Book Review: Hearts and Minds- The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote

Hearts and Minds Front Cover

Hearts and Minds by Jane Robinson.

Jane Robinson. Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote. London: Doubleday, 2018. RRP £20 hardback.

When I first heard about Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote, I was determined to wait until it came out in paperback. Both my purse and my bookshelves would thank me for it. However, a few months ago I went to see author Jane Robinson give a talk about the book at the Lancashire Archives, and she was so good that I bought the hardback copy there and then. It was a good purchase.

Hearts and Minds tells the story of the Great Pilgrimage, a six-week epic organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), representing the non-militant arm of the women’s suffrage movement. Over 6 weeks in the summer of 1913, hundreds of women marched to London from all over the country in an attempt to prove how many respectable, law-abiding women wanted the vote. In some places they were welcomed, in others they faced fierce and even violent opposition from opponents and people who mistook them for suffragettes. Overall, however, the pilgrimage was an overwhelming success, building bonds within the NUWSS, attracting media attention, and developing the confidence and skill sets of women around the country.

Jane Robinson has written an engaging account of a fascinating and lesser-known event in the history of the women’s suffrage campaign. There are two big things, and several little things, that combine to make Hearts and Minds a very good book. The first big thing is that the book is thoroughly researched; Robinson makes extensive use of diaries, letters, and other personal sources that give us a real insight into how the women participating in the Pilgrimage felt about their experiences. This effect is enhanced by Robinson’s occasional use of creative writing. The description of Marjory Lees and other pilgrims huddling terrified in their caravan as a group of angry locals attempt to set fire to it in Thame, Oxfordshire, is a particularly effective example.

The second big thing I like about Hearts and Minds is its coverage of events after the Great Pilgrimage. A lot of accounts of the campaign for women’s suffrage stop when the First World War starts. Many activists put their desire for the vote on hold and threw themselves into the war effort. But that is by no means the end of the story. Robinson recounts what many pilgrims  and other suffrage campaigners did during the war. Some, such as Florence Lockwood and Sylvia Pankhurst, vocally opposed the war, which was a very lonely and dangerous position to take. Others, such as Vera Chute Collum, Dr. Elsie Inglis, and Katherine Harley undertook dangerous and exhausting work treating injured soldiers in field hospitals across Europe run by the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Katherine Harley was killed by a shell whilst looking after refugees in modern-day Macedonia on the 7th of March 1917.

As well as telling the stories of these remarkable women, Hearts and Minds also describes what happens after some women were given the vote in 1918. The Pankhursts may not have continued the fight, but others campaigned for women to be given the vote on equal terms as men, led by the Six Points Group and the NUWSS (rebranded as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship). These few chapters at the end of the book helped contextualise the women’s suffrage campaign in a way that I haven’t seen before, and I found it really interesting.

There are lots of little things I like about Hearts and Minds too, such as the helpful lists of important pro- and anti-suffrage organisations, key people featured in the book, and important dates in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Pictures are dispersed throughout the book, not just in the middle (although there is a section of coloured images in the middle of the book too), and there is a map of the 6 Pilgrimage routes (Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow is one recent book that would have been  improved by more and better maps).

The campaign for women’s suffrage was much broader and more varied than the popular imagination suggests. This year, the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote, is an opportunity to make more people aware of organisations and individuals beyond the WSPU. Hearts and Minds is an entertaining and informing way of doing just that.

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