Celebrating Women's Writing: Recommended Reading on Women's Suffrage
February 2018 marks the celebration of 100 years of women’s right to vote and in celebration we’re gathering together 100 books by women which represent the wealth and diversity of women’s writing throughout history.
Here, in the first of our articles presenting our Waterstones Women’s 100, we bring together a selection of reading illuminating the history of women’s suffrage, including some of the best new writing for 2018. These books form part of a continuing story. A recognition of how far we have come in the last hundred years, they also remind us of the importance of cherishing and using our hard-won rights today and how, in an era still mired in gender inequity, the fight for women’s equality is as relevant now as it was a century ago.
“You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.” - Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragette leader
Stretching from the industrial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century, through the punishing years of the First World War, to 1928, when women finally achieved full voting rights, the history of women’s suffrage in Britain is much more than emblematic purple, green and white banners and the Epsom Derby.
For readers just getting started, there’s a wealth of brilliant writing to explore. Penguin’s Little Black Classic guide, The Suffragettes, is a perfect, digestible introduction that can handily be read in a train ride. Providing an easily accessible guide to the women who made the movement, Jenni Murray’s collected Votes For Women!: The Pioneers and Heroines of Female Suffrage introduces some of the figureheads of early British women’s rights, including notable suffragists Mary Fawcett (a champion of women’s education who co-founded Newnham College, Cambridge) and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who was not only a powerful campaigner but also (somehow) found time to become the first qualified female English physician.
For those looking to dig more deeply, Joyce Marlow’s, Suffragettes, The Fight for Votes for Women is a classic history of the movement, plunging readers into the atmosphere of the period. It’s complemented by Diane Atkinson’s 2018 work, Rise Up Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, which aims to give a full picture of lives from every area of society, giving voice to women whose stories have traditionally been ignored. Her book introduces us to a fantastic cast, from a 16-year-old boot-maker from Huddersfield and ‘slasher Mary’ Richardson who famously attacked The Rokeby Venus, to (my personal favourite) music hall performer Kitty Marion who, Atkinson writes, ‘refused to go quietly’, kicking in a window of the taxi taking her to prison and subsequently breaking everything in her cell and barricading herself inside to prevent force-feeding. 'I found blessed relief to my feelings', she later wrote, 'in screaming'.
Atkinson’s emphasis on the multiple factions and faces of women’s suffrage is strongly echoed by Jane Robinson’s new book, Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage. Taking as its focus the 1913 women’s march, it highlights a crucial turning point in history; showing how passive protest (as much as suffragette militantism) provided a beacon, galvanising women from all walks of life, across the country.
Illustrating just how widely the impact of the cause extended, Anita Anand's Sophia, is a fascinating portrait of an extraordinary woman: Sophia Duleep Singh, a Sikh princess born into riches and aristocracy (Queen Victoria was her godmother) who became a passionate campaigner for women's suffrage. Exchanging her silks for a nurse's uniform she became a strident voice, fighting not only for women's rights but also Indian independence and the equal treatment of Indian soldiers in the First World War.
No celebration of the women’s vote would be complete, of course, without mention of the Pankhursts; two generations of women who spearheaded the women’s movement, whilst holding fiercely opposing views on its methods. Appropriately bookending the century, two insightful accounts by members of the Pankhurst family provide a window into the cause and cost of suffrage. The direct inspiration for the film Suffragette, Emeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story is the seminal, first-hand account of a woman fired by a lifelong ideal, from her early years as a teenage suffragist to her death in 1928, tragically just 18 days before women achieved full voting equality.
Continuing the tradition, her great-granddaughter Helen Pankhurst’s new book, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women's Rights - Then and Now, aims to reflect the contemporary relevance of the movement. Divided into two parts, Pankhurst work celebrates her great-grandmother's vision before considering her legacy for women's liberation today.
The Pankhurst story also proves an ideal doorway for teaching even the youngest readers about pioneering women of the past. Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the titles in the The Little People, Big Dreams series, puts her life and works into a simple, boldly illustrated picture book that makes for inspirational bedtime reading. For a range of reading ages, Rebel Voices uses a mixture of text and eye-catching graphic design (much in the style of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls) to put women's history into a global context, with stories of struggle in 1920’s Ecuador to the Black Sash anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Meanwhile, for older readers, Sally Nicholls’ Things A Bright Girl Can Do - a fictional account of three young women caught up in the fever of the suffragette movement – conjures the bravery, tumult and danger of the struggle. Capturing the spirit of the age, it’s an engaging way into the period that delivers a stirring message about what women of the future might accomplish.
As we look ahead into a new century of women’s activism, it seems approproate to give the final word to the living women who saw it all first-hand. The Century Girls: The Final Word from the Women Who've Lived the Last Hundred Years of British History considers just how much things can change through the real lives of six very different women who witnessed it all. Letting these women’s stories speak for themselves, Tessa Dunlop offers an fascinating, humbling picture of everyday women’s lives that are anything but ordinary. 'The world they were born into is unrecognisable today', she writes, 'they are true survivors'.