Thursday, 1 March 2018

'Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage'

Those with an interest in the suffrage movement are being spoilt for choice with new books to read at the moment, but one I have enjoyed enormously is Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by historian Jane Robinson. Not least because, look! What a beautiful cover it has!

Hearts and Minds is a refreshing read because it takes as its focus not the Pankhursts and the militant suffragettes of the Women's Social and Political Union, but instead the law-abiding suffragists who campaigned peacefully for the vote for half a century or more. Since the 1860s, the suffragists lobbied and marched and petitioned for women to have the vote, never breaking the law or harming anybody in the process. Frustrated by the lack of movement, the Pankhurst family in 1903 started the Women's Social and Political Union, which ultimately led to a few years of headline grabbing stunts that are sadly what remains etched in most people's minds when they think of 'votes for women'... though this is not the true picture of the movement at all. 

So instead, Jane Robinson uses her wonderful new book to set the record straight and explain why the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (led by the peaceful Millicent Fawcett) were actually the ones who effected change. This culminated in the powerful Great Pilgrimage of 1913, which was made so much harder for the peaceful women who were often misjudged as militants and greeted with hostility and even death threats as a result. 

The Great Pilgrimage saw thousands of women march from all over the UK to congregate in London's Hyde Park for a huge rally, lobbying government for women's suffrage. Jane charts the adventures of the women focussing less on the stories of the big name women who are familiar to us, and more on the lesser known stories found by trawling personal archives, personal diaries and letters and so on, to uncover nuggets of information about their day to day lives during the six-week pilgrimage. I am inclined to agree with Jane that the stories of the everyday women involved in the suffrage movement are often a lot more revealing and interesting than those of the big name campaigners.

It is an utterly fascinating and absorbing read, illustrated by a wide range of photos that I had not previously seen and found very interesting indeed. This is a beautifully written and presented book, and is absolutely essential for anyone with even a passing interest in this fascinating period of women's history. 

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