Sunday, 23 December 2018

Vote 100 - A Round-Up of Some of the Events

This has been an exciting year for suffrage themed exhibitions, owing to it being the centenary of when (some) women finally got the vote here in the UK. Of the (approximately) ten million suffrage events all over the country, I barely made it to a handful. Here are a few of my highlights, and do share in the comments about any favourite or memorable events that you attended.

One of the two enormous suffragette lanterns at the Bristol parade

Marking exactly 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 (and my 40th birthday!), Bristol Women’s Voice organised a beautiful lantern parade in the evening on February 6. Literally thousands of women, girls and menfolk attended, many were dressed up, and almost everyone had a handmade torch-lit lantern as we marched and paraded from Clifton down to College Green. Despite the cold, rain and sleet, it was a truly magnificent event.

Sappho to Suffrage in Oxford
Sappho to Suffrage: Women Who Dared is a free exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is a carefully curated selection from the extension collection that showcased some of the more notable pieces relating to women. Not exclusively suffrage related, the exhibition includes everything from Mary Wollstonecraft’s original notebook showing her working draft of Frankenstein, to a fabric banner from the Oxford Women’s Suffrage Society that had been used in suffrage parades a century before. This exhibition remains open until 19 February 2019, so you still have time to go.

Index of Suffragettes at the National Archives

On May 18, I went to a special evening event at the National Archives in Kew called Law Makers or Law Breakers? Alongside animated talks from Dr Naomi Paxton and actor Jessica Hynes (writer and star of suffrage sitcom Up The Women), it was a chance to see the brand new exhibition Suffragettes vs The State, drink at the Women’s Gin-stitute and drinks suffrage-themed cocktails. 

Millicent Fawcett at the LSE

Over at the London School of Economics, there was the exhibition At Last! Votes for Women, which took the refreshing approach of giving equal billing to all three of the major suffrage groups: not prioritising the Women’s Social and Political Union as so many exhibitions and events did. So we saw equal information and memorabilia about the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Socieities as well as the WSPU. My favourite item was the menu from the final dinner held by the vegetarian and teetotal NUWSS to celebrate winning the vote on equal terms as men in 1928: lentil cutlets in tomato sauce with Italian eggs, anyone?

Dr Naomi Paxton with our balloon suffragist Winifred

Elsewhere in London, the Barbican hosted a series of film screenings and events under the banner of Nevertheless, She Persisted. I attended a screening of the 1913 silent movie The Suffragette (about a convert to the women’s movement who develops a delightfully arsonistic streak, while sporting an impressively mammoth hat), starring Asta Nielson and introduced by Dr Naomi Paxton. A wonderful chance to see a feature length movie that was new to me, as well as another chance to watch a selection of the short films from the BFI’s Make More Noise collection (this gets wheeled out fairly regularly all over the place, and is also on DVD, if you haven’t yet seen this).

Votes For Women sweeties
The Museum of London holds one of the biggest collections of suffrage pieces anywhere in the world, and has a sizeable suffragette display as part of its permanent display. So I had high hopes for its Vote 100 exhibition, which were dashed pretty quickly. This tiny exhibition featured a literal handful of objects in a few glass cases, displayed in a dark room that was also showing on loop a short ‘talking heads’ film with suffrage writers. When I asked an usher if this was it or was there more elsewhere, it turned out I wasn’t the only one to think this exhibition  a phenomenal let down. But if you want to see it for yourself, it remains open - and free to attend - until 10 March 2019.

The Cause from Dreadnought South West

The Cause was a brand new touring play from Dreadnought South West, about an imagined conversation between suffrage leaders Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. I caught the play when it came to the Redgrave Theatre in Bristol in the summer, and was swept up in the tide of revolution stirring through Natalie McGrath’s tight script.

Up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I felt truly lucky to catch a performance of the outstanding and mesmerising one-woman play That Daring Australian Girl, about real-life Australian suffragette Muriel Matters who came to London and caused no end of mayhem in the name of votes for women. Her story was brilliantly told by actor Joanne Hartstone (who also wrote the script), who had come over from Australia to tour the show. It deservedly won five-star reviews all across the board.

Also causing a fuss in theatres was the hip hop musical at the Old Vic in London about Sylvia Pankhurst, called simply Sylvia, that enjoyed colour-blind casting and took a few liberties to achieve a rip roaring historical feast. Written by the exciting duo of Kate Prince and Priya Parmar, and with Beverley Knight as Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia had audiences dancing in the aisles. Let’s hope this sold out show returns.
Suffraducks at the Houses of Parliament

The Houses of Parliament naturally needed to get in on the act and did so with its Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition in its echoey grand hall. Recreating various key parliamentary places in the votes for women story, visitors were able to experience The Ventilator (the cramped loft space above the House of Common Chamber where women could try to watch proceedings), The Cage (an enclosed space where, hidden behind large brass grilles, women could try to find out what was going on) and The Tomb (the tiny little Ladies’ Members Room where the very first female MPs were expected to conduct their business). The suffragette bath ducks in the gift shop were a particular highlight and you can still buy them online. Unable to make it to the (now closed) exhibition? Fret not. You can watch a video tour of it on this Facebook link.

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