Sunday, 23 June 2013

March, Women, March – Lucinda Hawksley

Published to coincide with the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, March, Women, March is a truly impressive collection of suffrage memories.

The subtitle Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to Votes for Women succinctly sums up the contents of Lucinda Hawksley’s book, which is a thorough and authoritative anthology of quotes from important early feminist figures, many of whom have been sadly forgotten in the wake of their headlining grabbing 20th Century suffragette sisters.

The suffragettes were the militant women who only rose to prominence in the very final years of the suffrage campaign, before the First World War saw Emmeline Pankhurst call her army of women to stand down. But the suffragists far out-numbered the suffragettes – being the peaceful campaigners who had tirelessly worked for decades previously to overturn not only marriage acts, but also health bills and working rights for women, alongside campaigning for the vote. The right to vote being just one of the key demands of what is now called the first wave of feminism.

Lucinda’s beautiful book (with two large sections of fascinating photos) quite rightly pays great respect to the many, many forgotten women who campaigned for decades before the suffragettes arrived on the scene. Meaning that we begin with Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, and follow through the decades via legendary and reforming nurse Florence Nightingale, and the poet Caroline Norton – whose story particularly sung out to me.

Caroline was obliged to marry an older man who she didn’t love in order to ensure financial security for her family – only for her husband to violently abuse her, kidnap their children and steal all the money she earned as a successful poet. However, after leaving her abusive husband, Caroline threw herself into studying law and was ultimately successful in bringing about the Custody of Infants Acts 1839, which finally saw mothers recognised as joint parent of her children (previously, in the event of a marriage break up, children automatically went to the father). It’s shocking that Caroline isn’t better known today.

Through the following chapters we learn of so many other, equally amazing and astonishing women who achieved so much in such stiflingly oppressive times. And while a large part of the book is occupied with the women who helped us win the vote, Lucinda doesn’t focus too heavily on the better known figures.

What we are left with in March, Women, March is a very accessibly and compulsive book, which is a testament to a great deal of library research and archival work. Lucinda supports the many quotes and excerpts with very readable historical background information – and the volume of these facts that relate back to Charles Dickens are clearly a nod to her very well known great, great, great grandfather.

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