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Why women's fight for the vote was finally won by Great War work

By Mary Kenny

Published 21/09/2015

Alluring performance: Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette
Alluring performance: Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette

Meryl Streep can bring allure to any part she plays, and she'll undoubtedly be brilliant as Emmeline Pankhurst when the much-anticipated movie Suffragette comes out next month. It's the story of a group of women's suffragists, as they were originally called ("suffragette" was coined in 1906 as a word of disparagement, but it became a tribute), and it features a star-studded cast, including Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Brendan Gleeson and Anne-Marie Duff.

It should be fascinating, but whether it will tell the truth about the suffragettes is a different question. Historical movies are rarely strong on truth - from Calamity Jane to Braveheart, legend has always proved stronger than historical exactitude. Although sometimes the truth can be more interesting than the legend.

The Pankhurst family, for example, were extraordinary, but quite politically eccentric. Emmeline, the mother, began as a Liberal (and a supporter of Irish nationalism - the Fenians were a major influence in her teenage years), but became a patriotic Tory during the Great War. Christabel, her eldest daughter - who doesn't feature in the movie - was academically brilliant, but prone to hysterical claims. She developed a preoccupation with sexual purity and men polluting women with venereal disease ("Votes for Women - and Chastity for Men" was her cry). But she lived long enough to be made a Dame, became a wandering preacher anticipating Christ's Second Coming, and died in California.

Sylvia, the second daughter, was a pacifist - opposing her mother's support of the 1914-18 war - a socialist, and communist, and developed an obsession with Ethiopia, dying in 1960 in Addis Ababa. Adela, the third daughter, became a fascist and was an adornment to Mosley's British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

Suffragism in Britain and Ireland had its heyday in the early 1900s and it was certainly colourful, often glamorous, consistently brave, and sometimes violent. Emmeline Pankhurst herself said, in 1912, that the strongest political argument was "the argument of the broken pane of glass" - thus encouraging her followers to go about smashing windows, chucking missiles, using gunpowder, arson and the destruction of art-works.

Mary Richardson - a fanatical suffragette who also ended up in the British Union of Fascists (which was strong on female equality) - attacked Velazquez's Rockeby Venus painting with an axe. She objected to the nudity.

In a notorious episode in Dublin in 1912, Mary Leigh, a Manchester "super-militant", also threw an axe at the Irish Home Rule leader John Redmond, and wounded him on the ear. Not content with that, she and three other English suffragettes set fire to a full Theatre Royal, which was fortunately saved from conflagration by an alert member of the Connaught Rangers.

Granted, the Irish Home Rule party were opposed to votes for women - definitely a mistaken judgment.

But the suffragettes were not particularly popular in Ireland, and were met with hostile crowds after the Theatre Royal incident. Irishwomen who campaigned for the vote preferred to join Sinn Fein. Constance Markievicz had strong links with the English suffragettes, her sister Eva Gore-Booth was in a loving lesbian relationship with Esther Roper, an early pioneer of suffragism. Eva and Esther were pacifists, opposing all violence.

The Pankhursts regarded Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press in the film) as a "loose cannon". But when she threw herself under King George V's horse, Anmer, at the 1913 Derby, it attracted worldwide publicity and the cause had its martyr. Davison died, the horse lived, and the jockey, Herbert Jones, was "haunted" by the event ever afterwards. He eventually took his own life.

The suffragettes didn't begin by being violent, but became violent when Parliament stonewalled their cause - they were also force-fed when on prison hunger-strike.

Suffragettes came from every kind of background. In the 1918 election, when they won the vote (for women over 30), they came from every party - Labour, Liberal, Unionist, Conservative, Independent. And yet it was the Sinn Fein candidate, Markievicz, who was the first ever elected British (or Irish) MP. As we know, she didn't take her seat - for Sinn Fein women, nationalism took priority.

The suffragettes were bound to win their cause - New Zealand, Australia, Norway, Finland, even Portugal had extended the vote to women by the 1900s, without any martyrdom. The Isle of Man gave women the franchise in 1881. There were female opponents of the cause, including Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston's mother), the popular novelist Marie Corelli and Lady Londonderry, who held "anti-suffragist" soirees. The "antis" believed that suffragettes were shrieking and unfeminine.

Did the suffragettes "change the course of history" as the forthcoming film claims?

Actually, what finally crumbled opposition to votes for women was the 1914-18 war. Women drove ambulances, ran transport services, doctored and nursed, staffed the factories, and showed they were capable of command and responsibility.

After 1918, their fight for votes was basically over. But they must have looked back remembering what larks it had been.

Belfast Telegraph

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