Turbulent Londoners: Rosa May Billinghurst, 1875-1953

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. Next up is Rosa May Billinghurst, known at the time as ‘the cripple suffragette.’


Rosa May Billinghurst Close up

Rosa May Billinghurst (Source: Sheilahanlon.com)

Rosa May Billinghurst was born on the 31st May 1875 to a well-off middle class family in Lewisham, south east London. She suffered with polio as a young child which left her unable to walk; she wore leg irons and used crutches or a modified tricycle for the rest of her life. This would not prevent her from throwing herself headlong into the campaign for women’s suffrage however. In fact, she often used her disability to the advantage of the cause.

As a young women Rosa volunteered with the poor in Greenwich, taught Sunday School, and was a member of the Band of Hope, a charity which taught children about the benefits of sobriety and teetotalism. She was also a member of the Women’s Liberal Association, although she later rejected the Liberal Party because of its approach to women’s suffrage. Rosa came to believe that women’s inferior position in society held back society as a whole.

Rosa joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1907 and took an active part in marches and demonstrations despite her limited mobility. In 1910, she founded a Greenwich branch of the WSPU and served as its Secretary. On the 18th of November, she took part in the demonstration that would become known as Black Friday. The demonstration was organised to protest the government’s abandonment of the Conciliation Bill, which would have given about one million of the wealthiest women the right to vote. The police used excessive force in quelling the demonstration, arresting 119 people, and assaulting many more. In a pattern that would become familiar to Rosa, police officers threw her out of her tricycle and sabotaged it, leaving her unable to move. Unfortunately, this behaviour was echoed by police officers almost a century later, when Jody McIntyre was pulled from his wheelchair twice during the Student Tuition Fee Demonstrations in 2010.

Rosa May Billinghurst tricycle

Rosa and her adapted tricycle at a Votes for Women demonstration (Source: LSE Library).

Rosa used her tricycle to its full advantage however. During demonstrations, she would decorate her tricycle with coloured ribbons and WSPU banners. During confrontations with the police, she would place her crutches on either side of the tricycle and repeatedly charge at police lines, happy to use herself as a battering ram. She was also known to hide the tools of the suffragette’s trade–stones for smashing windows and packages of thick brown liquid for pouring into post boxes and destroying letters–under the blanket that covered her knees. In addition, Rosa was fully aware of the publicity she could attract as a disabled suffragette; it was very difficult to portray her in a negative light without seeming particularly callous.

In March 1912 Rosa took part the WSPU’s campaign of mass window smashing. She was sentenced to one month’s hard labour for smashing a window on Henrietta Street. The sentence caused confusion amongst prison authorities, who did not know what kind of labour she could be put to. In December, she was caught sabotaging post boxes in Deptford, also part of a wider WSPU campaign. She was apparently glad to be arrested, believing that it would finally get the media attention the campaign had been trying to achieve. Rosa was sentenced to 8 months in prison. She went on hunger strike, and the subsequent force-feeding had such an effect on her health that she was released after two weeks.

Despite this traumatic ordeal, Rosa continued to participate in direct action. On the 24th of May 1913, she chained herself to the gates of Buckingham Palace. The following month, on the 14th of June, she took part in Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral procession. Emily had died after attempting to attach a Votes for Women sash to the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby, and she was celebrated as a martyr for the cause.

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Rosa grappling with police (Source: LSE Library).

 

Emmeline and Christabel’s decision to suspend WSPU campaigning at the outbreak of the First World War in order to concentrate on the war effort was a controversial one. Rosa joined the Women’s Freedom League, who continued to campaign, suggesting that she didn’t personally agree with the Pankhurst’s decision. However, she remained loyal to the Pankhursts and the WSPU, helping in Christabel’s 1918 election campaign in Smethwick as the candidate for the Women’s Party. Emmeline and Christabel had founded the Women’s Party when the dissolved the WSPU in November 1917. Christabel lost, but only by 800 votes.

Rosa withdrew from activism after the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1918. During her time in the WSPU, however, she was a fierce campaigner who used her disability to the best possible advantage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fox, Kathryn. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Disabled Suffragette Campaigner.” Huffpost UK. Last modified 23rd December 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at  https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-campaigner_uk_5a37f1dde4b02bd1c8c608c8

Fox, Katie. “Rosa May Billinghurst: The Disabled Suffragette Abused by Police and Force-fed in Prison.” i. Last modified 5th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/rosa-may-billinghurst-disabled-suffragette-abused-police-force-fed-prison/

Hanlon, Sheila. “Rosa May Billinghurst: Suffragette on Three Wheels.” SheilaHanlon.com. No date, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://www.sheilahanlon.com/?page_id=1314 

John Simkin. “May Billinghurst.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified March 2017, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wbillinghurst.htm 

Wikipedia. “Rosa May Billinghurst.” Last modified 4th February 2018, accessed 22nd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_May_Billinghurst

Wikipedia. “Women’s Party (UK).” Last modified 29th January 2018, accessed 23rd March 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_Party_(UK)

Vote 100 UK: But When did Other Women Around the World Get the Right to Vote?

It is now fairly well known that some women in Britain won the right to vote 100 years ago, in 1918 (women weren’t given the right to vote on equal terms as men until 1928). I recently heard that women in France did not get the right to vote until 1944. That got me thinking about when other countries gave women the right to vote. New Zealand was first, in 1893. The last, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Saudi Arabia, in 2015. There is still one country, however where women are not allowed at vote, Vatican City. Granted, the only elections that occur there are for the pope, but only cardinals can elect a new pope, and women are not allowed to be cardinals. Perhaps more of a problem is the fact that it is still very difficult for women to vote in many countries, despite them being entitled to. There is still work to be done, but we’ve also come a long way. Below are some examples that illustrate both how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

1893: New Zealand

New Zealand Suffrage Cartoon

A cartoon celebrating women obtaining the right to vote in New Zealand, published in the New Zealand Graphic in 1894 (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).

New Zealand was the first country in the world which gave women the right to vote in national elections. This included Maori women, which would also prove to be groundbreaking; most colonial countries did not give aboriginal women the right to vote until some time after white women. The women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand developed at the same time as other movements in northern Europe and the US, in the late nineteenth-century. However, it also had a fairly strong moral element–the campaign was led by a New Zealand branch of the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). As such, women’s suffrage in New Zealand was opposed by the liquor industry as well as the other usual suspects. Nevertheless a petition in 1893 signed by 32,000 people (almost a quarter of the European female adult population) helped make the demand impossible to refuse, and women’s right to vote became law on the 19th of September 1893.

1902: Australia

Women in Australia were granted the right to vote in national elections in 1902. The right to vote in local elections was granted by individual states at different times; the first was South Australia, in 1895, and the last was Victoria, in 1908. The suffragette Muriel Matters moved to London from South Australia in 1905, so is perhaps not surprising that she became an active member of the UK’s suffrage movement.  The very same act that gave European women the right to vote, however, excluded aboriginal people from voting. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders were not given the right to vote in Australia until 1962, when the US Civil Rights Movement helped draw attention to the fact that indigenous people were treated so poorly.

1906: Finland

First_Female_Parliamentarians_in_the_world_in_Finland_in_1907

Some of the first female MPs in the world, elected in Finland in 1907. Conservative parliamentarians wore black tops, whilst social democrats wore white (Source: Wikipedia).

Finland was the first European country which granted women the right to vote. In 1906, it was part of Russia, although it was governed by the Diet, which dated from the time of Swedish rule. Only a small number of Finns could vote in the elections for the Diet, so it was not just women who felt disenfranchised. In 1905, unrest in Russia spread to Finland, and culminated with a general strike in October and November. Eager to restore peace, the Russian authorities conceded significant reforms, including parliamentary reform and universal and equal suffrage. Women were granted to right to vote, and at the same time the ability to stand in elections. It was the first country in the world that recognised women’s eligibility to stand for office. In March 1907, 19 women were elected to the new Parliament.

1930: South Africa

The campaign to grant white women the vote in South Africa was also started by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who felt that their demands would be ignored if they did not have the right to vote. The first Women’s Enfranchisement League was established in Durban in 1902, and this organisation became the Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union as more branches were established across the country. In the run up to the 1929 General Election, Prime Minister James Herzog promised to raise the issue in Parliament if women supported his re-election campaign. They did, and white women were given the right to vote on the 19th of May 1930. Solidarity for black women, however, was almost non-existent. Black South Africans, both female and male, were not able to vote until Apartheid ended in 1994. This was something I found particularly shocking, as it is within my lifetime. Sometimes it is easy to take advances in social justice for granted, particularly if you don’t have personal experience of what it was like before.

1971: Switzerland

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Swiss suffragettes complaining about the slow pace of women’s suffrage in during a parade in Bern in 1928. Little did they know it would take another 43 years (Source: Gosteli Archive).

In Switzerland, a change to the constitution requires a national referendum- it is one of the oldest and most direct democracies in the world. Yet it was the last European country to grant women the right to vote. It was not the government that had to be persuaded, it was the men, and that turned out to be a much harder job. Women’s suffrage was rejected by 67% of Swiss men in a referendum in 1959. It wasn’t until another referendum was held twelve years later that women in Switzerland won the right to vote in federal elections. One possible explanation for it taking so long is Switzerland’s neutrality during World War Two. Women did not get the same chance to prove their ability to maintain and run the country as in France, German and Britain. Whatever the explanation, it undoubtedly held women’s rights back; men had control over their wives’ bank accounts until 1985, and maternity leave wasn’t introduced until 2005.

 

Sources and Further Reading

Aspinall, Georgia. “Here are the Countries Where it’s Still Really Difficult for Women to Vote.” The Debrief. Last modified 6th February 2018, accessed 25th March 2018. Available at https://thedebrief.co.uk/news/politics/countries-where-women-can-t-vote/

Atkinson, Neill. “Voting Rights.” Te Ara: The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Last modified 17th February 2015, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at  https://teara.govt.nz/en/voting-rights 

Australian Electoral Commission. “Women and the Right to Vote in Australia.” Last modified 14th April 2015, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at  http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/Australian_Electoral_History/wright.htm

Gatten, Emma. “Swiss Suffragettes were Still Fighting for the Right to Vote in 1971.” The Independent. Last modified 25th September 2015, accessed 25th March 2018. Available at  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/swiss-suffragettes-were-still-fighting-for-the-right-to-vote-in-1971-10514445.html

Krulwich, Robert. “Non! Nein! No! A Country That Wouldn’t Let Women Vote Till 1971.” National Geographic. Last modified 26th August 2016, accessed 25th March 2018. Available at https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/country-that-didnt-let-women-vote-till-1971/

Ministry for Culture and Heritage, New Zealand Government. “Brief History: Women and the Vote.” Last modified 13th March 2018, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/brief-history

Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. “Finnish Women Won the Right to Vote a Hundred Years Ago.” Last modified 30th January 2006, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at http://www.finland.lt/public/default.aspx?contentid=121094&nodeid=38417&contentlan=2&culture=en-US

Parliamentary Education Office. “Indigenous Australians and the Vote.” No date, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at https://getparliament.peo.gov.au/electing-members-of-parliament/indigenous-australians-and-the-vote

South African History Online. “White Women Achieve Suffrage in South Africa. Last modified 18th May 2017, accessed 26th March 2018. Available at  http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/white-women-achieve-suffrage-south-africa

The Nellie McClung Foundation. “Timelines of Women’s Suffrage Granted.” No date, accessed 25th March 2018. Available at https://www.ournellie.com/learn/womens-suffrage/political-equality-timeline/

Zarya, Valentina. “There is Now Only Once Country Left in the World Where Women Can’t Vote.” Fortune. 11th December, 2015, accessed 25th March 2018. Available at  http://fortune.com/2015/12/11/one-country-women-vote/

Book Review: Vanishing for the Vote- Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census

Jill Liddington Vanishing for the Vote

Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington.

Jill Liddington. Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014. RRP £16.99 Paperback.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 is being marked in a number of ways, including the publication of a number of books on various aspects of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There are already a significant amount of excellent studies on the campaign for women’s suffrage however, including Vanishing for the Vote: Suffrage, Citizenship and the Battle for the Census by Jill Liddington, published in 2014.

Vanishing for the Vote focuses on one particular tactic in the campaign to gain women the right to vote, the 1911 census boycott. On the night of Sunday the 2nd of April, women from across the suffrage spectrum evaded, boycotted, or refused to complete the most comprehensive census survey ever attempted. The argument was that if women did not count as full citizens, then they should should not allow the government to count them. Not every suffrage campaigner agreed with the tactic however; some believed that it was more important that social policy be informed by accurate data about the population.

This census rebellion would not be a violent confrontation, like forcible feeding in prison or street battles with the police. Rather, it would be 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 women, yet to be treated politically like a child, a criminal or a lunatic?

Liddington, 2014; p. 2

In Vanishing for the Vote, Jill Liddington explores the boycott in depth, including: the census itself; the Women’s Freedom League, which spearheaded the boycott; some of the key personalities involved; the events of census night itself; and the protests’ significance and implications. In 2009 the original 1911 census schedules were made public by The National Archives, providing researchers with a wealth of new resources. Liddington and another historian, Elizabeth Crawford, tracked down 500 census schedules of women involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage, in order to conduct the first in-depth analysis of what happened during the boycott. The book looks big, but around half of it is actually a Gazetteer of these census schedules, a fantastic resource for anyone interested in suffrage campaigners.

The book is clear and well-written, and although the structure appears unusual at first, it makes sense as the book unfolds. In the Introduction, Jill argues that Vanishing for the Vote is suitable for  academic and popular audiences. Whilst the writing is accessible, I think some of the content would alienate readers that are just interested in history; Liddington explains the methodology of collecting the census details and explores the relevant literature in quite some detail, so it feels more like an academic history book than a popular one. Liddington takes a balanced approach to the debate about the boycott, taking the time to explain the history of, and logic behind, the census itself as well as the campaign to boycott it. As a result, Vanishing for the Vote is not just about how suffrage campaigners asserted their rights as British citizens, but also about how the Edwardian state was attempting to improve the lives of its citizens. As Liddington often argues, it was government by the people versus government for the people. Supporters of women’s suffrage had to decide what was more important to them–the right to vote, or accurate data to inform social reform.

Most people are familiar with the suffragette tactics of smashing windows, arson, and hunger strikes. Vanishing for the Vote is a thorough, engaging, and balanced exploration of one of the lesser known tactics employed by campaigners for women’s suffrage. If your curiosity has been piqued by the centenary celebrations, then it is definitely worth a read.

 

Turbulent Londoners: Muriel Matters, 1877-1969

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The third of my suffrage activists is Muriel Matters, an Australian actress, lecturer, and journalist with a flair for dramatic stunts.


Muriel Matters

Muriel Matters, 1877-1969 (Photo: Frosty Ramblings).

All of the suffrage campaigners I have featured so far as Turbulent Londoners have been British. London has always been a city of migrants, however, and many of the activists involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage were born elsewhere. Muriel Matters was an Australian lecturer, journalist, actress, and elocutionist who put her flair for the dramatic to good use fighting for a right that South Australian women had had since 1894.

Muriel Matters was born on the 12th of November 1877 to a large Methodist family in Adelaide, South Australia. As a child she was introduced to the writing of Walt Whitman and Henrik Ibsen, who strongly influenced her political consciousness. In 1894, when Muriel was still a teenager, South Australia became the first self-governing territory to give women the vote on the same standing as men.

Muriel studied music at the University of Adelaide, and by the late 1890s she was acting and conducting recitals in Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne. In 1905, at the age of 28, Muriel moved to London to try and further her acting career. Leaving a country where women had the right to vote in all federal elections, Muriel arrived in a country where women could not vote at all. Facing stiff competition for acting work, Muriel also had to take on work as a journalist. She interviewed the exiled anarchist Prince Peter Kropotkin, and later performed at his home. Kropotkin challenged Muriel to do something more useful with her talents than acting–she later identified this as a defining moment in her life. She joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a group which had broken away from the WSPU in 1907 because of the lack of democracy in the organisation. The President of the WFL was Charlotte Despard, a formidable woman who is one of my favourite Turbulent Londoners.

CARAVAN TOUR/WFL 20C

The first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour in 1908 (Source: The Women’s Library/Mary Evans Picture Library).

Between early May and Mid-October 1908, Muriel was the ‘Organiser in Charge’ of the first ‘Votes for Women’ caravan tour around the South of England. WFL activists visited towns in Surrey, Sussex, East Anglia, and Kent, with the aim of talking about women’s suffrage and forming new branches. Despite problems with hecklers, the tour was very successful, and many of the other suffrage societies would later run caravan tours of their own.

Not one to rest on her laurels, on the 28th of October 1908 Muriel took part in a dramatic protest at the House of Parliament organised by the WFL. They were protesting against an iron grille in the Ladie’s Gallery that obscured the view of the House of Commons and was seen as a symbol of women’s oppression. Muriel and another activist called Helen Fox chained themselves to the offending grille, and loudly lectured the MPs below on the benefits of women’s enfranchisement. The grille had to be removed so that a blacksmith could remove the two women. Released without charge, Muriel rejoined the protest outside the House of Commons, and was eventually arrested for trying to rush the lobby. The next day she was sentenced to one month in Holloway Prison.

A few months later, the state opening of Parliament on the 16th of February 1909 was marked by a procession led by King Edward. In order to gain attention and promote the suffrage cause, Muriel hired a dirigible air balloon. With ‘Votes for Women’ on one side, and ‘WFL’ on the other, she planned to fly over central London, showering the King and Parliament with pro-suffrage leaflets. The weather conditions and a poor motor meant that Muriel didn’t make it to Westminster, but she did fly over London for one and a half hours, dropping 56lbs of leaflets. The stunt made headlines all over the world.

Muriel Matters dirigible

Muriel Matters on her balloon flight over London (Source: Balloonteam.net).

From May to July 1910, Muriel embarked on a lecture tour of Australia. She was an engaging speaker, making use of illustrations and even changing into a replica of the dress she wore whilst in prison. She advocated prison reform, equal pay, and the vote. At the end of the tour, she helped persuade the Australian senate to pass a resolution informing the British Prime Minister Asquith of the positive experiences of women’s suffrage. In October 1913, Muriel helped persuade the National Federation of Mineworker’s to support women’s suffrage.

On the 15th October 1914, Muriel married William Arnold Porter, a divorced dentist from Boston. She decided to double-barrel her surname. In June 1915, she laid out her opposition to war in an address called ‘The False Mysticism of War.’ She argued that it was not an effective method of solving problems, and justifications for it were based on false pretences. She particularly objected to Christianity as a justification for war, and questioned the significance of nationality. Views such as these were extremely unpopular at the time, and it took great bravery to voice them.

In 1916 Muriel went to Barcelona for a year to learn about the Montesorri method of teaching, a child-centred approach which promotes the development of the whole child, including physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development. Muriel believed that access to education should be universal, and she took what she learnt in Barcelona back to charity work she was doing in East London. In 1922, she toured Australia again, this time advocating the Montesorri method.

Miss-Muriel-Matters-addressing-crowd-407x457

Muriel Matters addressing a crowd in Caernarfon, Wales, in 1909 (Source: Harper Collins Australia).

In the 1924 General Election, Muriel ran as the Labour candidate for Hastings. She ran on a socialist platform, advocating a fairer distribution of wealth, work for the unemployed, and gender equality. She didn’t win- Hastings was a safe Conservative seat, and wasn’t won by Labour until 1997. The ability to stand in itself was victory enough for Muriel. After the election, Muriel and her husband settled in Hastings. William died in 1949, and Muriel died 20 years later, on the 17th of November 1969, at the age of 92. Provocative until the end, she was remembered locally as being partial to a spot of skinny dipping at the nearby Pelham Beach.

Australian-born Muriel Matters launched herself wholeheartedly into the the campaign for women’s suffrage in her adopted country. Her flair for dramatic acts of non-violent civil disobedience helped her attract valuable attention and publicity for the cause of women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Fallon, Amy. “Muriel Matters: An Australian Suffragette’s Unsung Legacy.” Last modified 11 October 2013, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy

Friends of Hastings Cemetery. “Muriel Matters Porter.” No date, accessed 8 February. Available at http://friendsofhastingscemetery.org.uk/mattersm.html

The Muriel Matters Society Inc. “About Muriel.” No date, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://murielmatterssociety.com.au/home-page/who-was-muriel-matters/

Wikipedia. “Muriel Matters.” Last modified 20 January 2018, accessed 8 February 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muriel_Matters

Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women Exhibition at Royal Holloway

Royal Holloway, University of London, has pretty good credentials when it comes to historical feminism. Officially called Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, it was formed from a merger of Royal Holloway and Bedford College in 1985. Both of the original institutions started out as women’s colleges. Bedford College was the first higher education college for women in the United Kingdom, founded by Elisabeth Jesser Reid in 1849. Royal Holloway was founded in 1879 by the entrepreneur and philanthropist Thomas Holloway. As such, both colleges have a number of notable female alumni, including…

sdr

The Emily Wilding Davison Building is a striking new Library and Student Services hub located in the centre of Royal Holloway’s campus. It is named after the well-known suffragette who was killed at the Epsom Derby in 1913 after running in front of the King’s horse, who attended Royal Holloway in the early 1890s (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In 2017, Royal Holloway opened a new library building named after the well-known suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison. She studied English at Royal Holloway in 1891 although she could not complete her studies because she could not afford the fees after the death of her father in 1893. The Emily Wilding Davison Building includes a small exhibition space, which is currently hosting Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women until the 17th of March 2018. As someone studying historical protest at Royal Holloway, I felt almost obliged to go and check it out.

The exhibition includes items from Royal Holloway’s own Special Collections, as well as the British Film Institute, the Museum of London, and the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics. It covers the period from the foundation of Bedford College in 1849 to 1918, when the Representation of the People Act entitled some women to vote. The items are mostly textual, but there are also images, video footage, posters, and suffrage-based souvenirs.

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The exhibition space in the Emily Wilding Davison Building (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition space is small, but Suffrage makes good use of it. It is covers both suffragettes and suffragists, which is good to see– although suffragette organisations like the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League were good at attracting publicity and are still quite well-known, most of the women who campaigned for the right to vote were suffragists, believing in legal methods of persuasion. Unsurprisingly given the exhibition’s location, Suffrage also makes a strong connection between the suffrage campaign and women’s education. The fight for the right to vote is one of the most studied and represented campaigns in British history, particularly in this centenary year, so it is refreshing to see the topic approached from a different angle. I also like the long time period covered by the exhibition; events after 1905 tend to receive the most attention, but campaigners had been working hard for half a century before that.

At the back of the exhibition, almost hidden behind a partition, footage of suffrage demonstrations is projected onto a wall. The campaign was one of the first to be filmed quite extensively, and I have always found the black and white grainy footage captivating. I suspect that I am not the only one who enjoys watching such footage, I think it helps to make historical protest more accessible. I was pleased to see the films included in Suffrage, therefore, although I think they could have been given more prominence.

Due to its origins, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College has a strong connection to women’s history. Suffrage: Education, Activism and Votes for Women highlights some of that history in a balanced and accessible way, as well as showcasing the College’s impressive archival collections.

Turbulent Londoners: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, 1847-1929

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. The second of my suffragists is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a pioneer of the campaign before the WSPU was even a twinkle in Emmeline Pankhurst’s eye.


Millicent Garrett Fawcett.PNG

Millicent Garrett Fawcett as a young woman (Photo: Wikipedia).

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were having a conversation about Millicent Garrett Fawcett being the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square. When our Dad, a man with quite high levels of general knowledge, responded to the conversation by asking “who?”, I knew who my next Turbulent Londoner was going to be. Millicent Garrett Fawcett was a writer and campaigner, and was President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) for more than two decades.

Millicent Garrett was born in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, on the 11th of June 1847, the eighth of ten children. The family was close and prosperous, and Millicent’s childhood was happy. The children were encouraged to read, speak their minds, and take an interest in politics. At the age of 12, Millicent was sent to school in Blackheath with her sister Elizabeth. Her older sisters introduced her to radical ideas and thinkers. In 1866, Millicent went to hear a speech given by John Stuart Mill, an early supporter of women’s suffrage. His words helped her decide to take action. That same year, at the age of 19, she became the Secretary of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage.

Through her new political connections Millicent soon met Henry Fawcett, the radical Liberal MP for Brighton. Despite the 14-year age gap they were married in 1867, and had their first and only child, Philippa, in April 1868. The couple were politically well matched, and it seems that they had a happy and loving marriage.

Henry was blinded in a shooting accident in 1858, so Millicent acted as his Secretary, alongside her activism and a successful writing career. In 1868, she joined the London Suffrage Committee, and spoke at the first public pro-suffrage meeting. It was unusual for women to speak in the public at the time, and Millicent got very nervous before making a speech. Despite this, she was known for her clear speaking voice, and her ability to explain complex arguments simply. In 1870, Millicent published Political Economy for Beginners. It was very successful, going through 10 editions in 41 years. Along with her sister Agnes, Millicent also raised 4 of her cousins whose parents had died.

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Millicent with her husband Henry in around 1880 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a strong supporter of women’s education. In 1875, she co-founded Newnham College, one of the first Cambridge Colleges for women. She also supported a controversial campaign for women to actually receive degrees from the University of Cambridge, rather than just being able to study there. This wasn’t achieved until 1948.

Henry died unexpectedly in November 1884, leaving Millicent a widow at the age of 38. She sold the family homes in Cambridge and London, and took Philippa to live with Agnes. When she re-entered public life in 1885, Millicent began to concentrate on politics. She was a key member of what became the Women’s Local Government Society–a cross party group that campaigned for women to be allowed to stand as local councillors. This goal was achieved in 1907.

After the death of Lydia Becker in 1890, Millicent became the Chair of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. In 1897, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed as an umbrella organisation for all the suffrage societies in the country. Millicent became President of this new group, a role she kept until 1919. Although the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) frequently commanded the headlines and publicity, the NUWSS consistently had the majority of the support of the women’s movement. By 1905, the NUWSS had 305 constituent societies and 50,000 members. Millicent disapproved of militant tactics, believing that they alienated politicians and the general public. Despite this, she admired the courage of militant activists.

In July 1901, Millicent was asked to lead a commission of women to South Africa to investigate allegations that the families of Boer soldiers were being held in awful conditions in concentrations camps during the Boer War. It was the first time British women were trusted with such a responsibility in war time.

The NUWSS lost patience with the Liberal Party in early 1912, giving up the long-held hope that they would eventually give women the vote. Instead, they formed an electoral alliance with the Labour Party, which was the only political party that supported women’s suffrage. By 1913, the NUWSS had 100000 members, and organised the Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage to demonstrate how many women wanted the vote. On the 18th of June, NUWSS members from all over the country set off for London, meeting in Hyde Park six weeks later on the 29th of July. Now aged 66, Millicent took an active part in the pilgrimage, and was the headline speaker at the Hyde Park rally.

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Millicent Garrett Fawcett speaking at the rally in Hyde Park that finished the NUWSS’s Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage in 1913 (Photo: LSE)

Millicent was a not a pacifist, but the NUWSS continued to campaign for the vote during the First World War, unlike the WSPU. It will never be possible to find out whether the NUWSS or the WSPU’s campaigning methods were more effective for winning women the right to vote. There is no doubt, however, that Millicent Garrett Fawcett played a huge role in winning that right. After the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, Millicent largely withdrew from the suffrage campaign. Throughout her long career, however, she had supported a large number of campaigns, not all of which were successful. These included: raising the age of sexual consent; criminalising incest; preventing child marriage; repealing the Contagious Diseases Act; and Clementina Black’s campaign to help protect low-paid female workers.

Her hard work and dedication were recognised in 1925, when she was made a Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. She passed away four years later on the 5th of August 1929. In 1953, the London’s Society for Women’s Suffrage was renamed the Fawcett Society in her honour. The Society continues to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. In 2017, it was announced that Millicent would become the first woman to be commemorated with a statue in Parliament Square, which is due to be unveiled in February 2018.

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The planned statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett with the artist who designed it, Gillian Wearing (Photo: Sky News)

After Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, Millicent Garrett Fawcett is perhaps one of the best-known suffragists. But that doesn’t mean she is well-known. Despite having a charity named after and a statue in Parliament Square planned to honour her, most people don’t seem to recognise her name, let alone are aware of what she achieved. I think that’s a real shame.

Sources and Further Reading

Biography Online. “Millicent Fawcett.” No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://www.biographyonline.net/politicians/uk/millicent-fawcett.html

Fawcett Society. “About.” No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/about

Murray, Jenni. A History of Britain in 21 Women. London: Oneworld, 2017.

Simkin, John. “Millicent Garrett Fawcett.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified June 2017, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/WfawcettM.htm

Simkin, John. “Women’s Pilgrimage.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wpilgimage.htm

Sutherland, Gillian. “History of Newnham.” Newnham College, University of Cambridge. No date, accessed 31 January 2018. Available at http://www.newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

Wikipedia. “Millicent Fawcett.” Last modified 28 January 2018, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millicent_Fawcett

Women’s Local Government Society. “Women’s Local Government Society.” Suffrage Pioneers. No date, accessed 29 January 2018. Available at http://www.suffrage-pioneers.net/wlgs/