In step with London’s suffragettes and suffragists
Not long ago, some brave and strong women played out one of the history’s most influential campaigns: the suffragette movement. Their fierce fights for something you take for granted and even disregard now – the right to vote – have transformed not only the ordinary woman but also the society. Today, there are traces of the movement all over the London. If you try hard enough, you could see the suffragettes’ dancing shadows marching from Caxton Hall to the Parliament. Or you could imagine them madly tearing up the National Gallery’s paintings and holding dramatic boycotts in the Trafalgar Square. But what if instead of picturing these events, you could see them happening in front of your eyes? Well, rumour has it that there is a tour called Women on the March, which offers you this wonderful opportunity.
The women’s suffrage movement started in 1903, when Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). They had a mission: to help women enter the sphere of politics by giving them the basic right to vote. Detached from the pacifist National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the new organisation abandoned its mother-society elegant tactics and adopted a militant approach. ‘Deeds, not words.’ – was its slogan, and it loudly echoed in the every campaign for social reformation it had.
The suffragettes’ volcanic temper would blow up properties, set goods on fire, launch arson attacks and even rip paintings. They would organise window-breaking campaigns, daringly attacking the politicians or disrupting the Parliament. The street demonstrations were also a common practice for the WSPU. Frequently enough, they would get arrested, do hunger strikes in jail, be force-feed and then released on the 1913 Cat and Mouse Act.
Alongside the NUWSS and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), the WSPU’S suffragettes fought until they could finally embrace the very much deserved liberation. From being some mere decorations in the society, women became politically active. In 1918 women over the age of 30 and who owned property, could vote. Later in 1928, all women over 21 were granted the vote on the same terms as men. It is worth noticing this incipient form of sisterhood as manifested in the collaborations between the NUWSS, WSPU and WFL. Sure, they had clashing views and strategies over they couldn’t agree, but they rose above. They completed each other rather than competed. It’s a beautiful moment in history when the seed of sisterhood gracefully sprouted against all the odds and continues to grow stronger nowadays.
To get a sense of what meant to be a suffragette and how it was to participate in the demonstrations, listen to the story of Lady Constance Lytton (also known as Jane Warton). She was a passionate British suffragette who one time, while being imprisoned, used a broken enamel to draw the letter “V” from “Votes for Women”, on her breast, right above her heart. In 1914, she published “Prisons and Prisoners”, relating her experiences as a suffragette.
Although the suffrage days are far gone, they remain a memorable page in the history of the world. For this very reason, three professional guides, Catherine, Mary and Moira, came up with the idea of a tour that celebrates the powerful women who participated in the movement. Thus, it came into being the Women on the March – a theatrical walking tour staging significant episodes from the tumultuous historical period. The three guides bring the suffragettes’ story back to life through animated and imaginative performances depicting the heroic acts of the suffragettes and not only.
Dressed up in authentic costumes made up of a long dress, a coat and a cloche or a Victorian hat, they recreate the authentic style the early 1900s. The white, green or purple ribbon crossed over the chest it’s an indispensable accessory, as it represents the WSPU’s flag colours. White, as explained by Mrs Pethick-Lawrence once, stands for ‘purity in public as well as private life’, green signifies ‘hope’, like the “green fire” of a new spring tide’ and purple means ‘dignity’.
Their impassionate speeches, infuriated gestures and determined marching, have the power to send you back in time, right in the middle of the suffragettes’ demonstrations.
On January 21, they even joined thousands of other demonstrators in the Women’s March on London – an anti-Trump protest organised to celebrate the fundamental human rights and equality. Catherine, Mary and Moira gloriously marched in the name of the suffragettes, holding placards with the words ‘Suffragettes against Trump’ written on them.
I’ve talked with Catherine Cartwright, one of the Women on the March tour organisers. Listen to my interview to find out more details about the tour’s key locations, whose stories Catherine and her friends tell, and what do they do during their walks.
Also, don’t miss the chance to book your ticket for the next tour. It’s scheduled on Sunday, 14th May, outside the National Gallery, from 10:30 to 12:00 pm. You can follow the tour on Facebook and Twitter pages for further updates.
Now, after knowing all this, aren’t you a little curious to see what suffragette campaigns have been staged where, and when in London? Take a look at the map below and discover the capital’s key locations for the suffrage movement.
In case you want to explore these places by yourself, here’s a navigation map you can use. Also, enjoy your walk by listening to this heavenly WSPU’s anthem composed by Dame Ethel Smyth and sung by a women’s choir based in Northumberland.