Wednesday 21 November 2012

Suffragettes and the Tele

Hanging on an unassuming wall in the National Portrait Gallery, there is a painting of an elderly woman. The neutral brown background to this piece creates an air of calm and the lady’s eyes are calm and gaze out at the viewer. But don’t let the fur coat and peaceful expression fool you,  this is not a member of the aristocracy or a snapshot of some kind of missionary heading for retirement, but Emmeline Pankhurst, the militant Leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In a gallery filled with images of Britain’s military heroes fighting in battle and politicians standing in the cabinet office, this picture stands out because Pankhurst is not shown doing what she is renowned  for; campaign for the rights of women and we should be asking, why? Unlike these other figures, Pankhurst has not been immortalised in her heyday. Whilst the other paintings show young men and women, Pankhurst is depicted as old and unthreatening. This should lead us to question the extent to which the women’s suffrage movement has taken its placed in the establishment of British history. Are the suffragettes only welcome if they are no longer a threat?

A high profile example of how the debate surrounding the suffragettes is still going on can be taken from the BBC History Magazine. In an edition of the magazine published in 2007 Christopher Bearman took the contemporary notion of the terrorist and applied to the women that helped to win half of our population the vote. His article in which he stated that the WSPU were ‘case and point’ for his belief that a terrorist would never identify themselves as such received a swift and damning response from the renound feminist historian, June Purvis. Purvis she reminds us that Bearman’s comparisons between the WSPU and modern Islamic fundamentatlists were not only insensitive and inappropriate, but an example of poor historical research (Bearman’s only primary references were to the male dominated mainstream newspapers of the day). And so why was it published? I can’t help but wonder what pieces like this are doing for our perceptions of the WSPU and their standing as an important part of this nation’s history.

There have been a growing number of suffragettes appearing in contemporary entertainment. From the surge of suffragette heroines popping up in period dramas, for example Lady Sybil in the hugely successful Downton Abbey and na├»ve Valentine Wannop in the BBC’s new  World War One drama Parades End to the opening ceremony of the British Olympic Games, suffragettes appear to be an accepted and to a certain extent romanticised part of our history. The way in which these characters are portrayed as “suffragettes” , however, gives us an insight into the way in which we today wish to view our protesting predecessors.  1914 was the year of real fear, brought about by the relentless actions of militancy carried out by the WPSU (as well as other organisations) and yet Lady Sybil gets in trouble for taking part in a by-election campaign and Valentine backs away in fear as Mary “Slasher” Richardson gets to work in the National Gallery.

Neither of these women took part in the actions or events that made the suffragettes different from the other groups campaigning at the time. If we’re honest they’re pretty watered down versions, maybe to make our Sunday viewing a little easier. The Nation Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) were an organisation that would have waved placards and handed out leaflets. The WPSU bombed. They smashed windows, they spat at policemen, slashed paintings and threw themselves in front of horses. So not every member set fire to a post box, but what historian would deny that these militant acts were what made this group of campaigners separate from the rest of the movement. And yet these unladylike actions are at best ignored and at worse condemned and not accepted as part of the WSPU’s identity even today, over a century on.

Despite this, it’s not all bad. The issues facing upper class suffragettes are well summed up in the line given by Dame Maggie Smith’s character in Downton when she says “how can one expect to bow to their majesties in the summer when they have been arrested at a riot in May?” And if we’re honest even if Valentine wasn’t impressed, Mary Richardson appearing in such a popular programme is something those of us who want the suffragette spirit to live on should be pleased about. The suffragettes taking their place in the story of Britain’s history during the opening ceremony of this summer’s Olympic Games was a great moment that shouldn’t be undermined and who knows, recent demonstrations in London and the nearing of the centenary of partial women’s suffrage might provide some interesting viewing!