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.

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Edith C’s story

Edith led a varied life as a prominent anti-suffragist, a mathematics book author, and the wife of a renowned British composer. In addition, she was a mother, and had a foreign upbringing.

India-born Edith was the daughter of a British engineer, who had been posted to the British Raj hillpost of Mussoorie – in the northern part of the country – in the early 1860s. He was employed by the East Indian Railway, and travelled around the country working and advising on the early establishment of track and engines, and Edith’s mother therefore gave birth to her children in various different places – including Mayapore and Allahabad – and then the more conventional Kent and London.

Edith spent her early childhood in the heat of India, and then returned to London for a while. Her father was posted back to India, so she and her siblings went to live in Hove – at the British seaside – with their mother. Her eldest sister married back in India in the mid-1870s, so it’s probable that the whole family returned to India for a time during that decade, and there is absolutely no sign of Edith and her siblings on the 1881 census so it’s probable that they remained there for several years.

By 1885 one of her brothers was admitted to Cambridge from Bromley, so the whole family had returned to the UK for good, and it was from Bromley that she married in 1890. Her husband was employed at the Royal School of Music in London, and from this point onwards Edith became outwardly known by his name.

They moved into Kensington, the fashionable part of London, and over the next few years Edith gave birth to four children – two girls, and then twin boys. They had a full complement of servants – including a nurse and nursery maids – to give them a very comfortable life.

In 1906 Edith published a book on rhythm in mathematics, perhaps taking on some background from the musical atmosphere in her home. The idea, which originated with Mary Everest Boole, was that children should be taught musical rhythmic patterns in mathematics first, before moving on to more intellectual concepts. The book came with a set of punched sewing cards that enabled children to create curves and designs that encouraged patterns and harmony. Edith’s introduction to the work said of the idea:

“Beautiful curves are produced by a process so simple and automatic that the most inartistic child can succeed in generating beauty by mere conscientious accuracy; and the habit of doing this tends to produce a keen feeling for line. It has also been noticed in 649 some cases, where clean, pure, and strong colour has been used, that a remarkable sensitiveness to colour relation has grown.

“The results obtained by a child, of exquisite curved and flower forms on the ‘back’ of his card, by faithful obedience to a dull little rule in making straight stitches on the ‘front’, is of the nature a miracle. It should, therefore, be hardly necessary to insist that the less said the better, when the little worker produces anything especially beautiful or unexpected.”

The book was still being reprinted, with no real modernisation, until the mid-1970s.

The next phase of Edith’s life began as the campaign for women’s suffrage began to escalate. She opposed women’s suffrage, and was involved in the early days of the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League. She attended a meeting hosted by the Countess of Jersey in London in November 1908, and by the spring of 1909 she was honourable secretary of the league. In this role she spoke at West Hampstead Town Hall:

“… the Suffragists made the mistake of being unduly influenced by special instances rather than considering the community as a whole. The statement that women paid for the vote and therefore they ought to have it was, she thought a very mean conception of citizenship. It had never been our principle in this country. There were two classes of qualification for the vote. The first was that the voter should be a man, and, secondly, he should give some good ground for believing that he would take a permanent and stable interest in the good government of the country. The cry of the Suffragists for the vote on the same terms as men was absurd, because the first term on which men were given the vote was that they were men. (She) then spoke briefly on the subject of the vastness of our Empire, and stated that in all the Suffragist literature there was none upon the subject of women’s franchise and the Empire. Suffragists proposed to alter the whole Constitution upon which that great Empire had been built up without showing its effects upon the Empire. She also referred briefly to certain Suffragist literature, the under-trend of which, she said, seemed to be the destruction of the thought of motherhood as the highest ideal for women.”

She continued to be very involved in the work of the league, proving to be a well-known and rousing speaker for their ideals, and – like her rising counterpart Gwladys – believing that women had an important role in improving society by breeding and raising better people rather than influencing politics. Her platform was presented at various meetings around the country, often working with and speaking alongside with Mary Ward, better known as Mrs Humphry Ward, including at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in late October 1909:

“… (she) said Miss Robertson (Margaret Robinson, one of the speakers for the cause of women’s suffrage) made some good debating points without upsetting Mrs Ward’s argument. “We say (she said) that government depends on the consent of the majority, and that is one of the reasons we oppose the extension of the franchise”. Nobody seemed to know what she meant, and she passed on to consider Miss Robertson’s higher view of motherhood. Miss Robertson said this high ideal was only to be attained through the vote. But it is, and always has been, attained by making better men.

“Women are always in the foreground of reforms, not that men are more evil, but because women have the whole future of the world in their hands. Reforms have been won by women influencing the good men to help. She appealed to all the women to do the work which men have given them to do, and wait till they were invited to take their place in the foreground.”

She also toured Scotland for her cause, speaking at meetings of her league and also being present at a meeting in Edinburgh where Christabel Pankhurst was speaking for the cause of women’s suffrage, and proved to be a vociferous opposer and no shrinking violet:

“In the course of her address, Miss Pankhurst was interrupted by a lady, and she said if the interrupter had been at a Liberal meeting she would have been thrown out. The lady, who afterwards gave her name as (Edith), of the Anti-Suffrage League, said she was interrupting a meeting which had to do with women’s suffrage. Miss Pankhurst and her friends interrupted meetings where Cabinet Ministers talked about something else.

“Miss Pankhurst retorted that a Cabinet Minister could not talk on any political question which was not connected with votes for women. Miss Pankhurst was severely “heckled” for about half an hour. (Edith) was prominent at this part of the proceedings, and for some time she sustained a vigorous argument with Miss Pankhurst. (Edith) challenged directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration directly a statement made by Miss Pankhurst as to the remuneration of women engaged in the textile industries, and gave as her authority the Board of Trade Blue-book on the subject, which she advised the audience to read. (Edith), in reply to Miss Pankhurst’s declaration that taxation without representation was tyranny, pointed out that citizenship was not a matter of paying money; and Miss Pankhurst replied that men had laid down that taxation and representation must go together. (Edith) then asked, if that was so, why only 6 ½ millions of the men who paid taxes had the vote? Miss Pankhurst said it was not their business to complain of the way men worked out the general principle they had laid down. They wanted for women the principle men had set up for themselves.”

However, despite the prominence of her role in the Women’s National Anti-suffrage League, whether she found the work incompatible with her family life, or changed her views, Edith stood down as secretary at the beginning of 1910. She made one more appearance on an anti-suffrage platform, and then disappeared from view.

Interestingly, however, she appears on the first electoral role that she could appear on, in 1918. This may indicate that she had changed her views, but there is no way of knowing whether she actually did vote or not.

She and her husband, once their children had grown and left home, appear to have lived quietly supported by domestic staff in their fairly grand townhouse in Kensington. They gradually downsized their properties as their needs grew less. Her husband was knighted for his work in music in 1929, and Edith became a Lady.

She was widowed a couple of years before the Second World War, and again downsized, living with a parlour maid and a cook/housekeeper until her own death at the tail end of the war.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

Gwladys S’s story

Understanding where someone else is coming from in political matters is hard enough at the best of times, but Gwladys’ position – against the background of a militant fight from women to gain the vote at the beginning of the 20th century – is particularly boggling. She was an active anti-suffragist at the point where the WSPU were at their height.

Today, with 100 years of women having the vote behind us, the idea that an educated woman could somehow oppose the idea of enfranchising herself and her sisters beggars belief. However, this is exactly what Gwladys did. Often vociferously.

Her background appears to have been somewhat small-C conservative. She was the second daughter of a congregational minister and his Welsh wife, born in Wales towards the end of the 1870s. The family had enough money to afford a couple of servants, and spent time in South Wales, London and Kent – as Gwladys’ father’s job moved. Both Gwladys and her elder sister were educated at boarding school, while her brothers appear to have gone to school closer to home.

After school Gwladys became a teacher, holding a position at a school for daughters of the clergy in Bristol. The school building no longer stands, but the school still exists.

In the mid-1900s, she married a South African artist who was living in the UK after the death of his father. A son followed, but the couple separated only after a few years together.

In some cases, after separation in an era when divorce was hard and costly to obtain, and carried considerable social stigma, the estranged husband would often maintain his wife. However, this was not the full case for Gwladys. The 1911 census sees her in London, supporting herself and her son with a job – as organising secretary for the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage – and she states on the form that she is estranged from him.

At this point, the National League had recently amalgamated from the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage, and its president was Lord Cromer. The 1911 census is the first readily-available document linking Gwladys to the League, but newspapers have her appointment as honourable secretary of the Hampstead branch of the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League from March 1909.

However long she had been involved, Gwladys came to more prominence under the leadership of Lord Curzon and Lord Weardale, who took over in early 1912. An educated, articulate woman actively opposing something that others of her sex were prepared to fight and be imprisoned for must have been extremely useful for their cause.

She had been an Anti-Suffragist correspondent to a publication called The World, and is mentioned as such in a letter to that publication by Emily Wilding Davison in 1911. She writes:

“To turn to (Gwladys’) second point, which is ‘that all the reforms women might bring about with the vote they can certainly bring about without it.’ No doubt they can do so, but only by an iniquitous waste of energy and time. Here is an anti who probably believes ardently in woman keeping to woman’s sphere, telling us to choose the longer, the more cumbrous, the more nerve-wearing, the more doubtful, method of working, by means of stirring public opinion (which, of course, can be stirred, but it is often a killing process), instead of using the obviously practical, effective, and easy way of the vote.”

Gwladys would often write into publications at the time, stating the anti-suffrage point of view and refuting anything that pro-suffrage supporters said about her activities that she felt was inaccurate.

In 1912, Gwladys wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at least twice. Her letters give a further clue to her reasoning:

“As a typical women householder and rate and tax payer I beg you – a typical man – to take upon your stronger shoulders the burden of responsibility for the safety of the Empire, the Army, Navy, Trade, Shipping, Mining, Railways etc. I am too thankful to pay my taxes in return for your protection, if only you will leave me to look after my home and my child. It is true that I am in the unfortunate position of having to earn a livelihood as well as perform the duties of a mother, but why, why on that account do you want to add still more to my responsibilities and duties?”

The second letter elaborates further:

“The great difficulty in my work has been that people think it is so preposterous to suggest giving women control of Imperial affairs which they do not administer, that there is no danger of “votes for women” becoming law. If woman suffrage is put into the Reform bill the Liberal Government will be wrecked. Are we to lose the Insurance Bill, Home Rule, Welsh Disestablishment, and Land Reform, for the sake of a mere quarter of a million of misguided women who most of them only want to enfranchise the women of property for the sake of the Conservative Party? Are the other 12 ¾ millions of women to be utterly ignored?”

On the back of this growing notoriety, Gwladys embarked on visits to many towns and cities in the UK during 1912-14, setting up and speaking at anti-suffrage meetings. Sometimes she was invited to speak, and at other times she would turn up in a town, advertise a meeting via men with sandwich boards, pitch up in the market place and speak for an hour.

This took place at a time when the suffragette campaign was at its height, and the suffragettes were often targets for her ire, newspaper reports of her speeches indicate.

““We are not asking for votes,” declared the speaker. “we are asking that you will save us from the suffragettes.” Women had their own work, and could not, even those who called themselves sportsmen, afford to take over the risks of men. Women knew nothing of the laws – many suffragettes had never read a single law – and thought they could make them better. Why did they not come forward with some of their ideas on legislation? As to the economic argument, women were not worth as much as men, and so long as men were obliged to support their wives and children they ought to be paid more. Then they said they would bring purity into politics. They had made a good start, hadn’t they? Their methods were the most degrading and debasing the world had ever known. They said they would not take human life – no, because they might get hanged. We were supposed to be a nation of sportsmen, and a sportsman could not hit in the dark, stab in the back, or hit anyone who could not hit back, and the suffragettes did all these things, and what was so disgraceful, they did it in the name of the women of England. The suffrage was a retrogressive movement (Loud applause). The suffragettes were trying to shift the women’s movement on to the wrong lines, just when women were beginning to take their right place. But women were going to advance, and in spite of the suffragettes. They now had the municipal vote, leading them to a useful field. It was so awful to think how the world, whole world was laughing at women. They all knew what was thought of the hen-pecked husband? Then they must not let their glorious nation do down to posterity as the hen-peck nation.”

The Cambridge Independent, March 7 1913

Other arguments she used included that women’s interests would result in too many insignificant and cluttering bills being brought into parliament – like the dangers of flannelette clothing – and that giving women the vote might adversely affect the birth rate at a time when there was a great deal of rhetoric about breeding a strong nation. She felt that women could be more effective in – and improve – society if they were given more control over domestic affairs, and brought up better people by focusing on their children, and that having the vote would distract from this.

The way in which Gwladys appears to argue – from the newspaper reports of her speeches – shows her to be intelligent and articulate, and she states on several occasions that she doesn’t see women’s intelligence to be inferior to men. It is therefore hard, from a modern perspective, to see how she can have arrived at these conclusions about the role of women in society. Her background may have had some bearing on it. So also may have been the fact that her ex-mother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law were prominent suffragettes – the former being jailed for breaking Black Rod’s windows at the Houses of Parliament, and the latter mailing herself to 10 Downing Street – and it is always possible that this, combined with the fact that she was estranged from her husband and former family, added fuel to her fire.

The First World War midway through 1914 brought an effective end to the suffragette campaign, with activists devoting themselves to the fight for the country. As the war went on, women filled many jobs that men off fighting had previously undertaken, and proved that they were perfectly capable of undertaking this work, and public opinion started to change. Many prominent female anti-suffrage speakers drifted away, but Gwladys – perhaps due to economic necessity – stayed loyal and continued to campaign and speak. An article from a suffrage supporter to a publication called The Vote in 1917 makes mention to her still being active in the campaign, at a point where the bill to give women the vote, which came in early February 1918, was being drafted.

With the right to vote in general elections given to certain groups of women – and virtually all men over 21 – in 1918, the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage had lost their impetus and gradually disbanded, taking Gwladys’ job with it. Her son would now have been in his early teens, and still in need of support and care.

She now gave occasional talks on educational subjects, and turned to writing educational books – although her 1939 register entry also calls her a public speaker, so it appears that she still addressed meetings – on language teaching to children. Her books included three on early French teaching, one on German, one on Spanish, and one on Esperanto. The Esperanto book, which included Mary Had a Little Lamb in translation, was intended to create unity of language among the children of the world and thus end war. To that end, free copies were sent around the globe. Some of her books remained in publication until at least 1970.

In the 1920s she wrote a play, Aunt Priscilla’s Will, which was performed in amateur dramatic circles. She was active in local educational circles in Hendon in the 1930s, and stood as secretary for the Golders Green Literary Society too. In the late 1930s she was also involved in the Shaftesbury Society, now Livability, which offered support and services for disabled children.

Just before the Second World War, she changed her surname by deed poll. She resigned the married name she had used during her anti-suffrage days – she does not appear to have ever divorced, so this would have been the next best thing – and instead became known by part of her former maiden name. Around the same time, she appears on the electoral registers – so perhaps had mellowed on her previous stance.

Her son fought in the war, and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. In later life Gwladys moved to Cheshire, close to where her son was employed, and also spent some time in some African counties – possibly accompanying her son, who conducted research into tropical medicine. She died in a nursing home in the mid-1960s.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.