Women’s suffrage, public history and feminist activism

Helen Sunderland

Last week I spent two days in Oxford at the brilliant Women in the Humanities conference Women’s Suffrage and Beyond. Here are some reflections from the conference on the suffrage centenary and doing women’s history in 2018.

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This year’s suffrage centenary – marking 100 years since some women gained the UK parliamentary vote – has seen huge public interest in the history of the fight for the franchise. Exhibitions, art, music and theatre performances across the country have told stories of the suffrage campaign. The suffragist leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett became the first woman to have a statue in Parliament Square. Elsewhere, suffragettes Alice Hawkins and Emily Wilding Davison were given statues of their own, and later this year a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in Manchester, her home city.

For suffrage historians, it’s been a bumper year for conferences. There have been loads of opportunities to share research on all aspects of women’s politics in the period. More importantly, the centenary has renewed our conviction that the work we do as historians should have an impact outside of academia.

A key theme running through the conference was how the centenary has told a particular story about the suffrage campaign. The year’s celebrations have focused more on the feisty, militant suffragettes than their law-abiding suffragist sisters. 2018’s colours have been those of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union: green, white and purple – not the green, white and red of the constitutional suffragists. Often when I explain my PhD research to people outside of the discipline I find myself doing a similar thing. It’s easier to agree with their impression that, yes, I am researching ‘the suffragettes’, than explain the nuances of schoolgirl political socialisation.

But focusing on the Edwardian campaign risks erasing the decades of hard-fought suffrage campaigning that came earlier. As numerous papers highlighted, it’s not even as simple as the suffragettes versus suffragists. Organisational allegiance within the suffrage campaign was messy. Individuals could be members of a range of different groups, especially at a local level.

We kept coming back to this question: is it more important to have a compelling public narrative about the suffrage campaign that generates people’s interest and inspires them to present-day activism, or to insist on historical accuracy? Is it better to engage the public with a selective but powerful her-story, or point out the complexities and nuances in the suffrage campaign? These are questions that all public historians grapple with – and I don’t think there are easy answers.

The public narrative about suffrage becomes more problematic when we think about how it is gendered. Suffragettes used forms of militant political protest historically associated with men to subvert the gender order. But suffrage militancy wasn’t just about damaging property, public spectacle or even suffragette martyrdom. As Tania Shew pointed out in her paper, suffragettes could use marriage as a militant tactic, disrupting expected patterns of behaviour and calling for ‘birth strikes’. Of course, what it meant to be militant changed over time. In the 1860s, a woman speaking in public would have been seen in those terms.

By privileging one form of militancy – the violence of the Edwardian suffragettes – the public history of the suffrage campaign celebrates women’s activism in its most masculine form. It is this direct challenge to male power structures and expectations about how women should behave in public that has made the suffragettes such powerful figures in the public mind. However, it overlooks the richness and diversity of the history of women’s activism. Subverting the gender order could look very different to different people over time.

One of the things I like most about women’s history conferences is the connections they make with activism today. Women’s history has always had a strong connection with feminist activism; the sub-discipline developed in tandem with second-wave feminism. When you’re presenting a paper and hearing other people’s historical research alongside panels on current feminist campaigns and support groups, it’s impossible not to see the events of a hundred years ago, and our work as historians, with new significance.

With everything that’s going on in the news, now more than ever women’s historians need to be part of the public conversation and the ongoing fight for gender equality. 2018 marked a hundred years of partial suffrage – there’s another decade to go until the centenary of equal suffrage. The feeling at the conference, then, was that 2018 is just the start. Let’s use the next ten years to keep the public conversations about women’s history going – in all its complexity and diversity – and highlight how far we still have to go.

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