International Woman’s Day and the Suffragettes

Headline Date 26-02-2018

In a year marking 100 years since women’s suffrage, this month brings International Women’s Day on 8th March 2018. In February  Combination Dance performed a flash mob in Victoria Station, accompanied by a film titled Deeds not Words commemorating Emily Davison’s tragic last day at the Derby in Epsom. The performance highlighted the echoing of past stories through to today, and how equality is something still being worked towards. This movement was pioneered by a group of women from the late 1800’s onwards, paving the way for the progress that has now been made, and setting the stage for further leaps and bounds in the direction of gender equality.

As activists working towards women’s rights to vote, the Suffragettes were predominantly members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The history of the fight towards equality and having a say in a nation both genders were a part of, started well before this. In the 1860’s John Stuart Mill, a British civil servant, wrote an essay in favour of equality of the sexes. Meanwhile, a discussion group called the Kensington Society was promoting higher education for females. Mill presented a petition in Parliament created by this group with participants including Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Josephine Butler and Mary Somerville. He also proposed that the 1867 Reform Act was amended to give women and men equal rights, however this proposition was slighted by Members of Parliament.

By 1868 the first meeting on women’s suffrage was held in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, amongst the attendants there sat an adolescent Emmeline Goulden, who would later marry Dr. Pankhurst. By 1903, a now married Emmeline Pankhurst had grown tired of being patient and created a breakaway group from the goings on in attempted women’s rights. It was that evening on 10th October that saw the creation of the WSPU. These new and eager members were ready to take action, committing themselves to their motto: Deeds, not words.

The political groups fighting for these rights were treated harshly by the media, with Charles E. Hands at the London Daily Mail first labelling these women as ‘suffragettes.’ However, these ladies embraced the term, using it to their advantage by hardening the get, and calling themselves Suffragettes, implying they would not merely attempt to, but would get the vote. Their activism was launched and continued to grow, with quintessential Suffragette purple, green and white flags; banners; signs and chants. They became used to getting arrested and assaulted, had taunts thrown at them, were treated with derision and ridiculed in the media. Nevertheless, they were not alone. The movement continued to grow with popular London stores, Selfridges and Liberty, selling garments and accessories in Suffragette colours. Mappin & Webb issued a Christmas catalogue of jewellery, whilst the WSPU had created their own board game.

Fashion alone would not achieve what the Suffragettes set out to do. By 1912 they had turned to more aggressive means of activism: setting fire to post boxes, chaining themselves to railings, smashing windows and detonating small bombs. Just a year later Emily Davison made the ultimate sacrifice for the cause. Whether it was or was not intentional – a debate that will never reach an end, however her return ticket and future holiday plans would point to it being a freak accident – Davison being trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby whilst wearing a suffragette-coloured scarf brought attention to the cause, and a feeling of urgency.

Just a year later, World War One broke out, and the sense of desperation to obtain equal rights for women was overtaken by the survival of British citizens, their country and way of life. Whilst some political groups continues to take action, the WSPU suffragettes’ acts ground to a halt. They were released from prison, and their political activities were traded in for energy and focus on working towards the war effort. In turn, their reputation began to improve as the country witnessed a workforce unparalleled in determination and unity, with women taking on additional roles traditionally belonging to males.

The combined efforts of the suffragettes caused parliament to draw up compromises including the Representation of the People Act in 1918. This act declared that women over the age of 30, meeting certain requirements, were given the right to vote. A decade later this was extended to all females over the age of 21, as well as giving women the opportunity to be elected into parliament. Women’s rights have come a long way since the 1860’s, but as Victoria BID’s moving presentation in February reminded onlookers: we’re not there yet.


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