As the first decade of the twentieth century drew to a close, the campaign for women’s suffrage had been going on for half a century. As the decades wore on, the women involved became increasingly creative with their tactics. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was founded as the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1872. They were suffragists, believing in peaceful, constitutional campaigning. The NUWSS had first experimented with mass marches the previous year; despite the wet weather, what came to be known as the Mud March was a resounding success. The women were praised for their determination and organisation skills. In the summer of 1908, the NUWSS decided to hold another march.
In 1908, women’s suffrage seemed both tantalisingly close, and as distant as ever. In February, a women’s suffrage bill was blocked by the government after passing its second reading in Parliament. Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister in April, and challenged British women to prove that they wanted to vote. The NUWSS organised their Suffrage Procession in response to this challenge, and also to prove that their organisational skills were such that they deserved the vote.
Artist and illustrator Caroline Watts designed the Bugler Girl poster to advertise the march. Despite her military appearance, the NUWSS were keen to emphasise her peaceful nature, and the image went on to be used quite often within the suffrage campaign in both the UK and the US. On the afternoon of the 13th of June 1908, 10,000 women gathered on the Embankment in central London. They then proceeded to march, in neat rows of either 4 or 6, to the Royal Albert Hall where a meeting was held. Every detail of the march was planned, including the order of the procession, which was as follows: provincial NUWSS groups, in alphabetical order; colonials and internationals; professions, including medical women, business women, writers, actors, and farmers; other societies, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the National Union of Women Workers, Liberals, Fabians, Conservatives and the Women’s Freedom League (who’s President was Charlotte Despard); and finally, the local branches of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The march was led by NUWSS president, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, and Lady Frances Balfour.
The International Conference for Women’s Suffrage began in Amsterdam on the 15th of June, which meant that a lot of important international suffragists could be in London for the march, adding another feather to the NUWSS’s cap. Representatives came from around the world, including the US, Australia, Russia, Hungary, South Africa, and France. The marchers were accompanied by 15 marching bands. The women carried 76 banners designed and made by the Artist’s Suffrage League (ASL), a group of professional artists established in 1907 to produce banners, posters, postcards, and similar materials for the suffrage campaign. Many of the banners were designed by Mary Lowndes, chair of the ASL and designer of stained-glass windows.
There were two main types of banners. The first type represented the various branches of the NUWSS. The organisers wanted to emphasise that the demonstration was representative of the whole country. The second type of banner commemorated prominent women, both past and present, including: Marie Curie, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, Mary Wollstonecraft, Caroline Herschel, Florence Nightingale, and Queen Victoria (despite her vehement opposition to women’s suffrage). The banners were on display in Caxton Hall in Westminster, which was frequently used by suffrage campaigners, for a few days before the march, and they toured the country afterwards. Local suffrage groups could hire the banners to host exhibitions, and they were displayed in Manchester, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Brighton, amongst others. Many of the banners were also used in later marches and demonstrations.
The 1908 NUWSS Suffrage Procession was a great success. The women demonstrated their commitment to the cause, as well as illustrating their significant organisational skills, part of an attempt to persuade the public that women were capable of shouldering the responsibility of voting. The beautiful, hand-made banners also showed off the women’s feminine side, as well as capturing the attention of spectators and the media. Peaceful mass demonstrations were an ideal way for the suffragists to attract publicity and show their conviction. But the suffragettes also made use of such tactics, holding their own ‘Monster Meeting’ in London only a week after the NUWSS.
Sources and Further Reading
Crawford, Elizabeth. “Suffrage Stories: An Army of Banners- Designed for the NUWSS Suffrage Procession 13 June 1908.” Woman and her Sphere. Last modified 26 November 2014. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at https://womanandhersphere.com/2014/11/26/suffrage-stories-an-army-of-banners-designed-for-the-nuwss-suffrage-procession-13-june-1908/
Crawford, Elizabeth. “Suffrage Stories/Women Artists: Caroline Watts and the Bugler Girl.” Woman and her Sphere. Last modified 3 December 2014, accessed 6 June 2018. Available at https://womanandhersphere.com/2014/12/03/suffrage-storieswomen-artists-caroline-watts-and-the-bugler-girl/
Keyte, Suzanne. “Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women: Women’s Suffrage at the Royal Albert Hall.” Royal Albert Hall. Last modified 5 February 2018. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at https://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2018/february/celebrating-100-years-of-votes-for-women-womens-suffrage-and-the-royal-albert-hall/
Observer, The. “From the Observer Archive, 14 June 1908: 10000 Women March for Suffrage. Last modified 17 June 2012. Accessed 4 June 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2012/jun/17/archive-1908-suffragette-march