Think-Piece: Commemoration and Spectacle in the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage

Are We All Militants Now?:

Commemoration and Spectacle in the Centenary of Women’s Suffrage

Laura E. Nym Mayhall

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of representation this year as Britain commemorates the centenary of women’s enfranchisement. As an historian of the militant suffrage movement, I am struck by the extent to which the official story –promulgated through lectures, demonstrations, films, and public events – simultaneously conflates the granting of women’s suffrage with the militant campaign for “Votes for Women” led by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and reproduces historians’ fascination with the theatricality of militancy. Largely absent from these commemorations is acknowledgement of the thousands of women over many decades who patiently petitioned, lobbied, and organized for women’s votes. Absent also is substantive discussion of the consequences of women’s enfranchisement. What does it mean that women have had the right to vote for one hundred years?

At one level, I’m not surprised: a significant strand of the historiography of women’s suffrage similarly collapses a fifty-year movement to the fifteen years in which the WSPU played a role. In their scholarship and in the mainstream press, historians in Britain endlessly debate what constituted militancy, and whether it helped or hindered women’s acquisition of the vote. They pay much less attention to what it has meant that women and men above the age of eighteen have had, since the 1928 Representation of the People Act, the right to vote in parliamentary elections in Britain. But it is worth considering what it means to commemorate the centenary of women’s suffrage by focusing on the militant suffrage movement, rather than on women’s practice of citizenship.

For 2018 has been a year of commemorating the militant suffrage movement. Dizzying numbers of lectures, demonstrations, theatrical productions, films, and articles in newspapers recount the campaign for women’s suffrage as if it began with the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. HM Government’s website, “Celebrating the Centenary of Votes for Women” (https://celebratingvotesforwomen.campaign.gov.uk/), pays lip service to other suffrage organizations and strategies, but its content and color scheme of purple, white, and green, conflate women’s activism for suffrage with WSPU militancy.  The National Archives similarly positions the militants as embodying the suffrage movement (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/suffrage-100/). In March, it launched a pop-up exhibit in Piccadilly, “an immersive experience” that recreated a number of spaces “that are key to the story of the suffrage movement, including the WSPU headquarters, a tea room, and a police cell” (https://www.culturewhisper.com/r/immersive/suffragette_city_immersive_exhibition_london/11036).  It offers a link to a site that helps users answer the question: “was your ancestor a suffragette?” (https://www.findmypast.co.uk/suffragette-collection) A workshop, tied to the National Archives’ exhibit, “Suffragettes vs. the State,” offers members of the public an opportunity to view documents in their collections dealing with militancy (https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/womens-suffrage-origins-to-equality-tickets-47259837446). And it offers links to two films interpreting the movement (about those more later). Even the Royal Mail has gotten in on the suffragette action, issuing eight commemorative stamps, all but one reproducing images from the militant campaign (https://shop.royalmail.com/special-stamp-issues/votes-for-women/votes-for-women-stamp-set).

There is, of course, a delicious irony here. Through its National Archives and other institutional keepers of public memory, the British government has organized its commemorations of the centenary of women’s suffrage around celebration of the very women who challenged its legitimacy a hundred years ago. Formed in 1903 by women who believed that the previous three decades of agitation for women’s political rights had been for naught, the WSPU challenged the legitimacy of the sitting government at public meetings and in demonstrations because it refused to sponsor legislation enfranchising women. The National Archives highlights government surveillance of female activists and the violence used against them, in the streets and in prisons, suggesting the extent to which the militants’ power threatened political institutions and the social order. Nowhere do we see discussion of the much longer movement of which militancy was only a part.

That irony is undercut, however, by closer examination of how militancy is represented, and what that suggests about the practice of citizenship following mass enfranchisement. Two films prominently advertised on the National Archives’ website highlight the dangers of accepting WSPU militancy as models for women’s activism. (Created by the Combination Dance Company and directed by Luke Toddfrey, both films may be viewed at http://combinationdance.co.uk/index.php/performance-projects/100nehundred/.)

The first, “Deeds Not Words,” imaginatively overlays the journey of a contemporary young woman from Victoria Station, London, to Epsom Downs with that made by another young woman in 1913, Emily Wilding Davison. Through dance, we see her agony as she decides to run out onto the racecourse to put the suffragette colors of purple, white, and green around the neck of the King’s horse in the Derby. Through archival footage, we see Davison’s impact with the horse, and the crowd pouring onto the racecourse.

Gravely injured, Davison died four days later. Her funeral, held at St. George’s Church in Bloomsbury and organized by the WSPU, elevated her act to one of martyrdom for the cause. “To die in plain sight,” as Marina Warner has put it, offers the disenfranchised an opportunity to make their disenfranchisement visible, and thus has a certain power.[1] In the case of the suffragettes, however, Davison’s act must be juxtaposed against other representations of female bodies in pain the organization deployed to make the case for women’s suffrage, particularly, the body of the suffragette being forcibly fed by the state, an act likened to rape. Representing women’s political activism through martyrdom and violation reproduces one of the more dangerous tropes still dominant in contemporary media and endlessly consumed as entertainment: women as victims of male violence. That suffragettes are portrayed as courting this violation in no way lessens its danger as representation.

The second film, “100nehundred,” stages WSPU protest through a suffragette flash mob in Victoria Station involving professional dancers, vocational students, and local performers. Again juxtaposing the past and the present, dancers in Edwardian and contemporary dress enact some of the more famous suffragette protests, including “Black Friday,” a demonstration in November 1910 during which multiple protesters were attacked by London police. The influence of WSPU militancy is clear here: the assumption being that theatricality produces community, and out of community, action. I want to believe that, too. But theatricality also creates spectators, and spectators are not actors. These representations of militancy offer a spectacle of activism as entertainment, a commodity to be consumed, not a spur to further action.

Furthermore, these commemorations aren’t even good history. To focus on the theatricality of women protesting the state in the streets neglects those aspects of fighting for citizenship that we all know are essential, but hard and boring: holding committee meetings; lobbying members of parliament; working to persuade the public of the justice of women’s cause. Instead, only those women who broke the law, were arrested, and suffered for their activism in jail, or who undertook the hunger strike and experienced forcible feeding, are celebrated for their activism. It’s also disingenuous. Militancy as theater presents WSPU activism as women’s claim to equal participation without acknowledging that some of those women escalated their protests to what we would see today as forms of domestic terrorism. Historians tend to finesse this by asserting that the WSPU was careful to distinguish between violence against property and against persons.[2] Numerous counter examples suggest that this is a distinction honored more by historians than by suffragettes. I daresay that acts equivalent to cutting telegraph wires between major cities, placing bombs on public transportation, and physically attacking elected members of the government in public, would not be, and indeed, are not, celebrated when they occur today.

In the final analysis, the official emphasis on militancy means little or no attention is paid to women’s exercise of citizenship. Tellingly, the HM Government website commemorating the centenary presents a dashboard of six buttons in purple and green: “Search for events”; “Apply for a grant”; “Branding and logos”; “Votes for Women”; “Register to Vote”; and “Like us on Facebook.” Compare these with the options presented on the Fawcett Society’s website: “About”; “Impact”; “Get Involved”; “Support”; “Research and Policy”; “News”; and “Local Groups.” The former speaks to an understanding of citizenship rooted in consumer culture – it offers opportunities for members of the public to advertise their commitments and to express pleasure at the experience of consuming a website. One button does offer, “register to vote,” but little else suggests how women might participate actively in the political sphere. In contrast, the Fawcett Society website offers opportunities to explore not only the history of the campaign for women’s suffrage, but the myriad ongoing struggles in which women are engaged today as they “support women’s rights.” Prominently featured are buttons using active verbs: “Campaign with Fawcett”; “Volunteer”; “Fundraise”; “Get informed.” Not surprisingly, the Fawcett Society is heir to the strand of women’s suffrage activism – by far the largest – that both eschewed militancy during the campaign, and continued to work towards women’s fuller practice of citizenship following enfranchisement.

In the end, I find the words of Teresa Billington-Greig, an early theorist of militancy and ultimately a critic of the WSPU, oddly prescient. In 1911, she wrote:

I do not condemn the present day militancy because it has gone too far. I fear that it has not gone far enough, and that it will never rise to the heights to which it originally showed potential claim. What I condemn in militant tactics is the small pettiness, the crooked course, the double shuffle between revolution and injured innocence, the playing for effects and not for results – in short, the exploitation of revolutionary forces and enthusiastic women for the purposes of advertisement.[3]

Billington-Greig’s critique now extends to the very commemoration of the women’s suffrage movement, one hundred years after enfranchisement. Dazzled by spectacle, we consume images of rebel women, but leave the hard and boring work to those who represent us in government. We truly are all militants now.

References

[1] Marina Warner, “Death in Plain Sight,” London Review of Books 35, 13 (4 July 2013): 19-20 (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n13/marina-warner/death-in-plain-sight).

[2] One historian stands out as willing to discuss the violence of militancy; see Fern Riddell, “Sanitising the Suffragettes,” History Today, 27 January 2018 (https://www.historytoday.com/fern-riddell/sanitising-suffragettes).

[3] Teresa Billington-Greig, The Militant Suffrage Movement: Emancipation in a Hurry (1911; reprinted in Carol McPhee and Ann FitzGerald, The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987): 138.

 

Laura Mayhall teaches history in Washington, D.C. and is the author of The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930