Friday, 12 October 2012

‘Votes For Ladies’

Recently, I’ve come across the Bristol Radical History Group, which formed in 2006 to stage talks, walks, gigs and more, as well as publishing an impressive catalogue of pamphlets, all celebrating different aspects of Bristol’s radical past.

So I visited HydraBookshop on Old Market (which grew out of the BRHG) and bought quite a few pamphlets, including Votes For Ladies: The Suffrage Movement 1867-1918 by Sheila McNeil (which I’m told is a pseudonym). 

As the title suggests, McNeil is not backwards in coming forwards in suggesting that the suffrage movement was aimed at middle-class women only, and was alienating to working-class women. These facts can’t be denied – meetings were generally held during day times meaning working-class women couldn’t attend; if meetings were held in the evenings, working-class women had little free time to attend between child-care and domestic tasks etc; middle-class women had servants and nannies to keep the home in order if they were sent to prison, while working-class women had no such luxury; and so on. These are plain facts.

What’s interesting in McNeil’s pamphlet is that she chooses deliberate and firm language to make plain her belief that this exclusivity was wrong and detrimental to the cause. In fact, the pamphlet’s title comes from a quote by Dora Montefiore (who set up a branch of the WSPU in a working-class area of East London, but who campaigned for ‘adult suffrage’ rather than ‘women’s suffrage’), who said the WSPU was not interested in votes for women but in “votes for ladies”. Implying the Pankhursts saw a clear line between themselves and their less fortunate sisters.

Since much literature about the suffrage movement only briefly mentions the exclusion of working-class women, it’s important that it’s highlighted here in McNeil’s pamphlet. I’ve now ordered a copy of One Hand Tied Behind Us by Jill Liddington and Jill Norris, which is one of very few historical suffrage books to focus on this aspect. (You can expect a review of that in due course!)

Votes For Ladies takes an interesting angle on the suffrage movement, and acknowledges that there is a key area that has been often overlooked in most writings about the campaign. And it’s good to know that there is a diligent bunch of people locally who are committed to keeping the socialist past of our female history alive. In 2009, the BRHG even staged a dramatic re-enactment of Theresa Garnett’s attack on Winston Churchill at Temple Meads Station (watch the film clip here).

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