It’s the anniversary of Black Friday, a dark day for the Suffragette movement. Juliet Meyers read March, Women, March to find out more.
Reading Lucinda Hawksley’s account of the struggle for women’s rights March, Women, March is like watching the History Channel and a Sunday night period drama simultaneously and taking the best from both, but without the sentimental nostalgia. It serves as a reminder of the brutality and unjust laws so many women were subjected to.
Today marks the 104th anniversary of Black Friday, when Prime Minister Asquith was said to have actually encouraged police and anti-suffrage men to not just physically harm, but also use sexual violence against marching suffragettes.
One woman identified as Miss C reported that a policeman had lifted up her skirt before throwing her into the crowd “and incited men to treat me as they wished.”
The book’s main strength is to highlight the lesser-known events and personalities involved in the Women’s Movement.
Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War may be widely known but it was also ‘a game changer’ in the perception of women’s ability to hold responsible employment.
Christabel Pankhurst wrote The Great Scourge against men visiting prostitutes, then passing venereal disease to their wives, aided by their doctors’ silence. Abused wife Caroline Norton wrote to Queen Victoria for 20 years pleading for a change in marital laws that would allow married women their own salaries, property and right to see their children after divorce. And writer Amelia Bloomer, who, although not actually the inventor of bloomers, introduced them to a wider market through her work for dress reform (against constricting cage crinolines).
Of particular note is an account of The Bryant and May match factory strike in 1888 and the Trade Union Congress’ role in assisting the women and teenage girls who had taken a stand to secure to secure improved working conditions and equal pay to the men.
A common accusation levelled at feminism is that it was strictly an upper-class notion. But, as Hawksley explains, ‘although towards the end of the 19th Century the movement was associated with upper class and aristocratic women, the earliest exponents of gender equality came not from Mayfair but the factory floors of those towns most affected by the Industrial Revolution.’
Every chapter of Hawksley’s work begins with a quote and contains extracts of speeches, letters or campaign literature. These primary sources and inside views, add fascination and gravitas to Hawksley’s telling of events.
“Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” (Written on piece of paper wrapped around stone thrown by Emily Davison and friends)
The book gives a sense of ‘how far we’ve come’ but many issues continue today, such as divisions over acceptable levels of violence or vehemence to achieve a shared aim – the distinction between suffragettes and suffragists. Or whether men can be feminists; Hawksley mentions Richard Pankhurst and Laurence Housman, who penned a short story where women have the vote and men agitate for it.
Or even for that matter whether all women want to be feminists. Many women were anti-suffrage, including Queen Victoria who called the notion of women’s rights ‘wicked folly’ and referred to her own gender as the ‘feeble sex’.
There is light to the shade however, and it is mostly found in the women’s spirit, regardless of the effects of the Cat and Mouse Act; Tenacious suffragette Flora Drummond hired a boat so she could be opposite the Houses of Parliament haranguing MPs with a megaphone. Another triumphant image is provided by Ethel Smyth, composer of March of the Women conducting fellow prisoners singing her song in the prison yard below with her tooth brush from a tiny cell window.
An engaging book worth a read and even a re-read to appreciate the detail.
March, Women, March: Voices of the women’s movement from the first feminist to Votes for Women by Lucinda Hawksley (published by Andre Deutsch) is out now.
Juliet Meyers is a writer (for radio and television), comedian, feminist and middle-lane swimmer. @julietmeyers