Biddle & Webb’s May Interiors Auction has a variety of interesting and unusual finds – topping the list is Lot 335: An early 20th Century Suffragettes movement tricolour fabric sash with the slogan ‘votes for women.’
The sash, passed down through generations of the vendor’s family, belonged to Ms Dora Webster of Birmingham.
Ms Webster, and thousands of women like her, formed part of the united struggle for female suffrage. Wearing the colours cream, green and mauve; the suffragettes demanded votes for women
– ‘Deeds, not words, was to be our permanent motto.’ (Emmeline Pankhurst)
On 4th June 1913, 40 year old Emily Wilding Davidson attended the Derby day crowd at Epsom Downs. She watched the race from behind the white rail at Tattenham Corner – clutching a furled tricolour flag of suffrage in her hand. As a small group of horses hurtled past, Davidson ducked under the railings and threw herself into the path of the king’s horse, Anmer. Reaching at the reins, Emily collided with the animal, fracturing her skull – sustaining serve internal injuries. She died in hospital 4 days later, on the 8th June 1913. Queen Mary described the incident as a “sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman”.
Today, history remembers Emily’s tragic protest as an iconic moment in the struggle for female emancipation. Her apparent ‘lunatic’ behaviour indicative of a confrontational femininity heralded by the pioneers of modern feminism – the suffragettes.
The suffragettes dared to declare themselves the equals of men in an age demarcated by gendered inequality. As female agents of political, societal and cultural change, they had to endure significant personal sacrifice. To challenge long existing social norms, they HAD to be fearless. An ‘army without guns’, the suffragettes instead sought to utilise their bodies as weapons of resistance. They lost jobs, homes, families, and children: some, like Emily, ultimately lost their lives.
Organised campaigns calling for women’s suffrage began to appear in the late 19th century. In 1867, Liberal philosopher and Westminster MP – John Stuart Mill became the first member of parliament to call for women’s suffrage: a motion ultimately rejected by parliament with 194 votes to 73. Victorian society, known for its oppressive social mores, was not yet willing to engage with issues of gender inequality. However, many liberal thinkers – such as Mill, began to promote the topic of women’s rights in the public sphere. As the campaign for women’s suffrage gained momentum, conceptions of female passivity became increasing scrutinised. By the close of the century, the issue of the vote became the central focus of women’s struggle for equality.
Founded in 1903 – ‘The Women’s Social and Political Union’ (the Suffragettes as we know them today) – formed, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Compounded of mostly educated, middle class women, the WSPU was notorious for confrontational, and at times, violent political activism. The suffragettes staged marches, heckled politicians, set fires and threw bombs. They slashed artworks, chained themselves to railings, attacked policemen, smashed windows and staged hunger strikes in prison. The suffragettes were passionate political activists; employing the use of public spectacle to draw attention to women’s suffrage. Their use of violent protest polarised public opinion; some thought their aggressive tactics detrimental to the cause.
In 1918, aided by the female war effort and a shift in public opinion – women won the right to vote. The Representation of the People Act, 6th Feb 1918, extended the vote to female property owners over 30. Working class women under the age of 30 were denied their vote until the act was amended a decade later in 1928.
The militant tactics of the suffragettes continues to motivate political conscious in the minds of many women (and men). 100 years on, women all over the world follow in their footsteps. The women’s marches of 2017 demonstrate the continued need for unity against gendered inequality. Although women have the right to vote in most countries – women still make up two-thirds of the illiterate peoples of the world. Stark inequalities and social divides: sexism, domestic violence, ‘honour’ killing, FGM, rape as a war crime and assaults on women seeking education are more prevalent than ever before.