The Edwardian Votes for Women campaign was everywhere. It spread out into every town; it walked down every street; it entered every home; it was discussed – and argued over – across kitchen and dining room up and down the land. It encompassed the courageous suffragettes, whose militant action often landed them in prison to endure hunger strikes and even forcible feedings. And it embraced those self-effacing suffragists who so dreaded public speaking; their constitutional campaign had them mounting soap-boxes in market squares and even taking their suffrage caravan out into the remotest dale, the most sea-swept fishing harbour. It included those whose own brave rebellions went quietly unrecorded: arguments with fathers, whose political loyalties or patriarchal certainties blinded them to their daughters’ undemocratic lack of vote. This book is written to honour all those Edwardian campaigners whose small acts of enormous courage so often went uncelebrated.Rebel Girls is a group biography of several suffrage activists who have mostly been left out of the spotlight before: Adela Pankhurst, far less well known than her mother Emmeline or her sisters Sylvia and Christabel; Dora Thewlis, referred to by the contemporary press as “baby suffragette” following her imprisonment at the age of sixteen (portrayed in the cover) – a pet name which, then as now, was used to infantilise her and deny her agency; Lilian Lenton, who swore to burn down two buildings a week until women were given the vote; Lavena Saltonstall, whose excellent writing is only just being rediscovered; Florence Lockwood, Bloomsbury bohemian painter turned Yorkshire woman; and also Mary Gawthorpe, Mary Murdoch, Edith Key, Isabella Ford, Leonora Cohen and Molly Morris.
The subjects chosen by Jill Liddington were women from Yorkshire rather than from the most well-known centres of the suffrage campaign. Furthermore, many of them were working class women – factory workers, weavers, millers, and tailoresses – whose stories challenge the myth that first wave feminism was exclusively an upper middle class affair. Obviously this isn’t to say that class-based critiques of early feminism are misplaced, but as is often the case, these critiques don’t tell the whole story. There were working woman involved in the suffrage movement too, and their role was as crucial as that of their more celebrated peers. Of course, the fact that their contributions were forgotten is worth noting in itself, but thankfully modern historians such as Liddington have attempted to redress the balance.
The women portrayed in Rebel Girls are an excellent illustration of the close links between the personal and the political. It is easy for readers to see how the women’s movement made sense in the context of their lives, and Liddington devotes a lot of time to exploring how they arrived at the decision to get involved in it. One of my favourite things about the book was how often primary sources were cited. Between letters, diaries, newspaper articles and opinion pieces, we can truly hear these women’s voices and see the coming to life. For example, in 1907 Lavena Saltonstall (a tailoress from Hebden Bridge whose circumstances forced her to leave formal education at the age of ten) wrote the following:
Should any girl show a tendency to politics, or to ideas of her own, she is looked upon by the majority of women as a person who neglects doorsteps and home matters, and is therefore not fit to associate with their respectable daughters and sisters. If girls develop any craving for a different life or wider ideas, their mothers fear that they are going to become Socialists or Suffragettes – a Socialist being a person with lax views about other people’s watches and purses, and other people’s husbands or wives, and a Sufraggette a person whose house is always untidy. If their daughters show any signs of a craving for higher things than cleaning brass fenders or bath taps, they put a stop to what they call “high notions”.Saltonstall’s writing reminded me of a point Aarti once made about how awareness of the limitations of gender roles and resentment of these injustices were really not that exceptional in the past. At any given time there were women very well aware of the inequality and unfairness that surrounded them. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of issues surrounding how historical fiction portrays this, which often come down to what we perceive as accurate. Novels whose protagonists are excepto-girls (the only character in the book to show any sort of awareness at all) are reductive of the complexities of history, irritating to read, and problematic in all sorts of ways; yet historical novels where a large number of women express proto-feminist sentiments are often dismissed by readers as anachronistic. This is why books like Rebel Girls matter so much – they add depth and nuance to our concept of an era.
Who is going to tell these mothers that daughters were not given to them merely to dress and domesticate? Who is going to tell them that they have a higher duty to perform to them than merely teaching them housework? Who is going to tell them that it is as cruel to discourage a child from making use of its own talent or individuality as it would be to discourage a child from using its limbs?
Another interesting excerpt was a letter written by sixteen year old Dora Thewlis’ parents to the judge that arrested her. The judge pronounced himself scandalised that a girl her age was out protesting for the vote and not at school, to which the Thewlises replied:
We find ourselves in agreement with his Honour when he says that girls of seventeen [sixteen] ought to be at school. But we respectfully remind his Honour that girls of Dora’s age in her station of life are in this part of Christian England compelled [in their] thousands to spend ten hours per day in health-destroying factories, and the conditions and regulations under which they toil for others’ gain are sanctioned by law in the making of which women have no voice.Go Mr and Mrs Thewlis! How awesome do they sound?
At the end of Rebel Girls, Jill Liddington included an appendix about her research, which she calls her “suffragette sleuthing”. She describes how she used unpublished or out of print diaries and memoirs; personal papers and correspondence often found in attics by the subjects’ grandchildren and dutifully donated to local archives; period newspapers; and the results of the 1901 census, which were only made publicly available in 2001. All of these sources allowed her to pierce together the stories of a group of women who had been mostly written of history.
All of this was very exciting to read for someone like me, who has worked as an archivist and would happily do so again. What interested me the most, though, were Liddington’s reflections on how what we currently know of the history of the suffrage movement was (re)written and crystallized in its current shape. Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffragette Movement, for example, is only one side of the story, and yet it became canonical and is frequently perceived as an all-encompassing account. This is a fascinating if slightly troubling process, and it put me in mind of what Lucasta Miller describes in The Brontë Myth. Mythmaking and history are often if not always indissociable processes - we can only be glad of the glimpses we get of the unwritten side of the story.
Many thanks to Violet for recommending this book to me.
(Have you reviewed Rebel Girls too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)