Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Ms Pankhurst

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I’m a little late on the posting schedule today, but I really wanted to think this blog post through. I might come across as having an adamantly single view on this topic, but I promise you, I’m open to discussion!

In every wave of feminism over the last 100 years, there is a figure who stands out as the face of the movement at that time. For the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century, that person was Emmeline Pankhurst. A warrior in a corset, Pankhurst was possibly the most critical political and social agitator in the 20th century.

I first became aware of the significance of Emmeline Pankhurst when Meryl Streep portrayed her in the movie Suffragette in 2015. She was in the movie for a whole 5 minutes, so you didn’t really get to know much about her apart from the fact that a) she was the head of the Suffragette movement in Britain, b) she had been arrested quite a bit c) she encouraged the use of force when peaceful protesting wasn’t working and d) for that, she was a controversial protagonist in many ways.

When the movement for Women’s rights wasn’t making progression, Pankhurst encouraged adopting the man’s method in order to make women’s voices heard: Violence.

Deeds not Words

This was a commentary about reform. Fight back. Make the news. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Sounds pretty terrible, but if you think about it, women engaged in peaceful protest were already being arrested, tortured, beaten by the police, and with little success; it would have been madness to continue with the same methods and expect a different result. I have to note that that this message didn’t involve murder. No one died – at least until Emily Davison stepped in front of the King’s Horse at Ascot 1913 and accidentally did. It did mark a turning point in the movement though – her death gained international attention and coverage and forwarded the movement.

As mad as it sounds, while it looked like suicide, Davison was simply trying to attach a Suffragette banner to the moving horse. A risky move, but it’s clear she was prepared to go to considerable lengths to make a statement. And she did so, as part of the struggle against the inequalities of society, in the face of hostility, imprisonment and violence. It raises the question of what we would be prepared to die for.

I have made speeches urging women to adopt methods of rebellion such as have been adopted by men in every revolution. – Emmeline Pankhurst

This resonates with the biblical belief that faith without works is dead, as seen through Jesus’ death for humanity. So can we really blame her?

Violence aside, ‘deeds not words’ teaches us that we need to walk our talk. Make whatever we believe in our lives and passion and commit to it through real action. It may open doors for persecution and hate, but this is all part of the struggle for change. Where in the old days people would stand on a soapbox in the street and yell out revelations, today we have social media in which to vocalise our thoughts, and these messages spread faster and further. A certain responsibility is necessary with this power. If the message isn’t ethical, moral or promoting the advancement or equality of all people, this tool can be more of a curse than a blessing. In the case of taking action, many people are keen to step up and help others out but often for the wrong reasons. For example, there is a problem of ‘voluntourism’ where well-meaning folk sign up to volunteer for people in need – particularly in impoverished and diseased places – but often end up providing superficial service dedicated to the social media experience rather than the goal of making a genuine difference. Now while I certainly don’t want to bag anyone willing to give up time for a good cause, and any sort of charity or volunteering is gratefully required, these people often end up being more of a burden than a help for the organisations they are working for. Similarly, most volunteers travel in summer time, so during winter these people and places can be desperately under-staffed.

Discipline. Sacrifice. Commitment. I know how hard this is! I’ve often flaked or half-heartedly committed to something. I wouldn’t expect everyone to drop their full-time job and travel to Kenya for a full year of intense volunteering in order to convince me they’re committed to the cause. I also wouldn’t expect anyone to die for it. But I have promised myself that whether I end up volunteering for or sponsoring a woman, or a community of women, I will travel during winter, or keep up sponsorship for as long as I agreed to sign up for. Our actions should not be the case of ‘lip service’, or because of ‘duty’, or when one is in the mood. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, it’s simply a matter of following through with a promise. It doesn’t even have to be volunteering! It could be keeping a blog alive. Or donating money, time or skill without complaint. Or standing up for something that matters to you.

But whatever the circumstance, please, please don’t die for any cause!

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Making Herstory

The troubling and toxic phenomenon of anti-feminism.

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You’d think one wouldn’t have to justify a movement that promotes the welfare of 50% of the world’s population. But here I am.

Last week I mentioned that the wave we are currently going through is facing backlash and obstruction in a surprisingly similar fashion to its predecessors. Despite the relevancy of women’s suffrage (and even when you think people today would be enlightened to it), there is still a strong sense of anti-feminism out there. Just the other day I read a revolting article (written by a woman), discussing the dangers of modern feminists/’feminazis’ because they are “tyrannical and cliquey”.

Apparently we’re back in high school. I also didn’t realise that feminists were the cause of the biggest racial genocide in modern history… (bit of an unfair comparison, don’t you think?)

Meryl Streep (whom I ADORE) was brought into the conversation (was it a conversation? I felt it very biased). While promoting her role as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, Streep was asked by an interviewer, “Are you a feminist?”, she replied: “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance”. It’s confusing why she’d avoid using the term feminist, considering her actions are unfailingly feminist. This is a woman who sent letters to Congress demanding they pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and set up a fund for women screenwriters over 40. She also called out Hollywood for being too male-dominated. The writer of the article was affronted by the outrage generated by feminists over Streep’s statement. As a feminist (and I probably speak for many in our circles), I have nothing against a person who calls themselves a humanist – but you have to understand that in this context – by not identifying with the term, she was holding back a movement which is having to spend too much unnecessary time changing the negative context of the word instead of getting on with the things that really matter. As JK Rowling claims:

“Fear of the name increases fear of the thing itself”.

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Making Herstory

Tides of Change at the Turning of the Century

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I have a special place in my heart for the Edwardian era. There is something quite endearing about the time, from the absorbing history and elaborate dresses to the sentimental stories in literature and art nouveau architecture (even if one may sniff at the overkill). I’m certainly not impartial to modern adaptions and impressions of Edwardian life and history, such as Downton Abbey, Berkeley Square, Anne of Green Gables, Goodbye Mr Chips, Titanic and Mr Selfridge etc. but one of the issues with the representation of this era is the Pictorialist approach that emphasises beauty of the subject matter and tone, rather than the documentation of reality. There is more focus on aesthetic, and therefore the representation is rather romantic and utopian.

In reality, it wasn’t a utopian society for women at all. Following the end of the Victorian Era in 1900, it was unfeminine for women to have opinions, be political, or to hold ideas or desires of their own. Any woman who stepped out of this role risked everything simply because of the social expectations placed on their gender. If I were transported 100 years into the past, I would have been on the bottom most rung of the social ladder as an unmarried woman. I wouldn’t have had much of an education (unless very wealthy), and my brothers and father would have the control over what I could or couldn’t do in terms of my job and lifestyle. As a teacher, I would be unable to marry. What interests me the most about the Edwardian Era is the social changes that were happening. Many people mistake the 20s as the era of rebellion, but it was really the 1900s-1910s where revolutions towards modern society were beginning to take place – their effects finally being recognised ten years later. Wider access to education and economic and social gaps between the rich, poor, men and women were rallying points for socialists and suffragettes. Dresses were baring shoulders and shaved armpits, and Hollywood – the instigator of all things scandalous – was in its heyday. One of my interests is actually the art of the silent film, and the birth of the Hollywood Star. I even started a drawing challenge based around Silent Film actresses. I love Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Bebe Daniels, Clara Bow, Janet Gaynor, Barbara Stanwyck, Anita Page….Even though it was scandalous to be an actress at that time, I seriously think that their power to influence society was just as powerful as it is today. No doubt the expectations of how women ought to behave in society were softened when these actresses presented diversity and complexity to the female character. Despite the legends of Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Harold Lloyd et al, I really do think that women dominated the silent screen.

I started collecting candid photos of the Edwardian era around 2014, with the goal of completing a book of anonymous photos. I’d like to think of these photos as ‘reflective nostalgia’; looking at the issues of the era with critically aware eyes. What I do appreciate is the dominance of women in the collected candid photographs – particularly young, middle class women without the ‘gift wrap’ – reflecting women’s emerging voice and freedom. The ‘New Woman’, as they called her, was free-spirited, well-read and worldly. She was no longer the sweet, chaperoned sort, happy to play a background part in history. She was independent and scary: she represented the reform that well-to-do people frowned upon. Despite the layer of nostalgia (I struggled to find anyone who wasn’t white) there is a visual cry of the New Woman taking her rightful place in society.Our freedom of choice today is largely thanks to the suffragettes and New Women of the Edwardian Era for their nerve, courage, and non-conformity.

 

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