Yesterday I spent a thought provoking day immersed in the world of the awe inspiring Suffragettes and Suffragists who fought so determinedly for the freedoms that we enjoy today. They are the very reason that the project Processions is taking place, and the importance of their place in history will be marked as thousands of us march with our banners 10th June. I knew a modicum about their actions and beliefs, but I didn't understand any of them except in an abstract sort of way; the names of prominent members of the cause such as Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst were familiar, but a visceral connection to the lives and experiences of these women remained elusive.
I boarded the train to Charing Cross on a mission to view the 'Votes For Women' exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I wanted to see the faces of these women and look them in the eye across the decades, viewing intimate details of their lives such as their style of dress and the quality of their gaze. Whist journeying, I dove into 'Turbulent Spinsters'; a book by local historian Ann Kramer that chronicles the activities of Suffragettes and Suffragists in Hastings & St Leonards. As I read I learned about formidable and determined local characters such as Isabella Darent Harrison who refused to pay her taxes, upholding the famous slogan 'no taxation without representation'. Withholding taxes was an unpleasant experience with bailiffs seizing personal items for sale at auction, Undeterred, Darent Harrison barricaded herself into her house for more than a month before the bailiffs finally managed to obtain entry. Not content with this, she organised a protest march on the auction house, causing a ruckus and enabling her niece to purchase her items back.
As soon as I stepped into the exhibition I was immediately taken with the strength that emanated from the photographs of the women; their irrepressible characters shone through the black and white photography and I could see that they were full of wit, wisdom and a steely determination. I was particularly moved by a montage of women who had been photographed by Scotland Yard undercover - such was deemed their threat. One in particular, Kitty Marion, had clearly been feisty and endured being force fed in prison 242 times under the barbaric 'Cat and Mouse' law that prevented Suffragette prisoners from dying by hunger strike. The authorities were terrified that this would make them martyrs and strengthen their cause. Details of hunger striking, arson attacks, banners and processions immediately reminded me of growing up in the Troubles of Northern Ireland and I could not help but draw comparisons. It made me reflect on the similarities between oppressed groups and how desperate people take desperate action. I was particularly jolted when I read in 'Turbulent Spinsters' that a cry of the Suffragettes had been 'No surrender!', as this is a popular slogan used by unionist groups in Ireland.
Far sadder than Kitty Marion's 242 force feedings is the story of Mary Ward, pictured above. Despite being well educated and having charitable views, Mary Ward was a prominent anti-suffragist, becoming the leader of the Women's Anti-Suffrage Association, which had a staggering 15,000 paying members. As a product of life in the Troubles, I know all too well how indoctrinated a person can become and completely lose sight of the truth. Good people can become blinded by their own limited beliefs and forget that anything is possible.
I read with fascination that many men supported women's suffrage and made great efforts to assist the various women's suffrage groups that existed. Above is pictured Millicent Fawcett with her husband Henry - unfortunately blinded in an accident, but undeterred in helping his wife. This reminded me that the 'oppressor' can help the oppressed and not give in to defensiveness and shame. Let's hope that more people can be like Henry Fawcett and bravely shoulder those who are downtrodden or vulnerable. How much better for it life on this planet would be.