weeks ago, I was delighted to see such a radical reference to the suffragette movement in a classic children’s film. I immediately took to Google, determined to extend my knowledge of the brave women who made up this movement.
Britain’s suffragette movement lasted roughly from the establishment of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, until the onset of World War I caused a cessation in 1914. What distinguished ‘suffragettes’ from the earlier ‘suffragists’ was a shift towards more militant tactics such as stone throwing and arson. The WSPU’s slogan, ‘Deeds, Not Words,’ stressed a frustration with the lack of progress that peaceful protests and negotiation had achieved.
In 1917, voting rights were eventually granted to married women and those over the age of 30, and by 1928 all people over the age of 21 could vote in Britain.
These are just five of the strong women who fought tirelessly and proudly for female suffrage during this period.
Annie Kenney (1879-1953)
“The law may be stronger than I am, but if I may not change the wicked law that holds in bondage the smitten womanhood of this country, I will at least die in the attempt to change it.”
Kenney was the only working class woman in the higher ranks of the WSPU. She wrote these powerful words during one of her 13 prison sentences, in response to a statement made by her sentencing magistrate: “These women must understand that the law is stronger than they are.”
A close friend to Christabel Pankhurst, the women together orchestrated the WSPU’s first militant act. On 13 October 1905 they interrupted a Liberal Party meeting by asking then Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, “If you are elected will you do your best to make women’s suffrage a government measure?” After receiving no response they unfolded a banner reading “Votes for Women,” and were thrown out.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928)
“We are here not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our effort to become law makers.”
Emmeline Pankhurst founded the WSPU as a forty-five year old widow and single mother. As a leader, she organized mass rallies and inspired civil disobedience through powerful speeches such as ‘Freedom or Death’. In 1913, she was arrested 12 times and like thousands of other suffragettes, endured force feedings in custody while on hunger strike protesting her right to be classified as a political prisoner. Her daughters, Sylvia, Christabel and Adela were also important figures in the cause of female suffrage, however, Sylvia and Adela eventually left the WSPU as they were concerned with the growing level of violence.
Sophia Duleep Singh (1876-1948)
“Taxation without representation is a tyranny. I am unable to pay money to the state, as I am not allowed to exercise any control over its expenditure.”
Daughter of an exiled Punjabi maharajah and goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Singh joined the WSPU in 1909 and would regularly sell a suffragette newspaper outside Hampton Court Palace. In particular, she was involved with the Women’s Tax Resistance League – as a political statement she refused to pay taxes, which led her to court twice.
Emily Davison (1872 – 1913)
“There is not a single question in this country which touches men that does not also touch women.”
Davison died four days after she walked onto the track at Epsom Downs and was trampled by the king’s horse. Her death gained widespread publicity for the fight for women’s suffrage, which the newspapers largely ignored beforehand. Her famous death, however, often overshadows the commitment she showed during her life to the advancement of women. She was involved in numerous militant stunts, was arrested nine times and endured police brutality and numerous force-feedings while being held in custody. During Davison’s final prison sentence, which lasted six months, she suffered serious head trauma after throwing herself down a staircase attempting to avoid being force fed.
Edith Garrud (1872 – 1971)
“Woman is exposed to many perils nowadays, because so many who call themselves men are not worthy of that exalted title, and it is her duty to learn how to defend herself.”
David Bowie could have been referring to Garrud in ‘Suffragette City’ when he sang, “this mellow-thighed chick just put my spine out of place”. Measuring at roughly 150cm, Garrud taught suffragettes how to defend themselves from police brutality with jiu-jitsu – or ‘suffrajitsu’. Garrud also arranged a protective force called ‘The Bodyguard’ to ensure the safety of suffragette leaders.