By Barbara Lewis, Womens Feature Service
In 1910, Britain’s men voted to elect men to “the House that man built”, as suffragette campaigners described Britain’s parliament.
A hundred years on, just after a general election that brought disappointingly few women to power and attracted a mediocre turnout of 65.1 per cent, an elegant corner of southern England is marking the struggle of brave, passionate women for the right to cast their ballots.
Curated by women academics Irene Cockroft and Susan Croft, ‘How the Vote Was Won: Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage’ throws new light on the story of the most famous suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, who chained herself to railings and went on a hunger strike. It also focuses on the less well-known Sophie Duleep Singh, daughter of a Maharajah exiled from the Punjab, who became a staunch member of the Tax Resistance League. Taken to court for refusing to pay her taxes, she argued that if she was eligible to pay taxes, she should be eligible to vote. “When the women of England are enfranchised, I shall pay my taxes willingly,” she stated.
God-daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Singh lived in a grace and favour apartment (a home owned by the monarch) in the palace of Hampton Court, near Richmond, where the suffragette exhibition is on show until September this year. In easy commuting distance of central London, Richmond is affluent and middle class. Many of the visitors to the suffragette exhibition are highly-educated women, ambitious for their daughters. They are busily signing up for the educational activities being held at the library and museum, even as they visit the exhibition.
They are the heiresses of the often well-born suffragettes and suffragists, a term used by Britain’s pro-establishment ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper to distinguish the law-abiding campaigners from the more militant suffragettes, who frequently found themselves jailed.
Under the notorious ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, hunger-striking suffragette prisoners were released temporarily if their health was endangered and then imprisoned again once they had recovered. Much as the male establishment sought to suppress it, the suffragette movement attracted nationwide support, as testified by a copy of the 1866 Women’s Suffrage Petition that marked the beginning of the struggle.
“Your petitioners therefore humbly pray your honourable House to consider the expediency of providing for the representation of all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as you honourable House may determine,” it states in an address to Parliament.
There follows a list of 1,499 names and addresses from all over the country. In a moving tribute to both the permanence of what they ultimately achieved and the flimsiness and obscurity of many of the signatories’ lives, historian and textile artist Ann Dingsdale – a descendant of the early feminists – has created a hanging decorated with some of the names.
Art was an inherent part of the women’s suffrage movement, and the exhibition underlines this. Denied the right to university degrees and entry to the professions, many intelligent women honed their talents as writers, actresses and artists – and their art proved crucial in conveying their message and winning public acceptance. Cockroft and Croft, a specialist in women’s theatre, argue the demonstrations and public protests in an age before television and the modern media were deliberately dramatic to ensure maximum impact.
The powerful image of Pankhurst chained to the railings of the prime minister’s residence, for instance, was designed to shock and galvanise support. Apart from The Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Pankhurst, other women’s organisations included the Actresses’ Franchise League. Works of theatre reflected the cause, one of which – ‘How the Vote Was Won’ – lends its title to the present exhibition.
A reading of the play, written by Cicely Hamilton – a founder of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League – and Christopher St John (the pseudonym of a woman), took place at a theatre in Richmond in June, only a few miles from Twickenham Town Hall, where it was first performed a hundred years ago. Another milestone work is ‘The Apple Seller’ by artist Bertha Newcome, who belonged to the Artists’ Suffrage League. The painting captures the moment when the Women’s Suffrage Petition was handed to Member of Parliament and sympathiser to the suffrage cause John Stuart Mill in 1866. He presented the petition, which had been concealed under an apple seller’s stall, to parliament, which rejected it with derision. It was not until 1928 – immediately after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst – that the Equal Franchise Act gave women the same voting rights as men.
Her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia – one of the many artists whose work promoted the suffrage movement – carried on the feminist cause. ‘How the Vote Was Won: Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage’ is a reminder that the struggle goes on. Saudi Arabia, where voting in general is still a novelty, allowed only men to vote in its first local elections in 2005.