In blazing heat and glory, we proudly and emotionally escorted our banner through the Processions mass artwork in London yesterday, 10th June. Alongside thousands of kindred spirits and like minded women holding aloft a multitude of beautiful banners, placards and pennants, we snaked our way through the capital's streets from Park Lane to Westminster. As we passed London's landmarks including the Houses of Parliament and the new statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, I was humbled and reminded of the strength, humour and unity that women everywhere display in the face of adversity. From stitching to speech making, women have the tenacity and focus to 'complete what the suffragettes started' by demanding their place in an equal society. This is a wave of determination that has not weakened through the decades that have succeeded the women's suffrage movement and that will continue to gather steam throughout the ones to follow. Women will have equality in the generations to come; I do not doubt it.
Working on this project has turned out to be way more than a simple textile project for me; learning in depth about the suffragettes and suffragists has thrown up questions about struggle and oppression and deeply reconnected me with my own upbringing in the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Born a Northern Irish protestant in a council estate with red, white and blue painted kerbs and murals on the sides of our homes, I witnessed family members march their own marches on the famous 12th July parades as members of the Orange Order. Banners can be used for beauty and brutality in equal measure; both can exist in the motivations of those who carry them as oppression is a complex matter consisting of belonging, tribalism and fear. It's an interesting and sobering stance to gaze at oneself as both oppressor and oppressed.
I am reminded of the women in Afghanistan, the time I spent there and the film I made - women who have a deep relationship with oppression that I will never be so familiar with. I think of their courage in the face of great danger and court my own despair at the heights of global oppression that we must together scale and somehow defeat. All I know is that my resolve has multiplied that the work I do must be meaningful, helpful and connective. That I must take up my place in the fight for good and try with everything I have to treat every person my path meets as an equal. Academic Cheris Kramarae said 'Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings'; we are all human beings and deserve as such to live in peace and without fear.
It was with some trepidation that I entered Jerwood Gallery for our final banner making session on Saturday 2nd June; we had just 2.5 short hours to finish the banner and there was much sewing still to do! Of course, I shouldn't have doubted my fabulous team as, despite beating sunshine and the (lovely) din of the Jazz Festival right outside the window, they turned up in force to 'get the job done'. We're women - of course we're not going to leave the job unfinished! Despite great difficulty in getting everyone round the table - a couple of folks had to balance precariously on their knees on top of the table to access the letters they were working on - every letter got stitched into place using glorious luminous green thread. The words 'Hastings Women Rock The Boat' adorn the bottom of the banner in hot pink, punk studs, safety pins and chains. It sums up the ethos of the town, and its women folk, perfectly - bright and just a little bit rebellious. The banner looks resplendent and complete with Rose's knitted seagull in pride of place at the top left corner.
I was excited to share with the team everything I had learned from my visit to the 'Votes For Women' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and we browsed through some reproduced paraphernalia of the time, including posters, letters and even a ticket from the ill fated horse race which saw the demise of Emily Davison. There was much discussion about the fact that many of us feel that 'not much has changed'; many members of the group had felt it difficult to take part in the banner making project as they were 'needed at home'. Everyone felt that inequality between the sexes continues to be rife and that women still long for a much needed place to talk and share the practical and psychological burdens they bear. It struck me that not much stands between us and the women in our town of 100 years ago, who had gathered in each others' drawing rooms to deliberate their lack of rights.
I could not help but reflect on this rather apt cartoon that I had seen circulating Facebook some months ago - entitled 'You Should've Asked':
The session was brought to a moving end as we were treated by a reading by local historian Ann Kramer from her book 'Turbulent Spinsters' - a fascinating and detailed account of the activity of Suffragettes and Suffragists living in Hastings and St Leonards. Then, as now, the town packed a mighty punch and hosted talks by famous Suffragettes including Emmeline Pankhurst, saw Muriel Matters arriving in a specially designed Suffragist horse drawn wagon, and set fire to Levetleigh, the residence of Arthur du Cros - local MP and staunch anti suffragist. I wonder what they would make of how the town is now? Oh to be able to have the chance to chat across the decades!