Rise Up, Women: Diane Atkinson's Recommended Revolutionary Reading
Continuing our celebrations marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some women the right to vote, Diane Atkinson, author of an authoratative new history of the women's suffrage movement, Rise Up, Women, recommends her choice of anniversary reading.
The suffragette campaign was a drama that ran for more than a decade. It had constant stars, scores of supporting actors, hundreds of walk-on parts and a vast chorus who created dazzling spectacles, a defiant panorama of first nights, long runs, tragedies, comedies and coups des théâtre. One hundred years after the historic moment when the vote was granted to some women on the 6th of February 1918, it is time to take a fresh look at the daring and painful struggle that eventually achieved political representation for all British women, to reflect on what we would have done in their situation and, above all, to salute them.
Constance Maud, No Surrender
No Surrender, Constance Maud’s novel about the suffragettes’ militant campaign for the vote, was the battle cry of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and the sign-off used by Emily Wilding Davison in all her correspondence. Emily Davison had her deadly dash at the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby preserved on thirty jerky feet of silver nitrate film. When she reviewed No Surrender in the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women she said it was a book: ‘which breathes the very spirit of our Women’s Movement.’ Using thinly-veiled characters, the most identifiable are Annie Kenney, or ‘Jenny Clegg’, and ‘Mary O’Neil’, as Lady Constance Lytton, Constance Maud’s book is an immersive experience, placing the reader at the heart of the dangerous struggle to get women the vote in the years leading up to 1911.
Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story
Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and her daughter Sylvia, wrote autobiographical accounts of their involvement in the suffragette campaign. Emmeline’s My Own Story came out in 1914, and Sylvia’s whopping 609 page The Suffragette Movement, appeared in 1931, three years after all women aged twenty-one and over, were given equal suffrage with men. Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia’s elder sister, the Union’s political and militant strategist was late to the family business of memorizing. Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote was not published until 1959, a year after her death.
Like all memoirs, Emmeline and Sylvia’s books were an opportunity to settle scores, polish stories and revisit slights many years later. As a biographer I find the family dynamics described in the two books fascinating, and as a historian, the details their books reveal is extraordinary. I wondered about the origins of Christabel and Sylvia’s political passion. It was in their DNA: Emmeline Goulden was taken to her first political meeting by her mother in 1863, aged five, her mother had been active in the abolition of slavery movement. And Emmeline’s grandfather, Robert Goulden, told Emmeline about being present at the ‘Battle’ of Peterloo, a dark day in Manchester 1819 when seeing sabre-wielding cavalrymen charge among the crowd to disperse the franchise meeting on St. Peter’s Fields. (The Free Trade Hall now stands on the site.)
Joyce Marlow (Ed), Votes for Women, The Virago Book of Suffragettes an anthology
Joyce Marlow from Manchester, where the Women’s Social and Political Union was born in 1903, was an actress and author of several books about women, who died earlier this year. She compiled a fascinating anthology of contemporary sources relating to the deeply unpopular struggle for votes for women. I believe her understanding of drama make reading this book an insightful and inspiring read, bringing together letters, slivers of autobiographical moments, newspaper cuttings and police reports. Marlow’s Manchester roots expands the suffragette story beyond London and the rattling middle-class china tea-cups.
Anita Anand, Sophia, Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary
Princess Sophia Duleep Singh was a suffragette. A god-daughter of Queen Victoria, Sophia was a New Woman, wore the most advanced fashions of the day, smoked in public, and often appeared in the cycling magazines on her ‘safety bicycle.’ Orphaned as a young girl, she and her siblings were given a grace-and- favour home at Hampton Court. She risked a great deal by refusing to pay her taxes and openly embracing the militant struggle. A photograph of Sophia wearing a fur coat, a satchel slung round her selling copies of the militant paper, The Suffragette, standing next to a newspaper placard shouting REVOLUTION! riled King George V and the cry rang round Buckingham Palace “Can anything be done to stop her?”