Votes for Women

Art and the Suffragettes

Review of the talk by Caroline Shenton
on November 28th 2018
Caroline Shenton

To mark the centenary of women first getting the Right to Vote, Caroline Shenton took us through the history of the suffragettes and their portrayal through art.

How Were They Perceived In Art?

In 1866, Parliament received their first bill containing 1,500 signatures calling for women’s suffrage.  Although it was unsuccessful, this was to be the start of the 52-year battle until the Representation of the People Acts was passed in 1918 and a further 10 years until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

NUWSS badge

Millicent Fawcett (1847 – 1929), founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) who campaigned through literature and socialising and were recognised by their signature colours of green, white and red. WSPU rosette

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928) broke from the NUWSS due to their lack of progress and founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  They adopted the colour scheme of violet, white and green and would be known for much more radical actions such as demonstrations, marches, unruly behaviour and hunger strikes in prison.

Their actions led to cartoon postcards where the women were portrayed as “silly geese” lead by “Miss Hissy” and cats which were used to symbolise women as being ill-suited to political engagement.  The “unwomanly woman” was also used to show what women would look like if they abandoned their domestic duties, or even worse, what would happen if men were made to do the chores!!!  Suffragettes were often thought of as unmarried women and the anti-suffrage propaganda played on this and portrayed women as buck-toothed and frumpy in appearance.

The Suffragettes Fight Back

The “Unity is strength!” postcard illustration Caroline presented to us shows women from four different backgrounds all holding hands and showing women as a unified force.  There was also a definite attempt to normalise women in parliament / politics and what it looks like when women are present in the Houses of Parliament – a normal calm scene in all cases!

Ernestine Mills joined the WSPU in 1907 and became an important artist for the movement.  She created the illustration “Somehow the Tide Keeps Rising” in 1910 which showed “The New Mrs Partington” (of the Anti-Suffrage Society) trying to sweep back the advances women were making in the world, i.e. professional women, working women, civil servants etc.  This illustration also shows the rising sun which was a reoccurring image throughout suffragette art (see below).

The infamous force feeding began when a member of the WSPU tried to stencil something on the wall in St Stephens Hall in the Houses of Parliament, which was a popular location for many protests to take place.  Having been sent to prison and stripped of everything, she decided to go on hunger strike.  The government panicked and introduced force feeding which was portrayed to the public as being an amicable affair.  In fact, it was torturous and often left the women with long lasting problems.

The “Cat and Mouse Act” was introduced in 1913 which meant that people could not be force fed but instead suffragettes were kept in prison until they were extremely weak and then released to recover.  That way, any harm that came to the suffragette could not be blamed on the government.

Bugler Girl poster

Suffragettes awarded themselves medals once they had completed a stint in jail.

The Artists' Suffrage League

This League was founded in 1907 by professional women artists and was led by Mary Lowndes who was an important stained glass and poster artist.

Their most famous poster was the “Bugler Girl” by Caroline Watts which has a military look with the rising sun.  In 1909 they ran a poster competition which Duncan Grant won with the poster called “Handicapped!”.

Campaigners wanted to see an improvement for working women and their social conditions.  Emily Ford depicted this in her 1908 poster titled “Factory Acts” which shows a woman at the factory door looking at a ‘regulations for women’ poster.  At the bottom reads “They Have A Cheek I’ve Never Been Asked!”.

The Suffrage Atelier

Founded by Lawrence Housman, Clemence Housman and Alfred Pearse in 1909.  Clemence was a woodblock printer and her brother Lawrence a writer.  They ran printing workshops and design competitions.  Woodblock printing was quick, cheap and easy to learn which made it an ideal form of guerrilla propaganda.

I love the example Caroline showed us which has illustrations of a female mayor, nurse, mother, doctor or teacher and factory hand and the words “What a woman may be and not yet vote” and then illustrations of a male convict, lunatic, proprietor of white slaves, an injured man unfit for service and a drunkard and the words “What a man may be and yet not lose the vote”.

University women were also an important part of the suffragettes.  However, shockingly, Cambridge women weren’t allowed to fully graduate until 1948 when around 900 women, including a few in their 90’s, returned to Cambridge for their graduation ceremony.

Attacks on Art

In 1909, Margery Humes chained herself to the statue of Viscount Falkland in St Stephens Hall in the Houses of Parliament.  As she was forcefully removed by the police, the spur on the back of the Viscount’s boot broke off.  It has never been replaced and has become the unintentional symbol of feminism and the fight for women’s right to vote.

Then in 1914, the famous “Rokeby Venus” was attacked with an axe by Mary Richardson.  She was sent to prison for 6 months.

At Last

In February 1918, an act was passed which meant that women over 30 and all men over 21 could vote (the age for men was lowered due to the number killed in WW1).  Then, 10 years later, the Equal Franchise Act was passed which meant that all women over 21 years old, regardless of property ownership, could vote.

In 2016, Parliament unveiled “New Dawn” by Mary Branson.  Located above the entrance to St Stephen’s Hall, a place where many men and women would have walked through in their fight for women’s right to vote, the coloured glass and stylised portcullis with Venus symbols changes colour with the tides.

A fascinating lecture by Caroline on an incredibly important subject, where men and women fought for the privileges that we enjoy today.

Louise Taylor


Related link

Caroline Shenton's website