Last week, Saturday 8 June, marked the 100-year anniversary of the death of women’s suffrage activist Emily Wilding Davison, best known for her attempt to fix a suffragette banner to the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. She fell under the horse and was trampled, and died of her injuries four days later.
Emily Davison is trampled at the 1913 Epsom Derby
Although her action was censured by many, and she received piles of hate mail over the four days before her death, it received enormous publicity and support as well. Her funeral was organised and attended by leading members of the WSPU and drew great crowds; and her name appears in every GCSE history textbook that mentions the suffragettes.
In the run-up to the centenary of her death, there has been a change in public perception of the suffragettes in general and Emily Davison in particular. In 2008, as one of my internal assessments for my International Baccalaureate, I focused an historical investigation on Davison’s contribution to the cause of votes for women, and, I’m ashamed to say, came to the predictable conclusion that, while popular depictions of Davison as hysterical and suicidal were unjust, her tragic death did little to convince the public in favour of female suffrage, which wasn’t won until women’s contribution to the WWI effort was recognised – and, equally predictably, this conclusion received top marks. In the last few years, however, there has been a tendency to recognise the activism of the suffragettes, at least to the extent that it finally lent urgency and publicity to a campaign that had been underway much longer than is generally known. As early as 1825, William Thompson and Anna Wheeler argued for women to be granted equal political rights; in the 1850s there was a vocal campaign to allow women to sit in Parliament; and many of the great female reformers of the mid- to late-Victorian period were in favour of some form of women’s suffrage.
However, while Emily Davison is now recognised as a martyr to her cause and has been commemorated with various events this year including the placement of a plaque at the Epsom Racecourse, there is still a reluctance to take her or the other suffragettes entirely seriously. A campaign to hold a minute silence at this year’s Derby was dismissed as ‘logistically impossible’. A petition to erect a statue of her in Parliament, which points out that ‘Of the 100 non-royal statues in the Palace of Westminster only 6 are of women’, has got just over 300 signatures thus far. She may no longer be dismissed as suicidal, but the emphasis in the telling of Emily Davison’s story is still on her failure rather than her commitment to the idea of ‘deeds not words’ in a campaign that had been subject to polite and impolite dismissal for well over sixty years.
I am concerned that this sense of dismissal still clings to the memory of the suffragettes, even now that the centenary of the 1913 Derby has helped to bring them back into the public consciousness. Modern-day depictions generally show them as disorganised and incompetent, whether as screaming harridans overcompensating for the boredom of their middle-class existence or dithering spinsters. And, whilst I acknowledge that the suffragette movement did have obvious class limitations and there was a great deal wrong with the politics of leaders such as Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, it is important to note that popular culture is much more inclined to emphasise this in a female-run campaign than in social and political reform movements led by men.
A ‘Votes for Women’ apron: proudly display the WSPU sash – in the privacy of your kitchen!
Whilst men of reforming zeal are honoured in modern-day popular culture with must-watch biopics from Amazing Grace to Diarios de motocicleta, televised commemorations of women’s activism seem inclined to focus predominantly on the littleness and domesticity of their work. Thus, for instance, the strategic brilliance of the suffragette boycott of the 1911 census is represented only by one or two photographs in the Guardian’s ‘Census in Pictures’ feature. And, much as I love my new acquisition, a ‘Votes for Women’ tea towel from the British Library, the idea of printing the slogan on a tea towel is suggestive of a quirkily subversive domesticity that your dinner guests may remark on, in the protective atmosphere of your own kitchen. One example of this persistent notion is the new BBC comedy series Up the Women, the first series of which aired on 30 May. A second series has already been commissioned. Written and produced by women, with a predominantly female cast starring, among others, Judy Parfitt and Vicki Pepperdine, it has an interesting premise, looks lovely in terms of mise-en-scène, brings the suffrage movement back into the public consciousness in an accessible and entertaining way, and sounded like a great idea all round. I enjoyed watching it, but also made me increasingly uncomfortable.
The cast of ‘Up the Women’
Anyone who has ever been involved in grassroots activism will know that organisation comes with practice and experience, so the idea of focusing a sitcom on the comic potential of the mishaps in the early stages of political organisation by people with no experience (and, for social reasons, little natural confidence) is legitimate, as is the occasionally heart-warming development of a sense of solidarity and independence amongst the women united by a common cause. But the women of the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Requests Female Suffrage are singularly inept – so much so that it becomes historically inaccurate. The campaign for women’s suffrage emerged from an increasingly politicised tradition of women’s work for social reform: middle-class women had spent the second half of the nineteenth century carving out a niche for themselves in the public sphere, and there was an increasing sense of women proving their worth and ability through social and political organisation. In Victorian Women, Joan Perkin makes clear that,
‘For centuries prior to the Victorian era, upper-class English women were engaged in charitable activities on behalf of the poor and sick. Philanthropy, usually performed under the auspices of religious bodies, was long considered the proper work for privileged women. They also had no hesitation in getting involved in politics. Although women did not sit in Parliament, they expected to exert direct influence over their friends who did, and gain patronage for their relatives, friends and protégés. The greatest families kept large town houses and used them as centres of national politics. More important than any formal education, perhaps, was the knowledge of politics that upper-class girls absorbed from adolescence onwards.’ (1993: 202)
It is true that the characters in Up the Women are predominantly lower-middle and middle-middle class, but to them middle-class female social reformers such as Florence Nightingale, Emily Hobhouse and Josephine Butler, who had definite political affiliations, would have been held up as examples. Despite what the tableau in the third episode suggests, the Queen of Sheba and the Virgin Mary were not the only role models available to female activists in 1910.
The characters, furthermore, are caricatured to an extent that cannot be explained or excused as merely ironic. Each ‘archetype’ of woman – the self-effacing spinster, the serial mother, the skilled social climber and her tempestuous young daughter and aged nymphomaniac mother, and even the self-educated organiser conquering her own insecurities to rally her sisters and break out of her enforced petty idleness – is out of touch and, at bottom, simply dim. And although the men are, if possible, even dimmer and weaker, and this is skilfully and hilariously used to discredit contemporary anti-suffrage arguments, one feels the fight for women’s suffrage should not be based on the fact that most women and men are as slow as each other.
In the end, despite the popular revival of the suffragette image, the fact remains that while men, even (one would suggest most military and political strategists) those who bungled, get statues and biographies and dramatised biopics, revolutionary women receive hate mail and are depicted as hysterical for generations, only to be reclaimed with cake, sitcoms and tea towels.