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Suffrage Statutes and Statues: Reflections on Commemorating Milestones in the History of Women’s Emancipation in Britain

Julie Gottlieb
p. 159-180

Abstract

En 2018 le Royaume Uni a célébré le centenaire du premier texte de loi “Representation of the People Act 1918” accordant à certaines femmes le droit de vote. Les commémorations à travers le pays ont donné lieu à l’organisation de nombreuses manifestations culturelles, d’expositions et d’inaugurations de statues pour marquer cet événement majeur dans l’histoire du pays. L’auteur en tant “qu’historien participant” a pu contribuer au choix des militantes représentées sur la statue de l’artiste Gillian Wearing, statue érigée sur Parliament Square à Londres et inaugurée en avril 2018. Ce centième anniversaire permet d’évaluer ce qui fut obtenu en 1918, mais également d’analyser en rétrospective d’autres commémorations du XXe siècle, révélant ainsi la spécificité de certaines périodes historiques. Cette analyse permet en outre d’établir une continuité dans la narration mémorielle autour de ce moment fondamental de l’histoire du droit des femmes. Plus largement cet article entend également démontrer comment les commémorations de 2018 peuvent inspirer, motiver et mobiliser les nouvelles générations à s’engager dans la défense des droits des femmes.

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1The expectations, as well as the opportunities, in academia in the UK have been changing in significant ways over the past decade, and ever since the 2014 Research Excellent Framework (REF) demanded that researchers make and meticulously measure the “impact” of their work. For many historians this has provided recognition of what so many of us have already been doing, whether in the sense of reaching out to wider audiences, public engagement, inspiring and informing the heritage sector, and acting as consultants on an array of projects in the public sphere. For historians specializing in the history of the women’s movement and the feminization of politics, the centenary of women’s (partial) suffrage in the UK with the passage of the Representation of the People Act (1918) was just such an opportunity—a once-in-a-lifetime, and a once-in-a-century opportunity—to shape civic events and permanent memorials. In turn, the centenary experience has, for many, shaped or redirected their own research trajectories. A large number of high-profile projects were launched to mark the suffrage centenary across the United Kingdom, with mainly enthusiastic state support (and funding) to strike a more celebratory note at the tail end of the First World War centenary.1

  • 2 Two of my own projects anticipated the centenary and the way it would be historicized and celebrate (...)

2As a historian of British women and politics in this period, I was able to experience the centenary and, in my own small way, influence the framing of the commemoration. I was involved as, what I would term, a participant-historian, by which I mean someone who has been witness to a historic project of memorialization and who has had some influence on the ways in which memorialization has taken place. This was a role that I had not anticipated playing, but it has been one that I am grateful to have had the opportunity to play in the run up to, during the centenary year, and indeed since 2018.2 This included acting as a historical consultant to Turner-prize winning artist Gillian Wearing as she designed the statue of Millicent Fawcett that now stands tall in Parliament Square, and especially guiding Wearing in the choice of the 59 suffrage figures who are etched into the statue’s plinth; curating the Suffrage 100 strand of Sheffield’s literary festival Off the Shelf in the autumn of 2018, one of the largest and most accessible literary festivals in the UK; entering into an exciting collaboration with dancer/choreographer Freddie Garland on her major performance piece ‘Women’s Movement 100’; and working closely with mosaic artist Coralie Turpin on the historical conceptualization of her installation ‘Anne Knight and the Dawning of the Women’s Movement in the UK’ for the new student accommodation building at the University of Sheffield. The suffrage centenary spawned the widest array of imaginative local, city-wide, regional, and national initiatives. While London and Manchester are more commonly known and embraced as ‘suffrage cities’, it was gratifying that, for example, Sheffield did so much to mark the centenary, especially as Quaker, Chartist, abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Anne Knight (1786-1862) had been instrumental in establishing the first British women’s suffrage society in Sheffield in 1851.

3A measure of the success of the suffrage centenary events, and their coordination, can be seen in how celebrations have continued into 2019 and 2020, building on the momentum of Vote 100. For instance, in 2019 the Astor100 project got underway, marking 100 years of women in Parliament. Nancy Astor won a by-election in Plymouth in 1919, and she was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Astor 100 is a multivalent set of events directed by historian Jacqui Turner at the University of Reading, where Nancy Astor’s papers are held, and includes a new statue of Astor outside her former constituency office in Plymouth. Further, 2019 saw the publication of Rachel Reeves MP’s deeply researched and lively account of women’s contribution to Parliamentary politics over the past 100 years, and Women of Westminster (2019) was launched in Parliament in March with addresses by Theresa May, Harriet Harman, and John Bercow. Another milestone to celebrate in 2019 was the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, and therefore the Women’s History Network themed its annual conference ‘Professional Women: the public, the private, and the political’.

4This essay is based on the keynote address I delivered at the conference “Female Suffrage in British Art, Literature and History”, hosted by Université Toulouse Jean Jaures, in May, 2018. The aim is not to provide a narrative of events or a traditional exposition of research findings, but rather to offer some reflections on the construction of commemoration and the memory and meaning of women’s suffrage from my point of view as a small cog in the large wheel of the commemoration of the suffrage centenary.

5Indeed, in 2018 there was a bumper crop of anniversary milestones in the story of women’s citizenship. The most dramatic one was the centenary of the Representation of the People Act that introduced universal manhood suffrage from the age of 21, and gave the vote to women who were over the age of 30, who were householders or the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5 or more, or graduates of British universities. Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, it only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act that was passed in October 1918 and allowed women to stand for Parliament. Seventeen women availed themselves of this opportunity in December of that year; of these 17, only one was elected but as a Sinn Fein candidate Countess Markievicz did not take her seat, and she was also in prison at the time of the General Election. It was the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise, popularly dubbed the Flapper’s Vote, probably a more fitting last chapter in the story of women’s political emancipation. Significantly, the team behind Vote 100 is already planning for the centenary celebrations of the equal franchise in 2028. In addition, 2018 was the 60th anniversary of the Life Peerages Act which allowed women to sit in the House of Lords, representing the removal of the last bar to women participating in government.

  • 3 Helen Pankhurst, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now, London: Sceptre Books (...)
  • 4 These considerations were already apparent in the commemoration of the centenary of the founding of (...)
  • 5 Jacqueline R. deVries, “Popular and Smart: Why Scholarship on Women’s Suffrage in Britain Still Mat (...)

6While sometimes it feels that these anniversary celebration are the consequence of a tyranny of the calendar, in 2018 the timing was resonant, especially against the backdrop of a new wave of anti-feminism on a global scale, the response to that in the form of #Me Too and a cresting new wave of feminism, and not to mention the coincidence of the suffrage anniversary with the time in office of Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, and second Conservative woman. It was a poignant moment in time to take stock, to measure progress, to sound the alarm about regress, and to motivate future activism. Helen Pankhurst’s Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now (London: Spectre Books, 2018) made a success of braiding together those three impulses, and the great grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst was one of many who seized the occasion of the centenary to call “for increased vigilance and activism”, reminding us that “we need to look back to better understand where we are going—and then we need to keep making waves”.3 Anniversaries are not merely moments for reflection and for indulging in nostalgia and antiquarian curiosities. Anniversaries function to establish the narrative and/or change the conversation, to safeguard memories and to further define public memory, and to valorize and legitimize.4 Anniversaries can also inspire, motivate and mobilize.5

7Before we reflect on how various stakeholders imposed narratives and drew meaning from the suffrage centenary, it is important to consider how the suffrage movement and women’s enfranchisement has been celebrated by successive generations. In both 1939 and in 1968, for instance, there was a direct correlation between the celebrations of the women’s suffrage milestone and a new phase of the women’s movement. From there, we can consider how the centenary has been memorialized and, with a number of statues erected or being erected, how certain narratives of the women’s suffrage struggle have been cast, both figuratively and literally. These statues to mark the Representation of the People Act of 1918, that most important statute in the story of representative democracy, arguably tell us far more about the times we are living in than they do about the persons they are representing.

8The campaigns to get these statues made, financed, and passed through planning, and the struggles and clashes in public meetings and in the media (magnified and intensified through social media) about who should be atop the plinths and where they should be situated will, no doubt, help historians of the future define the state of sexual and cultural politics in early 21st century Britain. The most high-profile of these statues is that of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and it was unveiled on 24 April, 2018 in Parliament Square, London. This is the first statue of a woman in Parliament Square, the first woman to keep company with eleven figures that include Benjamin Disraeli, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.

9Fawcett was certainly less dramatic and spectacular than suffragette leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, but not necessarily any less effective. Fawcett’s commitment to the cause started in 1867, and she lived to see the Equal Franchise passed in 1928. She died in 1929.6 The choice of Fawcett as the figure to immortalize the suffrage movement—a decision that predated the artist Gillian Wearing’s involvement and that of the historians consulted—was itself controversial. The most outspoken opponent of Fawcett as the figure atop the plinth was Prof. June Purvis, the founding editor of Women’s History Review and the biographer of both Emmeline and more recently of Christabel Pankhurst.7 Throughout her career Purvis has herself made a monumental contribution to women’s history in Britain and beyond, as a tireless academic researcher, a highly effective public historian, a great champion of suffrage studies, and as an ambassador for the field. Her concern was that the persuasive—albeit not the only—narrative that it was thanks to Emmeline Pankhurst and her organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union (founded in 1903), that women finally won the vote would be undermined if it was Fawcett who stood tall in Parliament Square. Both in terms of scholarly attention and public awareness, it is the WSPU’s innovative publicity and their self-sacrificial militancy that has been in the limelight for more than a century, overshadowing what in comparison was seen to be the more plodding work of the NUWSS. Purvis pointed out the campaign via an online petition led by young feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez who had initially put the case for “a suffragette” in the all-male Parliament Square.8 While some historians and other public figures were sympathetic to Purvis’s viewpoint, others pointed out that there has been a monument for Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst since 1930, now situated next to the Houses of Parliament. Therefore it was difficult to argue that Emmeline Pankhurst had been blotted out of national memory. The heatedness of the public debate, at the very least, did much to excite public interest and raise awareness of the stories of suffrage and of the competing narratives framing the centenary.

10Shortly after her death, Emmeline Pankhurst’s supporters launched the campaign to erect a statue to her memory, and this has been standing since 1930, now located in Victoria Tower Gardens. While the statue was the result of a private initiative and the money was raised through private subscription, it immediately received official sanction. Indeed, it was a Conservative government that passed the Equal Franchise Act (1928), and it was Stanley Baldwin who unveiled Mr A.G. Walker’s statue of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst on 6 March, 1930, in London.

11The party’s internal publication Home and Empire described the event as follows:

However opinions may differ about the methods employed by Mrs Pankhurst and her followers in their fight to secure votes for women, no one ever questioned her honesty of purpose and self-sacrificing zeal. It is appropriate that the Conservative leader should unveil the statue, for it was the Conservative Government, with Mr Baldwin at its head, which carried out the programme of the Women’s Social and Political Union by granting “the Parliamentary vote to women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men.” After the fight has been won Mrs. Pankhurst realised that the Conservative Party held outmost hope of improved conditions for the women of the country, and became an energetic worker in its ranks. (Home and Empire, 1930)

  • 9 See G. Maguire, Conservative Women: A History of Women in the Conservative Party, 1874-1997, Basing (...)

12Together with the casting of Pankhurst’s statue, by 1930 Baldwin was only too ready to recast his party’s record on an issue that had been so fractured. Complex and contradictory though it is, we must not shy away from the history of Conservative suffragism and, more broadly, the place of Tory women in the story of women’s emancipation.9

Competing explanations and narratives of how the vote was won

  • 10 See Lyndsey Jenkins, “Feminist Energy vs Vehement Opposition,” History Today, Vol. 68, Issue 9, Sep (...)

13These debates in 2017-18 have been well rehearsed since women’s enfranchisement was attained.10 The battle lines in the history wars over women’s suffrage have been drawn around the question of who, which faction and what individuals, deserve credit as the emancipators of British women. Broadly speaking, the main controversies and differences of opinion about how and why the vote was won and who deserves the most credit are as follows, and in most cases this is a difference of emphasis, point of view, and political or “presentist” perspective:

14First, a dominant line of argument is that the WSPU liberated women. They were the radicals, the revolutionaries, and it was the WSPU that furnished the cause with its martyrs, first and foremost Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at Epsom in 1913. Of course, it was this reading of women’s militancy that made it to the big screen in director Sarah Gavron’s feature film Suffragette (2015), and Lucy Worsley’s drama-documentary The Suffragettes (aired in 2018).11 This way of telling the story is persuasive, powerful, and emotionally satisfying.12 However, it can also descend into hagiography and romanticisation.13

  • 14 See C.J. Bearman, “An Examination of Suffragette Violence,” English Historical Review, Vol. 120, Is (...)
  • 15 R. Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain (1928, reprinted 1 (...)

15On the other hand, there is a heated—and sometimes to boiling point—debate about whether the suffragettes were terrorists, both by the standard of their time and according to more contemporary definitions. The analogy between suffragettes and terrorists tend to accompany the position that terrorism never wins out as the government cannot be seen to give in to political violence, and that not all publicity is good publicity.14 Further, those who have been to various degrees critical of the Pankhursts point to the authoritarianism of the WSPU, and the irony that it was an organization pursuing a democratic goal that eschewed democratic methods in its own politics.15

  • 16 See S.S. Holton, Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918 (...)

16Second, there has always been some sympathy but not nearly as much passionate commitment to the view that the NUWSS and the constitutionalists delivered the vote. In this line of argument it is emphasized how their strategy was the better one: gradualism, targeting politicians, working with MPs, petitioning, orderly marches, cross-party efforts, and working with the nascent Labour Party.16

  • 17 N. Gullace, “The Blood of Our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During (...)

17Third, another common answer to the question why women were granted the vote, and why in 1918, was that it was the war that made all the difference.17 Women earned their citizenship through war work, and through patriotic and national service. Indeed, this was a popular narrative among Conservatives between the wars, especially when the party was working to secure women’s votes while simultaneously appealing to women who did not identify as feminists. Related to the above, during the war the basis for citizenship shifted from gender (a biologically determined definition of citizenship) to patriotism. For instance, conscientious objectors were disenfranchised, whereas the national service of men made the case for their universal suffrage and women’s service made the case for women’s votes, albeit not full.

  • 18 See Jad Adams, Women & the Vote: A World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

18A more long-duree explanation, and one that usually has little to say about women’s activism and their agency, is that there was an inbuilt inevitability about women’s suffrage after a century of suffrage agitation, from Peterloo, to the Chartists, to the reform Acts in 1832, 1867, and 1884. In this sense, full manhood and women’s suffrage would have come one way or another.18 Following this line, the suggestion is that the militant suffrage campaign retarded the process, and that war acted as the decisive catalyst. The main flaw of this argument is that it is counterfactual and the women’s suffrage movement is either diminished or written out of constitutional history.

  • 19 See Krista Cowman, “A footnote in history? Mary Gawthorpe, Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette moveme (...)
  • 20 Women in Parliament: Key Speeches: Past and Present (Houses of Parliament), p. 8.

19What happened after the vote was won to the two core organizations of the women’s suffrage movement? The NUWSS carried on with its work and moved on to other feminist campaigns after the First World War when it rebranded itself the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship in 1919, Eleanor Rathbone serving as NUSEC president after Fawcett. In contrast, the successor organization of the WSPU was the Suffragette Fellowship.19 The purpose of the Suffragette Fellowship was not practical action but to encourage former militants to preserve their stories through life writing. This is another good reason why the suffragettes have been so well represented in history writing. Yet it was Fawcett who was there from the beginning and to the bitter end. In 1928 she confided in her diary, after attending Parliament to see the vote on the Equal Franchise Act take place: “It is almost exactly 61 years ago since I heard John Stuart Mill introduce his suffrage amendment to the Reform Bill on May 20th, 1867. So I have had extraordinary good luck in having seen the struggle from the beginning”.20

20What is clear is how powerful and pervasive public representations of each of these narratives can be. It should not be controversial to say that up till now the militants have fared better in this regard. The ubiquity of the WSPU’s purple, green and white tricolor is a vivid example of that. Even at the unveiling of Fawcett’s statue in April, 2018, the WSPU’s colors were the dominant motif, the curators of the statue and of the unveiling ceremony accepting that the NUWSS’s tricolor of green, white and red should be represented where possible— every second flag pole around Parliament Square flew the NUWSS’s colors—but that the WSPU colors would have been instantly recognized by the media and the crowds.

Memory and memorials

21From mapping the battle lines in the scholarly and political debates about women’s suffrage, we can now turn to the battles over memory. Earlier anniversary celebrations of this very same milestone, the first votes for women, are instructive, and we now turn to the 21st birthday of votes for women in 1939, and then the 50th anniversary in 1968.

22In 1939, as British women and men almost certainly faced a second world war, they nonetheless took pause to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Representation of the People Act. It should be explained why 21st and not 20th, and this is because the voting age was then 21 years of age, and since 1928 men and women had equal franchise rights. Further, the number would have had added significance as women born in 1918 when the Representation of the People Act was passed would have been turning 21 in 1939, reaching voting age.

  • 21 “Asquith’s Daughter Speaks out”, Manchester Guardian, February 23, 1939.
  • 22 “Commemoration of Women’s Suffrage,” The Times, March 18, 1939.

23In February 1939, many pioneers of the constitutional suffrage movement, the NUWSS, gathered, appropriately enough, at Millicent Fawcett Hall, Westminster. This was a gathering for the non-militants, with Lord Cecil, president of the society, as guest of honour, and including Lord Dickinson and Mr Pethick-Lawrence, while MPs Ellen Wilkinson, a former organiser for the society, and Lady Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat, came over from the House of Commons.21 A couple of weeks later a better-attended function was held at the Criterion Restaurant, and hosted by the National Council for Equal Citizenship. Mrs Hubback, who had been the Parliamentary secretary to the NUWSS when the Act granting suffrage to women was passed, made the fitting point that “no State could consider itself a complete democracy unless it called upon its women citizens as well as its men to assume civic, political, and social responsibilities”22, a clear reference to the mistreatment of women in fascist countries and the setbacks to women’s emancipation under dictatorship. Lady Astor (whose message was delivered in her absence) gauged progress by the measure of the proportion of women in public office and the professions. There had been a few breakthroughs to be sure but progress was slow and at that moment there were 12 women to 600 men in Parliament. Astor also pointed out that there were only 206 policewomen as compared to 62,800 men, and 702 women magistrates as compared to 2,508 men appointed in the last three years. It was former suffragist, leading welfare feminist and by this point crusading anti-fascist Independent MP Miss Eleanor Rathbone who gave the keynote speech. She said that on 21st birthdays one usually looked forward, but in their case it was perhaps safer to dwell on the past.

They could say that they were now better equipped to face difficult times by their past stern struggles. Everybody now had a share in choosing their rulers, and also a share in the responsibility for the choice. Not only the NCEC but other women’s organisations had achievements to their credit, in the cause of peace and wider humanity, disregarding national boundaries. … The charter of the League of Nations provided that all appointments under the League should be open to both sexes equally, but this was not more effective than some other of the League’s provisions. … But women cared most for the opportunities their citizenship gave them for taking full part in the life of the nation. (Manchester Guardian, March 18, 1939)

24It is interesting to note that Rathbone, while she certainly noted achievements in social and welfare issues, was most eager and concerned about advances or lack thereof in women’s citizenship rights, and by extension their ability to take a full part in the pressing issues of the day, namely in the international sphere.

  • 23 Dinner held by the Women’s Freedom League to celebrate the 21st anniversary of women’s enfranchisem (...)

25The timing of the 21st anniversary of women’s suffrage is fortuitous from the point of view of the historian, providing as it does a summing up of what had and had not been achieved at the moment when Europe was on the brink of another world war.23 Indeed, what concerned women activists most was how to mobilize ‘woman power’ as both a labour force and a moral force in a war against Nazism.

  • 24 See Julie V. Gottlieb, ‘Guilty Women’, Appeasement and Foreign Policy in Interwar Britain, London: (...)

26Just days after this cautious celebration of the 21st anniversary of suffrage many of the same women celebrants joined with the Women’s Committee for Peace and Democracy in a deputation to the Foreign Office. They were asking “Lord Halifax to take immediate steps to secure the release of Mme Pleminkova, the Czecho-Slovak senator, and other Czech women”. The committee’s statement add[ed] that “among the victims of the Gestapo in Prague are a large number of women known internationally for their lifelong work for peace and liberty. They include Mme Pleminkova, leader of the feminist movement in her country. It is impossible for British women to remain inactive and silent in view of the outrages on the lives and liberty of women which invariably accompany Nazi aggression” (Manchester Guardian, 20 March 1939). This statement was signed by some of the leading women in politics, Margery Corbett Ashby (chairman), Edith Summerskill MP, Ellen Wilkinson MP, Violet Bonham Carter, Charlotte Haldane, and Magda Gellan—and we should note that these were women who played against gendered type by taking strong positions on foreign affairs.24 They urged “British women to awaken to the danger, to take action to put an end to the horrors of the concentration camps for both men and women. We ask them to support the demands of the deputation by immediately sending letters and telegrams to the Prime Minister and to their members of Parliament” (Manchester Guardian, 20 March 1939). Again, anniversary celebrations like this one in 1939 open a window onto the present as much as onto the shifting interpretations of past events.

Fifty years on from suffrage: 1968

27Let us also remember that it was as British women reflected on the 50th anniversary of suffrage in 1968, and against the backdrop of rapid social change, political radicalism, and sexual revolution, that the Women’s Liberation Movement began to take shape and take action. All three political parties used the 50th anniversary to try to reinvigorate their women’s organisations. At the Women’s Liberal Federation annual meeting in Harrogate, Mrs Stina Robson, who took her cue from the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Votes for Women,’ strongly criticized women in Britain “for not making full use of the privileges earned by the suffragettes” (The Guardian, 28 March, 1968). Conservative Central Office published Muriel Bowen’s The Fullest Rights, a history of women in the Conservative Party, to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations at the Central Hall, Westminster that took place on 27 March, 1968. Bowen’s was “an unblushingly partisan report” that praised women, once enfranchised, for their “reasonableness and service” (The Guardian, 27 March 1968).

28But in 1968 it was the Labour Party that was in office under the leadership of Harold Wilson, and the half-century celebration belonged most to Labour women. Labour women celebrated the 50th anniversary with a rally on Valentine’s Day at which the Prime Minister was one of the main speakers, in addition to Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee, the latter the longest serving woman MP by that point in history. The Labour women’s organisations also mounted an exhibition on “Working Women in Political and Public Life”, claiming lineal decent to the Chartists (The Guardian, 5 February, 1968). In opening the exhibition, Jennie Lee “said it might do some good if women became more militant. ‘We are all so well behaved, so neatly conditioned… [It would do them good] to have the opportunity to throw things in the way the militant did” (The Times, 13 February, 1968). Former suffragette Miss Lillian Lenton, now 77 years of age and representing the Suffragette Fellowship, punctuated the point by recalling her 18-month spree of arson attacks on behalf of the WSPU and her three imprisonments. Lenton then said how “life was a bit flat afterwards” (The Times, 13 February, 1968). It seems clear at this point in time that the Labour Party was more at ease with the suffragette legacy, and Liberals and Conservatives with the suffragist one.

29The older generations of women were, in fact, prophesizing what was to come, and the 50th anniversary was understood to be new impetus for the women’s movement. At a rally organized by the Status of Women Committee, the chairman Dame Joan Vickers suggested a “women’s party and that we put up our own women candidates … There are 26 women in Parliament and 604 men. A lot of legislation might have got through if we had more women in Parliament”. At the same rally former suffragette Baroness Stocks stressed how far there was still to go for achieving equality—and this may sound all too familiar—she said “I shall feel we have achieved something when I cease to read in my local paper of ‘an attractive young secretary’ or ‘a pretty shoplifter’. Men will go on looking at women with reference to themselves. They would never say ‘a handsome van driver’” (The Times, 27 March, 1968). Thelma Cazalet-Keir, who had been a Conservative MP since 1931 but was also President of the Fawcett Society since 1964, felt that the most important achievement to date was “a more normal reaction to men and women working together. The best example of this is in the House of Commons. When I first went there as an MP (in 1931), one was considered quite exceptional. Now nobody thinks it extraordinary when women rise up to answer questions which have nothing to do with sex” (The Times, 27 March, 1968). In terms of the material traces of the 50th anniversary, there was much less than for the centenary. In fact, the most official expression was in the form of a 6d postage stamp with the dates 1918 to 1968 and represented by WSPU leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

30All of this sounds reasonable enough, and hardly incitement to the women’s revolution to come, the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, there was plenty to make the blood boil with some of the satirical and outright hostile mistreatment of feminist pioneers in the coverage of the half-centenary events. Writing in the Guardian, Geoffrey Moorhouse reported on the tandem events organized by the suffragist and suffragette supporters to celebrate the golden jubilee of “unsexing the vote”. Moorehouse described how the constitutionalists gathered at the plaque of Dame Millicent Fawcett in Westminster Abbey, while a bit later the “Pankhurst crowd” held their rally in Caxton Hall “which was benignly triumphant with grey, close-cropped heads, sensibly period frock-and-cardigans, and septuagenarian chain-smokers”. He berated them further for debating the finer points of how and why the vote was won, noting that “to some people all this might have been history, but to the women in the Caxton Hall it was nothing less than life” (The Guardian, 7 February, 1968). And women were preparing to retaliate, and in summer of 1968 the women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham plant went on strike for equal pay, “their sudden outbreak of militancy (described by the ungushing Dr Shirley Summerskill as ‘the most significant act since the suffragette movement’) is part of a secret new movement among women to gain their rights, or, as younger women of my generation prefer to put it, correct the disadvantages” (The Guardian, 31 July, 1968). In any timeline of the British Women’s Liberation Movement, the Dagenham women’s strike is seen to strike the first blow of the Second Wave of Feminism.

  • 25 There is a rich and growing literature that is more concerned with the impact of suffrage. See, for (...)

31While anniversaries are important moments not only for reflection but also for projection, there are also some dangers with allowing anniversary celebrations to frame historical research. The danger with reading history from an anniversary like that of the Representation of the People Act—that is from the ‘happy ending’ of a story—is that assumptions may be made that the struggle for the vote followed an upward trajectory, that it is a story of steady progress towards the achievement of the vote for women. In addition, by reading the story from the last chapter backwards, we run a number of other risks. We risk overstating the unity of the campaign for the vote. We risk ironing out the creases and fissures within the movement, or overestimating the role played by certain campaigners, radical and moderate, towards the granting of women’s suffrage. Indeed, what needs to be illustrated is gradual and incremental process on the one hand, and the cyclical, dialectic rhythm of the story of women’s constitutional emancipation. Another hazard here is of conflating the two poles of the movement, the constitutional suffragists and the militant suffragettes, and as we speak some historians are keeping a tally of how many times Millicent Fawcett is called a suffragette! Indeed, the day before the statue unveiling, Prime Minister Theresa May wrote an article welcoming Fawcett to Parliament Square and happily identifying herself with Fawcett’s legacy and the suffragist ethos. I expect the error was not May’s but nonetheless the Evening Standard’s online headline was “Suffragette statue is a reminder of fight for equality, says Theresa May” (Evening Standard, 23 April, 2018). And yet one more problem of relying on the dramatic arc of the suffrage campaign is that we neglect what happened after, and we fail to ask questions about what difference the vote made to women and to the political culture.25

Reason to celebrate: VOTE100

32These caveats aside, 2018 proved to be a year of great celebration, a year of women, with hundreds of events being organized across Britain, and with many statues being erected to preserve the legacy of suffrage pioneers and heroines. These statues make these women a more permanent part of a national history, and not merely a sectional women’s history. As the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found, in Britain under 3 per cent of statues of historical figures are of women, when royals and the many partly-clothed or undressed decorative females that adorn so many civic memorials are excluded.

33The number and range of media, public and academic events that took place to celebrate the centenary was nothing less than astonishing. These included exhibitions, conferences, historical recreations, marches, and public memorials, with the media eagerly magnifying certain messages about the women’s emancipation narrative. Arguably the hub of these commemorative events was the project run from within the Houses of Parliament called VOTE100, and senior archivist Dr Mari Takayanagi and Melanie Unwin curated “Voice & Vote: Celebrating 100 years of women in Parliament.”

34The centerpiece or official launch event for VOTE100 was held on 6 February, 2018, in Westminster Hall, where a crowd of several hundred was addressed by the Speaker of the House and the Prime Minister Theresa May. All current and former women MPs were invited to the event, and many poignant photo opportunities were seized upon. The key note of Theresa May’s address was about the abuse women suffer in private life and in public life, a recasting of feminist themes so that the political is personal (rather than the personal is political), and a logic that is consistent with the welfare feminism of the inter-war period that accepted that women required protection from the state in order to carry out their domestic and reproductive roles. This is a materialist logic, and it is understandable how easily it chimes with the essential paternalism of the Tory worldview. There is much to be said about calling out those who abuse women in the domestic sphere as well as those who now do so with their identity hidden by the camouflage social media platforms provide. And May herself was always at ease with the feminist label, famously donning the Fawcett Society’s t-shirt: “This is what a feminist looks like.” She was also co-founder in 2005 of Women2Win, a Conservative Party organization that supported women to stand in winnable seats. Yet more subtly, May’s chosen themes on that very poignant occasion of the official centenary celebration was consistent with a discourse that is not about equality as such. Rather, it is one about protecting women, not going as far to call women the weaker sex perhaps, but taking it for granted the women are the more vulnerable sex.

Statues for statutes

35While nothing is forever, of all the ways in which the centenary has been marked it will be the statues that are the most permanent markers and monuments of the epic story of women’s emancipation. The statues enshrine the legacy of particular women (and some men) and carve out a prominent place in history and in public space for each of those represented. It is as a result of feminist campaigner and writer Caroline Criado-Perez’s campaign, supported by thousands of women and men, that Turner-prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing has represented suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett, together with 59 other leading suffrage figures, in London’s Parliament Square. The Fawcett statue has been jointly curated by 14-18NOW, the arts project for the centenary of the First World War, and the Mayor of London’s Office. The unveiling ceremony on 24 April, 2018, was suitably high profile, and it was covered live on BBC television and other channels. The speakers were the Prime Minister Theresa May, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Caroline Criado Perez, together with musical and musical theatre performances. School children were selected to carry out the actual act of unveiling the statue.26

36It is fitting that Fawcett, who was not principally a charismatic leader or as adept at drawing attention to herself as others, should not be the one figurehead or the only woman to be remembered. Indeed, Gillian Wearing’s concept for the Fawcett statue was that the suffragist leader takes her place in the geographical heart of Britain’s democracy together with a cross section of suffrage figures, with care to represent diversity across class, regional/national, political/ideological, ethnic and religious, sexual, and generational lines. The balance struck may not satisfy all those invested in this history, but much effort went into striking a balance. I also thought it was vital to stress that the statue not only represents the heterogeneous suffrage campaign at its peak of activity but that suffrage afterlives should also be acknowledged and dignified. Therefore, for instance, it was important to include figures whose careers and commitments after 1918 were as vital and vibrant as their suffrage activism, such as Ellen Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone, Margery Corbett Ashby, and Helena Swanwick, among others. Some of the earliest pioneers were not included, however, as the criteria agreed upon was to include only those who were still active during the life of the NUWSS.

37And it is also important that central London should not be alone in celebrating the spirit and achievements of feminist figures. In Leicester the working-class suffragette Alice Hawkins has been honoured with a statue, and this was finished in time to be unveiled to mark the exact centenary of the Representation of the People Act in early February, 2018. A new, and a second, statue of Emmeline Pankhurst by sculptor Hazel Reeves—there has been one on the side of Parliament since 1930—was unveiled in Manchester city center in December 2018, with Sylvia Pankhurst’s granddaughter and Emmeline’s great-grand daughter Helen Pankhurst being one of the charismatic speakers at the unveiling ceremony. Much of the concern was to embrace and recognize working-class women and the more politically radical elements of the suffrage movement, thus a statue of Annie Kenney was unveiled on the same day of 14 December, 2018, in the former mill hand Kenney’s birthplace of Oldham, not many miles away from Emmeline’s new prominent position in Peter’s Square. In addition to the statues, English Heritage was determined to honour more women in view of the centenary, with the installation of many more blue plaques installed across the UK, an important reminder of the vibrancy of feminist activism across the country.27

38The excitement generated by all this activity goes some way to providing an antidote to the poisonous sexual politics of our recent past, and to the past couple of years. In many respects but certainly in respect to women and the liberation tradition, there have been many setbacks, backlash and disappointments. And that is exactly why this has been the moment when we need to reawaken the suffrage spirit. I do not think it is a mere coincidence that women today—politicians, scholars and the public—have invested so much energy and purpose into these centenary celebrations. These tireless and imaginative preparations for the centenary inevitably create a positive atmosphere and a buzz around women’s issues and gender equality, past and present. Making noise of the anniversary places women’s issues high up on the agenda and at the focal point of the news frame. Even as it is the case that the story of women’s emancipation is cyclical and that feminist mobilization has come in waves, these statues for statutes are materially and symbolically weighty statements about women’s equal citizenship. Cast in bronze and etched in stone, women are finally being represented as citizens and agents of change in permanent civic representations of Britishness.

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Bibliography

Adams Jad, Women & the Vote: A World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Anon., “Mrs Pankhurst”, Home and Empire, March 1930.

Anon., “Asquith’s Daughter Speaks out”, Manchester Guardian, 23 February, 1939.

Anon., “Commemoration of Women’s Suffrage,” The Times, March 18, 1939.

Anon., “Women’s Suffrage Comes of Age,” Manchester Guardian, March 18, 1939.

Anon., “Women Victims of Gestapo: Appeal to Lord Halifax,” Manchester Guardian, March 20, 1939.

Anon., “Women’s Vote: 21st Birthday Celebration,” Manchester Guardian, April 24, 1939.

Anon., “A day for Labour’s women pioneers,” The Guardian, February 5, 1968, p. 5.

Anon., “Miss Lee Proposes Female Militancy”, The Times, February 13, 1968, p. 2.

Anon., “New Impetus for Women’s Movement?”, The Times, March 27, 1968, p. 13.

Anon., “‘Women still ask their husbands how to vote’”, The Guardian, March 28, 1968, p.5.

Bearman, Christopher J., “An Examination of Suffragette Violence,” English Historical Review, Vol. 120, Issue 486, April 2005, 365-397.

Berthezene, Clarisse, Gottlieb, Julie V. (eds.), Rethinking Right-wing Women: Women in the Conservative Party from the 1880s to the Present, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

Cowman, Krista, “A footnote in history? Mary Gawthorpe, Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette movement and the writing of suffragette history,” Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, Issue 3-4, 2005, 447-466.

Crawford, Elizabeth, Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their circle, London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2002.

DeVries, Jacqueline R., “Popular and Smart: Why Scholarship on Women’s Suffrage in Britain Still Matters,” History Compass, Vol 11, Issue 3, 2013, 177-188.

Eade, Christine, “March past of women—by the right,” The Guardian, March 27, 1968, p. 4.

Gottlieb, Julie V., Toye Richard (eds.), The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Gottlieb, Julie V. (ed.), “Feminism and Feminists After Suffrage, Special Issue”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2014.

Gottlieb, Julie V., ‘Guilty Women’, Appeasement and Foreign Policy in Interwar Britain, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Gullace, Nicoletta F., “The Blood of Our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Gullace, Nicoletta F., “Christabel Pankhurst and the Smethwick Election: right-wing feminism, the Great War and the ideology of consumption”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2014, 330-346.

Holton, Sandra Stanley, Suffrage Days: Stories of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, London: Routledge, 1996.

Holton, Sandra Stanley, Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Houses of Parliament, Women in Parliament. Key Speeches: Past and Present. 2018. https://www.parliament.uk/documents/outreach/ Women-in-Parliament-Key-Speeches-PROOF-v7.pdf

Jenkins, Lyndsey, “Feminist Energy vs Vehement Opposition,” History Today, Vol. 68, Issue 9, September 2018.

Kean, Hilda, “Public history and popular memory: issues in the commemoration of the British militant suffrage campaign”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, Issue 3-4, 2005, 581-602.

Lewish, Shirley, “Never to the barricades,” The Guardian, July 31, 1968, p. 5.

Liddington, Jill, “Era of Commemoration: Celebrating the Suffrage Centenary”, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 59, Issue 1, Spring 2005, 194-218.

Maguire, G.E., Conservative Women: A History of Women in the Conservative Party, 1874-1997, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

Monaghan, Rachel, “‘Votes for women’: An analysis of the militant campaign,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 2007, 65-78.

Moorehouse, Geoffrey, “The ladies remember when they took part in history,” The Guardian, February 7, 1968.

Murphy, Joe, “Suffragette statue is a reminder of fight for equality, says Theresa May”, Evening Standard, April 23, 2018. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/suffragette-statue-is-a-reminder-to-fight-for-equality-says-theresa-may-a3821116.html

Nym, Mayhall, Laura E., The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Nym, Mayhall, Laura E., “Domesticating Emmeline: Representing the Suffragette, 1930-1993,” NWSA Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2, Summer 1999, 1-24.

Pankhurst, Helen, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now, London: Sceptre Books, 2018.

Pugh, Martin, The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Purvis, June (ed.), Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945, Abingdon: Routledge, 1995 (1st edition).

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Purvis, June, “Ninety Years of Women’s Suffrage and Fifty Years of Women Peers… Where Are We Now?”, Women’s History Review, 17. 5, 2008, 671-672.

Purvis, June, “Gendering the Historiography of the Suffragette Movement in Edwardian Britain: some reflections,” Women’s History Review, Vol. 22, Issue 4, 2013, 576-590.

Purvis, June, Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography, Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

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Notes

1 Here is a sample of the official initiatives celebrating the centenary: https://celebratingvotesforwomen.campaign.gov.uk/
https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2018/02/07/how-the-civil-service-is-celebrating-the-centenary-of-womens-suffrage/
https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/pages/events/site/suffrage-centenary/category/centenary-events
http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2018-12-14-suffrage-flag-flies-across-oxford-mark-centenary-women%E2%80%99s-vote
https://onescotland.org/equality-themes/gender/suffrage-centenary/
https://ukvote100.org/
https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-winners-of-funding-to-celebrate-centenary-year-of-suffrage
https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-marks-centenary-of-womens-suffrage

2 Two of my own projects anticipated the centenary and the way it would be historicized and celebrated. See Julie V. Gottlieb and Richard Toye (eds.), The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, and Julie V. Gottlieb (ed.), “Feminism and Feminists After Suffrage, Special Issue”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, 2014.

3 Helen Pankhurst, Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now, London: Sceptre Books 2018, p. 6.

4 These considerations were already apparent in the commemoration of the centenary of the founding of the WSPU in 2003, see Hilda Kean, “Public history and popular memory: issues in the commemoration of the British militant suffrage campaign”, Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, Issue 3-4, (2005), 581-602; Jill Liddington, “Era of Commemoration: Celebrating the Suffrage Centenary”, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 59, Issue 1, Spring 2005, 194-218; and June Purvis, “Ninety Years of Women’s Suffrage and Fifty Years of Women Peers… Where Are We Now?”, Women’s History Review, 17. 5 , 2008, 671-672.

5 Jacqueline R. deVries, “Popular and Smart: Why Scholarship on Women’s Suffrage in Britain Still Matters,” History Compass, Vol. 11, Issue 3, 2013, 177-188.

6 Elizabeth Crawford, Enterprising Women: The Garretts and their circle, London: Francis Bouttle Publishers, 2002.

7 June Purvis, Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography, Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

8 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/27/suffragist-statue-parliament-square-emmeline-pankhurst-millicent-fawcett

9 See G. Maguire, Conservative Women: A History of Women in the Conservative Party, 1874-1997, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 1998; and Clarisse Berthezene and Julie V. Gottlieb (eds.), Rethinking Right-wing Women: Women in the Conservative Party from the 1880s to the Present, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.

10 See Lyndsey Jenkins, “Feminist Energy vs Vehement Opposition,” History Today, Vol. 68, Issue 9, September 2018.

11 https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/jun/04/sufragettes-with-lucy-worsley-review-womens-fight-for-rights

12 See June Purvis (ed.), Women’s History: Britain, 1850-1945 (1995); “The Suffragette and Women’s History”, Women’s History Review, Special Double Issue, 14, 3&4 (2005); J. Purvis, Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (2002); June Purvis, “Gendering the Historiography of the Suffragette Movement in Edwardian Britain: some reflections,” Women’s History Review, Vol. 22, Issue 4, 2013, 576-590.

13 See Nicoletta F. Gullace, “Christabel Pankhurst and the Smethwick Election: right-wing feminism, the Great War and the ideology of consumption”, Women's History Review, Vol. 23, Issue 3, 2014, 330-346; L.E. Nym Mayhall, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930 (2003); Laura E. Nym Mayhall, “Domesticating Emmeline: Representing the Suffragette, 1930-1993,” NWSA Journal, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer 1999), 1-24. M. Pugh, The Pankhursts (2002); Martin Pugh, The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

14 See C.J. Bearman, “An Examination of Suffragette Violence,” English Historical Review, Vol. 120, Issue 486, April 2005, 365-397; Rachel Monaghan, “‘Votes for women’: An analysis of the militant campaign,” Terrorism and Political Violence, Vol. 9, Issue 2, 2007, 65-78.

15 R. Strachey, The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain (1928, reprinted 1969)

16 See S.S. Holton, Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900-1918 (1986), S.S. Holton, Suffrage Days: Stories of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1996); J. Robinson, Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote (2018).

17 N. Gullace, “The Blood of Our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

18 See Jad Adams, Women & the Vote: A World History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

19 See Krista Cowman, “A footnote in history? Mary Gawthorpe, Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette movement and the writing of suffragette history,” Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, Issue 3-4, 2005, 447-466.

20 Women in Parliament: Key Speeches: Past and Present (Houses of Parliament), p. 8.

21 “Asquith’s Daughter Speaks out”, Manchester Guardian, February 23, 1939.

22 “Commemoration of Women’s Suffrage,” The Times, March 18, 1939.

23 Dinner held by the Women’s Freedom League to celebrate the 21st anniversary of women’s enfranchisement, with 16 women speaking. See Anon.,“Women’s Vote: 21st Birthday Celebration,” Manchester Guardian, April 24, 1939.

24 See Julie V. Gottlieb, ‘Guilty Women’, Appeasement and Foreign Policy in Interwar Britain, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

25 There is a rich and growing literature that is more concerned with the impact of suffrage. See, for instance, Pat Thane, “What difference did the vote make? Women in public and private life in Britain since 1918,” Historical Research, vol. 76, no. 192, May 2003, 268-285.

26 “Millicent Fawcett: Statue of Suffragist Unveiled”, BBC News, 24 April 2018. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43868925

27 https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about-us/search-news/more-blue-plaques-for-women/

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References

Bibliographical reference

Julie Gottlieb, Suffrage Statutes and Statues: Reflections on Commemorating Milestones in the History of Women’s Emancipation in BritainCaliban, 62 | 2019, 159-180.

Electronic reference

Julie Gottlieb, Suffrage Statutes and Statues: Reflections on Commemorating Milestones in the History of Women’s Emancipation in BritainCaliban [Online], 62 | 2019, Online since 10 July 2021, connection on 25 September 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/7090; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/caliban.7090

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About the author

Julie Gottlieb

Julie Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She has published extensively about women and gender in modern British political history, and her most recent monograph is Guilty Women, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in inter-war Britain (2015). Anticipating the interest there would be around the suffrage centenary, she organized the conference “Aftermath of Suffrage: What Happened After the Vote Was Won?” at the University of Sheffield, which led to the publication of two essay collections: The Aftermath of Suffrage (2013) and Feminists and Feminism in After Suffrage (2014). She acted in the capacity of historical adviser to the artist Gillian Wearing during the preparatory work on the Millicent Fawcett statue that was unveiled in Parliament Square on 24 April 2018.

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Copyright

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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