Monday, October 10, 2011

Votes for Women

It’s only a matter of weeks before the latest Persephone books hit the shelves, particularly exciting this time because of Constance Maud’s ‘No Surrender’. It may be that I’m missing something obvious but it seems to me that the battle for women’s suffrage is rather glossed over in popular history. What I remember from school is the Pankhurst’s, from university a few details about the contagious diseases act more Pankhurst’s and somewhere along the line a mention of Millicent Garrett Fawcett. I definitely came away with the impression that it was a middle class movement, that Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst got women the vote almost single handed, and that Emily Davison should have known better.  

I can’t remember how I came by ‘Votes for Women, The Virago Book of Suffragettes’ but it was an eye opener which made me hunt out more books which wasn’t as easy as I imagined it might be – everything had to come from amazon; I had neither internet or computer at the time so it was more of an effort than it sounds. As history goes this is really quite exciting stuff filled with character, action, injustice, faith, betrayal, feuds, and scandal - also it makes a nice change from The War (actually come to think of it either War) so why isn’t it more popular? The edited highlights that I was taught hardly do justice to the history.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, about Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett, and Millicent Garret (Fawcett). Emily and Elizabeth were friends and the tale goes that one night when Emily was staying with the Garrett’s the two older girls and a much younger Millie were sat by the fire talking about the women’s cause. Eventually Emily sums the matter up like this; she would secure higher education for women - she went on to co-found Girton College, Elizabeth would open up the medical profession – she became a doctor after a long struggle - the second woman to have her name on the U.K. Medical Register, the first to have qualified to do so in Britain. After that they decided that Millie would have to get votes for women which arguably she did far more towards than the Pankhurst’s and all their stunts.

I haven’t been able to find a biography of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and do not understand why her name isn’t better known. It bothers me to that the role that working woman played in demanding a vote isn’t celebrated more. I was taught plenty about how perfectly foul conditions were for working women in mills and factories across the country – long hours, low pay, harsh conditions. I don’t remember being taught that a strengthening trade union movement refused to admit female co-workers, or actively sought to keep women out of better paid employment, or that the emergent Labour party turned its back on working women.

So there you have it, some of the reasons why I’m really quite excited by the prospect of having another piece of Suffragette literature to add to a collection which fiction wise pretty much consists of H.G. Wells’ ‘Ann Veronica’, a mention in E.F. Benson’s ‘Mrs Ames’, and Cicely Hamilton’s ‘William - an Englishman’ (which is also a Persephone book). Any suggestion for more would be gratefully received. 


  1. Women's suffrage plays a small part in Kate O'Brien's Land of Spices. I don't think it's covered in any detail in US high schools, or even general college history courses. But then I don't know much except the US side - this book sounds fascinating.

  2. I don't know much about how suffrage worked in America, I see from my Virago book of Suffragettes that the state of Wyoming was the first to give woman the vote in 1869 so I'm guessing this means women didn't do the whole militant thing or the cycle of prison and hunger strikes.

    The Virago book is fascinating, it's a collection of extracts from newspapers, letters, diaries, books and more which brings the whole struggle to life. It's years since I read it properly and I'm wondering if I have the time to go through it cover to cover again in the next few weeks.

  3. There is a suffragette character in Vera Brittain's Honourable Estate - she is based on VB's own mother-in-law, and has quite a lot of space devoted to her. The Virago book sounds great - thanks for writing about it.

  4. Tanya, thanks for that - as luck would have it I have copies of both these books waiting to be read.

  5. Reading "No Surrender", like you I felt as if I did not know the Sufraggette movement. I always thought it was a middle class movement, so having a working class protagonist really opened my eyes. I know little about the British sufraggette movement, although I did a paper on the Pankhurst in my first year of university. I feel there is a lot of exciting things yet to learn and I can't wait to get my hands on the Virago book.

  6. Iris, the Virago book is quite good, very easy to read because it's all small extracts from contemporary sources, very informative, and mildly shocking in the way it exposed just how little I knew about a subject that's always interested me. Virago also published a memoir called 'The Hard Way Up' by Hannah Mitchell who was a working class suffragette. It turns up in charity shops from time to time and I got a copy recently which I should read...