No more suffragettes please!

This week contains the 100th anniversary of another important point in women’s history. On 14 December 1918 the general election called by Prime Minister Lloyd George saw the first women in the UK to cast their votes, after the passing of the Representation of the People Act the previous February.

It’s been a great year for women’s history, on the back of these anniversaries.

But I’m going to say something that may rile some people.

I am PIGSICK of the flipping suffragettes.

I have had a gutful of Millicent, Emmeline, Christabel et al. Sorry, and all that, but it’s true.

Does this make me anti-feminist? Does it make me not worthy of calling myself a women’s historian?

I believe not. I believe it’s a very feminist standpoint, and one that shows my commitment to the wider cause and depth of women’s history.

Of course those women were amazing, inspirational and changed lives. I am not arguing with that in the slightest, and they’ll always have my utmost respect. But they’re not the be all and end all of women’s history by a long way.

My view point comes from the suffrage cause being ALL that anyone wants to talk about when women’s history is mentioned. Talk to a history teacher about women’s history and the general response is “Oh yes, we include women’s suffrage in our curriculum now”, with possibly a footnote on women’s rights in the 20th century. Talk a museum curator about women’s history, and one of the responses I’ve received is an apology of “Oh, we’ve not found a suffragist from our collecting area.”

For the past two years I’ve been running The Women Who Made Me project, which has looked at discovering extraordinary women’s history among the ordinary – we’ve profiled nuns, penitents, criminals, divorcees, landladies, social pariahs, farmer’s wives, cooks, women’s officers, prostitutes, social workers, gentry, workhouse inmates, mothers of fourteen, mothers of none, mothers of illegitimate children, artists, musicians, manageresses, matrons, highway women, confectioners, travellers, teachers, factory workers, and someone who recommended do-it-yourself enemas. All important and diverse parts of women’s history. The idea behind the project is to get people to connect with and value their female ancestry, and not dismiss it as not interesting or relevant. Grassroots women’s history research, if you will.

Recently I’ve looked at an 1880s case where a botched abortion led to a pregnant woman’s death and a herbalist locked up for the crime (which it was at the time) was incarcerated for 23 years past the duration of her original sentence because she insisted upon her innocence and was declared insane.

I’ve also looked at female anti-suffragists, many of whom were articulate and intelligent women, as I was fascinated these women could oppose the idea of expanding rights and roles. One of such was Gwladys Gladstone Solomon, who intrigued me greatly, as even when many other opposers had given up in the face of seeing what women were capable of during WW1, she kept up the fight. And she was so vociferous that she didn’t appear on the electoral roll until she’d changed her surname in 1938. There’s loads more to Gwladys, and I urge you to go and read the rest of her story on The Women Who Made Me.

Why would I want to talk about Emmeline Pankhurst again, when I could talk about some of these women instead?

The rule of thumb is if someone has a Wikipedia page then people know about them, and I tend not to touch them. It’s about uncovering and discovering history that hasn’t really been recorded, for whatever reason – because it wasn’t known about, because it wasn’t considered important, because it was disregarded, because history as taught in schools for decades was believed to be about kings and queens and empire and foreign policy and nothing else, because it sits behind a blank box on a census return, because the woman herself didn’t think it was up to much so didn’t talk about it.

Occasionally, rather than talking about the suffragettes, someone will tell me about their grandmother. Invariably she was a “strong woman”, but when pressed on exactly what that means the answer is “Er… she wasn’t a suffragette or anything but she raised us all her children really well and kept going.”

Strong woman is right. What people usually don’t mention is what granny did before she was married, after she left school. What her childhood was like. Who she was as a person rather than someone based around the house and in a nurturing role. When I asked listeners to BBC Wiltshire to tell me about their grannies there were dozens of stories of warm older women who would make great apple crumble and always be on hand to dispense a cuddle when needed. Which is great – the world needs more people like that – but really doesn’t give the full picture of a person and their life.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a grandmother too. But I’m willing to bet that Helen Pankhurst doesn’t get asked about the quality of her apple crumble, because it might be considered insulting and denigrating everything else she achieved. But she may well have been a good cook. It’s about seeing the whole woman, not just part of her life.

It’s really a question of value when it comes to historical women – what we can find out about them, and looking at what we consider as history or an achievement. There’s been an upsurge in publishing of inspiring books for kids over the past couple of years – the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and Women in Science are prime examples. They focus on some exceptional women – of the past and the present. However, the reality is, these women are few and far between, and we’d be really lucky to find someone like them in our ancestry.

And, really, are these women’s achievements being judged by ‘male’ parameters – they are making discoveries and achievements in areas that have been traditionally male: politics, science, medicine, engineering.

Therefore, are we valuing and judging them and their achievements against a male-based scale, rather than valuing them as whole women?

Is that too feminist, or too divisionist, or not the case at all?

Maybe, but it’s definitely something to consider as we look at the women in our ancestry and attempt to find out their stories.

Do we disregard them out of hand if it looks like they “just” had children, and didn’t do something that little bit different or out of the ordinary? There’s the “blank box” syndrome, whereby a married woman’s details weren’t recorded on many census returns because she had no identity past that of her husband and children. Even the jobs she did do – for example helping with home-based manufacture, or farming, or running a pub or shop – were attributed to her husband if she was married.

The point is, these women – those who exceeded society expectations, challenged perceptions and broke molds – are few and far between. We’re lucky if we find one in our ancestry, but most of us haven’t got that. The quite frankly excellent recent Back In Time For The Factory on the BBC looked at this – the story of ordinary working class women in garment factories, and ascribing value to their experiences.

What we need to do is re-evaluate the women we do have in our ancestry, and find value in their stories.

The nature of humanity often means that we think ourselves better than those who came before us, because we’ve built on their achievements. But this often means we’ve not experienced what those of the past did – for example multiple pregnancies (unless your name happens to be Helena de Chair), or high infant mortality rates, or domestic work without modern appliances – so our judgement on what to value comes from a blinkered perspective. Margaret Llewelyn Davies’ Maternity, published in 1915, features very frank accounts of working-class motherhood and domestic work from the late Victorian era that are completely alien today.

By its very nature, our family history comes down to us from married people, women who had achieved the “ultimate” and envied position for a woman – that of wife and mother. Society taught people to pity the unmarried woman as she had not achieved this position (look at words like spinster, old maid, dried up, etc, as opposed to bachelor) – but actually the unmarried women are often the most interesting, if you seek them out. But because they have no descendants they tend to be an afterthought in our family history, if they feature at all. It’s all about the lens we see women of the past through – because of how it was recorded.

The question is, should we perpetuate that viewpoint and that lens in how we view our female ancestry?

Or should we challenge it?

The ending of the year of important suffrage anniversaries means that women’s history has quite justifiably had a lot of focus over the last 12 months. What needs to happen now is that interest to be sustained, and to go beyond those obvious figures – looking at more than just the suffragettes.

4 thoughts on “No more suffragettes please!

  1. hartnellyoung

    Terrific argument, although I don’t think we should begrudge any women their place in history. You have articulated some of the the reasons I established Honour a Woman on Facebook. It has an Australian focus and aims to put more women on the public record through official Australian Honours.

    Like

  2. This is great! I absolutely agree with all your many points, which are very well put.
    For example, building on one point, for those of us interested in family trees, it’s really important not to neglect people with no descendants, as well as to investigate non-blood relatives, networks of friends and family and neighbours, co-workers and so on. Anything. We can get as much satisfaction and insight out of investigating some ships that pass in the night as we can from direct ancestors.
    For those of us with interests in context, stories, and a broader picture, then the family tree is also (or even “just”) a particularly vivid and personal route to finding those stories (which a few of our nearest and dearest might just be interested in too, one day!)
    It’s great how you encourage us to research and promote this whole, enormous, class of neglected stories – our women’s varied stories.

    Like

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