Do today’s tweeting feminists have anything in common with window smashing suffragettes?

Today, February 6th 2018, is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which gave all men over 21 the right to vote. Women over the age of 30 who owned property were given the right to vote for the first time. Although this enfranchised just 40% of women, it was a landmark moment in the fight for equality. This small victory was won by over fifty years of active campaigning by women.

At Historic Royal Palaces, like many institutions across the U.K, we are taking the centenary as an opportunity to remember some of the many women who fought and suffered for the others to benefit from this basic benchmark of human rights.

The actions of Leonora Cohen, the ‘Tower Suffragette’ epitomize the violent protests that are most associated with the suffrage movement. On February 1st 1913, she eluded the security at the entrance to the Tower of London. Concealed in her coat was a crow bar. Attached to it by a purple ribbon was a green label with the words, ‘This is my protest against the Government’s treachery to the working women of Great Britain’. She sneaked into the Wakefield Tower where the Crown Jewels were housed and flung the crow bar at the display, smashing the glass case. She was arrested on the spot by Yeoman Warders. When asked why she committed her crime, she calmly repeated the words attached to her crow bar.

Leonora’s protest in the Tower was but one of thousands of disruptive deeds carried out by the suffragettes. This included smashing windows, setting off bombs, marching and pouring acid over golf courses.

That we’re celebrating and remembering the activism of women past in 2018 feels timely because women are on the march again. The peaceful protests and catchy hashtags that we associate with contemporary feminism on the surface appear very different from the protests staged by the suffragettes a century ago. However, if we look more closely we can draw many parallels.

Knitted Pussy hats created a sea of pink during the women’s marches of 2017 and 2018. For many protesters, the fact that they are knitted by hand is of central importance. Their creators deliberately choose to subvert a traditionally female pursuit as an act of protest.

Making banners for a Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU) rally, 1910. © The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library

Similarly, the banners carried by women during protest marches in the early 1900s were often embroidered. Perhaps the most beautiful example was designed by the horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll for the Godalming branch of the NUWSS. A white background simply says ‘Godalming’, surrounded by a wreath of red roses. Embroidery was a way of differentiating the banners of the women’s movement from the banners created by the male dominated Trade Union Movement, which were usually painted. The intricately embroidered banners also showcased the work of professional needlewomen, strengthening their demands for a fair wage.

The exploitation of communication technology is something that both current and past movements share. Through social media today women can share ideas instantly and arrange gatherings quickly and easily. The early 1900s also saw significant advances in communication. The Royal Mail had become so efficient that in London there could be as many as 12 deliveries of mail per day, allowing women to communicate quickly and in some cases arrange rallies in the space of a day.

Christabel Pankhurst leading a suffragette procession, 17 June 1911 © The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library

Elements of the #MeToo movement would also have been recognisable to the suffrage movement of a century ago. Between 15 – 24 October 2017, #MeToo was tweeted 1.7 million times. The suffrage movement began with a similar outpouring of female experiences. The philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill promised to his female friends, Elisabeth Garett, Barbara Boudichon and Emily Davies that he would argue for women’s suffrage in parliament if, and only if, they could gather 100 signatures for a petition. In fact, they gathered 1,389 signatures. Parliament was shocked and the tabloid press were frenzied – exactly as they would be in the midst of last year’s social media storm, almost a century later.

The greatest parallel between the suffrage movement of the early 20th century and the 21st century feminist movement is that their aims are strikingly similar, and some of their causes remain. Women did not throw themselves under horses or endure the humiliations of force-feeding merely for the pleasure of queuing and putting a piece of paper in a ballot box on a rainy day. They fought so that the situation of women might be changed. What drove Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU, were her experiences as a registrar in Manchester. She saw and recorded firsthand the births of children conceived through rape and the deaths of women as the result of domestic violence. Leonora Cohen was motivated by the need of women to receive a fair wage. She and her mother were both seamstresses in Leeds and so was well aware of how poor wages could be for women in the textile industry. Again and again upon her arrest and during her trial she would state how her protest was on behalf of the working women of Great Britain. Today, women tweet, march and knit not for the abstract concepts of feminism or equality, but for tangible outcomes. Amongst their many wishes, an end to gender based violence and fair wages for all are still top of the list.

Polly Putnam

Don’t miss Votes and Voices, our programme of events celebrating 100 years of the Representation of the People Act.

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