When I started writing Things a Bright Girl Can Do, a young adult novel about three teenage girls and the Suffragette movement, I knew little about the Suffragettes beyond what I was taught at school. These are some of the things I learnt as I researched . . .
- There was no such thing as a single ‘suffrage movement’. Like the environmental movement, it was made up of lots of smaller organisations. Some were local groups like the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, some religious like the Friends’ League for Women’s Suffrage, while others were organised by profession like the Actors Franchise League. More militant groups were generally members of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, while those who preferred peaceful methods generally joined Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
- The colours of the WSPU were green, white and violet – which stood for Get Women Votes.
- Suffragettes weren’t all white and middle-class – although Emmeline Pankhurst preferred to recruit from the middle-classes as she thought educated women with time on their hands made better soldiers. East End women and Lancashire mill-girls were some of the most active Suffragettes, however, as were women like Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. In 1920, Sylvia Pankhurst hired Britain’s first black journalist, Claude McKay, to work for The Worker’s Dreadnought, (formerly the Suffragette newspaper The Women’s Dreadnought.)
- Suffrage campaigners weren’t all women either. There was even a Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage who participated in many marches and rallies. Famous male suffrage supporters include HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and the Labour MP Keir Hardy.
- Modern feminism tends to concentrate on the ways in which men and women are similar, but Edwardians saw men and women as very different creatures. Men were more rational, more brave, but also more impulsive and less morally steadfast – women were encouraged to forgive drunk husbands, for example, because they ‘couldn’t help it’. Women were more timid and weaker physically, but they were also angels of patience, virtue and negotiation. Men argued that it wasn’t fair to taint these saintly figures by allowing them into the rough-house world of politics. Women argued that if they really were so steadfast, virtuous and good at finding peaceful solutions to problems, why the hell wouldn’t you want them to have political power?
- You might have heard that women were given the vote as a ‘thank you’ for their war work. This, however, simply isn’t true. It was already clear in 1914 that women had won their battle – the only thing left was for the government to find a way to concede without looking weak. The war provided that. Under previous legislation, men had to be resident in Britain for the twelve months before an election in order to vote, a law which disenfranchised most of the armed forces. Since it was clear that the law would have to be changed, giving women the vote as a ‘thank you’ was simply a way of saving face.
- In fact, many Suffragettes were vehemently anti-war. Emmeline Pankhurst came out very early on in favour of the war, as, somewhat reluctantly, did Millicent Fawcett. However, one of the tenets of the movement was that once women got the vote there would be no more war, as women would never vote to send their sons to be slaughtered. Many suffrage campaigners felt betrayed by Pankhurst and particularly by Fawcett, and many resigned their membership in protest.
- The International Woman Suffrage Alliance did more than just campaign against the war. They organised a Women’s Peace Congress in 1915, with representatives from neutral countries and all countries involved in the war. Over 200 women from Britain were supposed to attend – but the British government cancelled all North Sea shipping to prevent it. The women who attended the conference arranged meetings with government representatives up to and including Woodrow Wilson. The warring nations agreed that – in principle – they would try to negotiate a peace if a neutral nation would facilitate and Sweden agreed – in principle – that they would. Sadly, however, nothing came of it.
- The Suffragettes had many grand ideas about what would happen when women began using their vote. Equal pay rights for men and women! Pensions for spinsters! Old age pensions for all! State orphanages! Financial support for carers and parents! Divorced women to have the right to see their child, and even retain custody! Reading it now, they sound like fantasists. Except . . .