Hello poor neglected blog. All my best-laid plans for March fell by the wayside when a succession of viral bugs and my childminder being on holiday for a week suddenly meant that work got shifted to evenings and weekends, and everything else just got shifted. It meant choosing between reading books or writing about them, and sometimes it meant not doing either for longer periods than I’d like.
So I have some books I still want to talk about from February and a couple of new ones from March to catch up on.
First up, Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and how Women Won the Vote: required reading in the centenary anniversary year of some women getting the vote in the UK. There were two books out in the run-up to this particular historic milestone as Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes was published late last year.
Although Robinson’s book does discuss the suffragette manifesto and some of the key events, both planned and unplanned, in their passionate commitment to the cause, the focus of her book is actually the parallel suffragist movement, including the Great Pilgrimage of 1913, in which large numbers of women set off from all over the UK to march on London, travelling along six major routes from all four compass points. Her descriptions of the women involved, the journey they undertook and some of the threats they faced along the way are gripping and I was shocked that it wasn’t an event I’d heard about before in my reading around this subject.
If you’re a bit hazy on the difference between the suffragettes and the suffragists then you’re in the position I was before I read Robinson’s book. Understandably, for a movement so associated with controversy, criminality and column inches, the suffragettes are the ones most people remember and can talk about. In contrast to the militant campaigns of the suffragettes, the suffragists, or ‘constitutional campaigners’, believed that they needed to win the ‘hearts and minds of the British people’, arguing that they couldn’t get the vote unless they proved themselves deserving of it.`
Now all of that is the worst and most oversimplified type of summarising (and I apologise to Jane Robinson for it). In reality, the line between suffragette and suffragist was blurry and indistinct, with some women members of both camps. Suffragists both benefited from the increased exposure their cause received as a result of suffragette action, while being harmed by it when it was assumed by police and public that their peaceful protests and demonstrations would turn violent. One of the things I liked most about Robinson’s book was that she didn’t try to pretend that there were easy answers to the problems of suffrage. Instead, she explores the contradictions and struggles of a huge group of individuals who ultimately all had the same goal in their hearts by focusing on a smaller group of truly remarkable women. Some of them you’ll likely have heard of and some you almost certainly won’t. Women like Millicent Fawcett, a tireless, committed and intelligent suffragist and leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), and Elsie Inglis, who balanced her suffragist duties with her work as a surgeon.
I mention Inglis in particular because she’s a fantastic example of something else that Robinson’s book makes clear. Many of these women were incredible whether they were engaged in suffrage activities or not, putting their talents and passions to use in many other diverse fields. During the First World War, Inglis set up a female-staffed Red Cross hospital in Edinburgh before offering her services to the War Office to set up similar hospitals on the Western Front. When she was told to ‘go home and sit still’ she took her idea to the Scottish Federation of Suffrage Societies, who sponsored her, with support from French and Serbian ambassadors in London, to set up her first hospital (in just three weeks) at Royaumont, near Paris. By the end of the War, there were 14 hospitals like Royaumont.
There are so many other women I could mention and if all you read is the list of mini bios at the end of Robinson’s book you’ll come away feeling so uplifted and inspired. Which is helpful, given that some of the book made me so spitting angry that I’d happily have gone out, smashed a few windows and chained myself to some railings. Asquith’s response to one of the suffrage petitions is breathtaking in its condescending, patronising tone. And then of course there’s the War Office response to Inglis…
Given the intense anger felt by many of these women and the prolonged injustices they fought against, it’s inevitable that the book prompts a lot of interesting questions. What would you do? Where do you stand? How far would you go? What do you believe in?
I think the most important lesson I got from Robinson’s book though was the scale of suffrage, whether it be suffragist or suffragette. The fight for the vote wasn’t a late uprising by a few particularly empassioned and eloquent women (as reporting on suffrage can sometimes suggest) but a huge massed force of stoic, courageous persistence over many many decades. Between John Stuart Mills’ failed 1868 petition to parliament, which was supported by 1500 names (when he had requested 100), and the turn of the century, parliament was deluged with further petitions (255 in 1869 alone) carrying anything from 15 to tens of thousands of names. Famous signatories included Florence Nightingale and Mary Somerville. The issue was debated 18 times between 1870 and 1904. It’s so hard to see how the suffrage movement was put off and put down for so long, particularly given the sort of weak, tired, demonstrably untrue arguments that had dragged on for centuries (women were weak minded, emotionally volatile, belonged at home, hadn’t the education/intellect to engage in politics, etc.). It really is injustice on a grand scale and speaks volumes about the battle for equality that women faced in every arena.
I’ve always voted – it feels almost criminal not to – but the next time I’m at the polling station, I will almost certainly pause and think about a few of the names from Robinson’s book and send out a heartfelt thank you.
If you’re interested in Diane Atkinson’s book, here are a few reviews to check out: