On This Day: NUWSS Suffrage Procession, 13th June 1908

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Banner bearers at the NUWSS’s Suffrage Procession on the 13th of June 1908. The photo was taken by professional photographer, Christina Broom (Source: Museum of London).

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.

NUWSS Bugler girl tea towel

Designed by Caroline Watts, the Bugler Girl became of the most recognisable images of the suffrage campaign (Source: radicalteatowel.co.uk).

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.

NUWSS Suffrage Procession Programme

The souvenir programme for the march and meeting (Source: Woman and her Sphere).

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.

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The banner designed by the ASL for the Huddersfield and District branch of the NUWSS, to carry with them during the Suffrage Procession (Source: Kirlees Museums and Galleries/Woman and her Sphere).

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

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…

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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.

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.