Review by Liz Dexter
This is a huge book in many senses of the word. It’s physically impressive enough to have arrived in a slightly alarmingly large box (thank you to publishers Bloomsbury for sending me a review copy). It’s packed to the gills with information. It brings out details of all the different kinds of women, working class to associates of Queen Victoria, who were part of the suffragette movement. And last but not least, it’s obviously the product of an absolutely huge amount of research work and synergising. The topic is obviously huge, too, in the year of the centenary of some women getting the vote. The author is also huge in the area, having a doctorate, having curated suffragette material in the Museum of London and having consulted on various documentaries and the film, Suffragette. So we know we’re in safe hands as we plunge into this fascinating, complicated and often disturbing movement.
The book details exhaustively what feels like all the campaigns, all the activities, all the sentences, all the contact and exchanges with members of parliament that went on during the suffragette movement. As well as taking us through the basics – the Pankhursts, the schisms, the separation of Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence from the movement, the “Cat and Mouse” Act, the force-feeding, Emily Wilding Davison and the King’s horse – it also takes us through the details, the minutiae, the backgrounds of countless (it must run into the hundreds) of ordinary, extraordinary women who campaigned tirelessly for the vote. We read about mill workers, housewives, women of the gentry, who all got inspired and undertook acts that were almost inconceivable – and we also read about the husbands and fathers who encouraged them, the men writing details of baby’s weaning to their imprisoned wives.
Dr Atkinson opens with a brief history of voting reform and attempts before the suffragettes to get universal suffrage, and ends quite quickly with the amnesty granted at the outside of the First World War, releasing all suffragette prisoners in return for their agreement to end all militancy and the “reward” for their war work in giving certain women the vote in 1918. There is then a summary of the changes to the regulation of discrimination after 1918. The introduction ends with mention of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded in 1903, and it is the years 1903-1914 that the majority of the 522 pages of narrative history concentrate on. The word “suffragette” itself doesn’t come in until 1906, and did you know the WSPU pronounced it with a hard “g”, to emphasise the “get” aspect? I was also interested to read that members of the less physically activist NUWSS and the WSPU were often mutual members of both and at very least wore each other’s badges.
The very violent actions of the suffragettes are not described in isolation. There is detail (and there are photographs) of the destruction of property, and an understanding of the effect on individuals who were targeted. Asquith’s daughter is quoted from an interview about how she had to defend her father from physical attack, and there’s the brave owner of park tearooms who approaches the Pankhursts to ask them to please leave the rest of her businesses alone (it’s not clear why they targeted tearooms but they apologise when they realise they were woman-owned). There’s a moving paragraph about the effect of Emily Davison’s actions on Bertie Jones, the jockey riding the horse, and his years of depression, haunted by the incident, and I appreciated this concern for the wider context and effects beyond just the gaining of the vote. I also liked the way in which the descriptions of the men matched those of the women, for example, “Keir Hardie married in 1878 and had four children”.
There is also information on the anti-suffrage movement, the National Women’s Anti-Suffrage League as well as boys with stones, violent police officers and sneering MPs and writers, including details on major characters on that side. Herbert Asquith comes over very strongly, wanting to give men universal suffrage then women nothing, seeming to change his mind in 1918 but expressing a contrasting opinion later, and this is cleverly pulled out throughout the long narrative.
As well as the active members, there were supporters, for example the Blathwayts and their “suffragette arboretum” where women could go to recover from force-feeding in prison and plant trees (this is sadly no more – what a shame!). Said force-feeding is described in fairly horrific (but necessary) detail, over and over again, often using women’s direct recorded narratives. Different methods of protest are also brought out, for example a handkerchief embroidered with suffragettes’ signatures (which was saved from being burned after a jumble sale).
The book is packed full of extra information, from the endpapers depicting various pro- and anti-suffragette cartoons to the five sets of plates and the illustrations at the starts of the chapters of various of the personalities. There’s a good, solid index, detailed notes and a bibliography, and there’s a long section detailing what happened next for as many of the protagonists as the author could find out about. This makes it a long-lasting and ideal resource for a school or university library or a reference library, as well as having the interest that good writing gives to it. This book really does leave no stone unturned in its quest to record everything, and will be a valuable resource for many years to come.
Liz Dexter is a feminist and is glad of her forebears’ work in getting her and other women the vote. She doesn’t know if she’d have done that, though. Liz blogs about books and other bits and bobs at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.
Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury, 2018). 978-1-4088-4404-5, 670 pp., ill., Hardback
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