Protest: What’s the Point?

When I posted a link to Reddit about the End Austerity Now demonstration in June I said it was a ‘big success’. Several comments reacted to this rather sarcastically with one asking if austerity is now over. Whilst I didn’t appreciate the tone of the comments, I realised that ‘what makes a successful protest?’ is a perfectly valid question. It is true that protests rarely bring about large scale change, but they serve other purposes too, such as raising awareness, recruitment, demonstrating solidarity and boosting morale.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a 'big success'.

Some of the comments I received when I said on the website Reddit that the End Austerity Now demonstration in June 2015 was a ‘big success’.

It can be difficult to find examples where protest has directly led to wide-scale change, although the 1990 Poll Tax Riots is one case where protest significantly contributed to change. It is much easier to find examples of protests that have led directly to small-scale, local change. For example, housing protest groups like FocusE15 and Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth (HASL) have managed to prevent an increasing number of evictions and long-distance relocations by London councils over the past few years. Looking further back, the female workers at the Bryant and May match factory in Bow, East London won themselves better working conditions and helped to kick start New Unionism when they went on strike back in 1888. These examples demonstrate that protest is not always as ‘unsuccessful’ as it is perceived to be.

Even protests that do not lead to direct change can be ‘successful’. For example, a protest can raise awareness of an issue amongst those who witness it and the wider public via media coverage. Fathers4Justice are a group that know how to garner publicity, as their tactic of scaling landmarks dressed as various superheroes demonstrates. As well as dramatic or comic stunts, violence can also increase press coverage, as happened in the student tuition fee demonstrations in London in late 2010. It’s a risk though, as violence can often alienate would-be supporters. On the 13th December 1867 the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted a prison breakout in Clerkenwell by blowing up the prison wall. They used too much gunpowder however, and the explosion killed 12 people. The event became known as the Clerkenwell Outrage, and support for the Fenians in London, which had been quite strong up to this point, evaporated. Nevertheless, regardless of exactly how you go about it, protest can be an effective way of raising the profile of an issue you care about.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Fathers4Justice certainly knew how to get publicity for their cause.

Linked to raising awareness, protests can also help with recruitment. Put simply, you can’t attract new recruits if nobody knows who you are. Protests get people talking, and provide the opportunity to win people over. After the publicity resulting from the fourth anniversary demonstration of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1936, which has since become know as the Battle of Cable Street, BUF membership spiked. Membership in London almost doubled, jumping from under 3000 to around 5000 (Tilles, 2011). Whilst this is not a positive example, it does show just how effective protest can be at attracting new activists to a cause.

Solidarity is a crucial concept amongst protest groups and social movements. Holding a protest, or attending someone else’s, is a good way of providing both practical and emotional support. The work of Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 miner’s strike, popularised by the 2014 film Pride, is a good example of this. The actions of LGSM not only raised money for the miners, but let them know that they were not alone. In return a delegation of miners led the 1985 London Pride parade, and voted for gay rights motions at Labour and TUC conferences (Kelliher, 2015). Protest can help build and maintain ties between diverse groups.

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains his definition of solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

Miner Dai Donovan (played by Paddy Considine) explains solidarity to Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), founder of LGSM, in the film Pride (Source: Pride, 2014).

The final purpose that protest serves isn’t easy to pin down, but I think is best described as morale boosting. Being active in a social movement can be difficult and draining. It often feels as though you are putting in a lot of time and effort for very little return. Protests can provide a sense of accomplishment, of getting something done. They can also be fun; protests often have a carnivalesque atmosphere which provides the chance to relax and let go. Chanting a slogan at the top of your voice surrounded by tens, hundreds, or thousands of others who share your frustration and anger can be a wonderful feeling. It can be hugely helpful to be reminded that you are not the only one who feels the way you do, and this is rarely more obvious than at a protest.

There are several ways in which protest can be successful. It may well be that protests frequently fail to cause change, but this does not mean that they fail as a tactic for dissent. Protests also serve to raise awareness, recruit new activists, show solidarity and boost morale, and at these tasks they are very successful. Austerity may still be in place after the End Austerity Now demo, but I stand by my statement that it was a big success.

Sources and Further Reading

Kellier, Diarmaid. ‘The 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and the Spirit of Solidarity.’ Soundings 60 (2015): 118-129.

Tilles, Daniel. “The Myth of Cable Street.” History Today 61, no. 10 (2001): 41-47.

Book Review: ‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley

'March, Women, March' by Lucinda Hawksley.

‘March, Women, March’ by Lucinda Hawksley.

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March. London: André Deutsch, 2013.

Lucinda Hawksley’s March, Women, March, recently released in paperback, serves as a fantastic introduction to the history of the women’s movement in the UK, introducing the reader to all the key players from Mary Wollstoncraft through to Christabel Pankhurst, including quite a few who are not so well known nowadays. The book traces the struggle for women’s rights and female suffrage from the end of the eighteenth century to the late 1920s, using extensive quotes from those directly involved to help tell the story.

Hawksley uses numerous extracts from the diaries, letters and publications from those directly involved in the events she describes, so much of the story is told in the words of those who were there and took part. Not only does this act as proof of the huge amount of research that must have gone into the book, it also gives it a personal feel; you can almost feel the determination and strength of the women emanating from the pages.

One of the great strengths of this book is the fact that it tells the whole story of the women’s movement, putting the well-known suffragettes into the context of their predecessors and contemporaries. The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the suffragettes did not spring up out of nowhere- they were inspired by, and worked alongside, vast numbers of other women such as Caroline Norton, Clementina Black and Charlotte Despard. March, Women, March acknowledges and celebrates the whole of this history, not just the bits that have successfully made their way into the collective consciousness.

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that I would have liked more detail about the early pioneers of the women’s movement. Women such as Caroline Norton, who railed against the way that she was treated by both her husband and the law after her marriage, and campaigned tireless for the rights of married women to see their children and control their own income, are much less familiar to me than the Pankhursts, and I would have liked to hear more about them.

March, Women, March also puts the campaign for suffrage into the context of other campaigns that aimed to benefit women, such as attempts to raise awareness about sexual health and contraception, and the ‘rational dress’ movement, which sought to free women from the physical constraints of tight corsets, high heels and excess frills and bows. These campaigns made social pariahs of their champions, appalling mainstream society with their frank and radical opinions. Many of the campaigners, such as Clementina Black who worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of working women, believed that the situation would not truly improve until women were granted the vote, for why should politicians listen to them when they could not influence the outcome of elections? Everything came back to suffrage.

If you are acquainted with the events and figures of the women’s suffrage campaign after 1900, much of this book will feel familiar, although you will probably still learn something new. If you are not familiar with the activities of the WSPU and others, then this book is an ideal introduction to the topic. Either way, March, Women, March is a very enjoyable read, and I would highly recommend it.

Book Review: ‘Striking a Light- The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History’ by Louise Raw

Striking a Light Front Cover

Striking a Light by Louise Raw.

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

I recently finished reading Striking a Light, Louise Raw’s wonderful book about the Bryant and May matchwomen’s strike in East London in 1888. My friends and family would be able to tell you how much of an impression it made on me, as I have spent a lot of time telling them how much I enjoyed it and recommending that they should read it themselves. The matchwomen’s (known to most as the matchgirls) strike is one of the most well-known examples of protest in London’s history, but as Raw expertly explains, much of what we think we know is inaccurate, and doesn’t give the strikers the credit they deserve. The thorough and innovative methodology used in the research also deserves recognition.

Raw conducted thorough analysis of the primary sources to re-evaluate the established narrative of the strike. She argues that the matchwomen were not as helpless and innocent as they were frequently portrayed to be, both at the time and in subsequent historical accounts. Annie Besant, a well-known campaigner at the time, is generally credited with leading the strike, helping the women to achieve what they could not alone. Raw easily demonstrates that although Besant did help the strikers, she did not have an organisational role, it was the women themselves that decided to strike, and organised the following campaign. Raw also uses census data and other sources to dispute the assertion that the women were too disconnected from the dockworkers in East London to have had an influence on the Great Dock Strike in 1889. Striking a Light recognises the bravery and strength of the matchwomen, acknowledging their achievements in a way that has not been done before.

The other element of the book which I particularly admire is the methodology. Raw is clear and explicit about how she conducted her research, including the difficulties she faced, which is something I personally would like to see more of in historical geography. In addition, Raw tracked down the grandchildren of some of the women involved in the strike, in order to find out more about them as women. Although this is a time-consuming method, with some obvious concerns about accuracy, the stories and insights uncovered brought the women to life. Finding sources from the perspective of those who actually took part in historical protests has been a major difficulty for me, as well as more established historians (for example Rudé (2005). Raw’s approach brought home the fact that the strikers were human beings, each with their own unique lives, aspirations, and motivations, something which is easy to forget in the midst of conventional archival research. This is a methodology that I hope I can use in my own research.

Sources

Raw, Louise. Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.

Rudé, George. The Crowd in History. London: Serif, 2005 [1964].