Solidarity show that deserves your vote
As the fight for equal rights continues, Holyroodis home toa bold display on theScottish suffragettes. By Karin Goodwin
THE black-and-white photo may be faded, but there is no mistaking the staunchly defiant tilt of Anna Munro’s head, as she poses in her simple dress and wide-brimmed hat.Asmile plays round her lips and her eyes twinkle as she leans one hand for support against a wooden gatepost, the othergesturing forwards, towards the promise of better days.
“Votes forWomen”, demands the bold lettering of the Women’s Freedom League banner behind her. And then, with a flourish underneath: “Scottish Campaign”.
Some 100 years later, the merest mention of the suffrage movement recalls a flood of iconic images, from the impassioned speeches ofEmmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and PoliticalUnion, calling for “deeds not words”, to the death of Emily Davison, trampled by King GeorgeV’s horse at the Epsom Derby. It conjures up the backdrop of women chained to the railings of 10 Downing Street, protesting at Westminster or on the march in Trafalgar Square. But, as a new exhibition – If I Can’t Vote, I Don’t Count – opening tomorrow at the Scottish Parliament reminds us, this is just part of the story.
Through a fascinating collection of images, artefacts and rare archive material, it tells the little-known stories of Scottish campaigners such as Munro who, along with fellow suffragist Agnes “Nannie” Brown, walked from Edinburgh to London to raise awareness of their cause. From Lerwick to Leuchars and Dundee to Dumfries, tens of thousands of Scots worked tirelessly to get political notice.
For those born several generations after the movement achieved its principal goal, it’s all too easy to forget it took a fiercely determined campaign, lasting more than 50 years, before Herbert Asquith’s Liberal government capitulated, allowing women over 30 the vote in 1918. Not until 1928 were women given equal suffrage rights to men.
The battle had begun in earnest when, in 1866, independent MPJohn Stuart Mill presented a petition to the House of Commons in support of the female vote. Its defeat was a blow to many, leading to the first suffrage societies forming in Edinburgh, London andManchester.
Unlike the militants – known as suffragettes – early suffragists did not believe in law-breaking or violence, but in the power of peaceful protest. It did not mean they were any less committed. Once the campaign’s fire tookhold in Scotland, it lit like torch paper – women came forward in droves to make a stand, often supported by theirhusbands, male councillors, church ministers and trade unionists. Between 1867 and 1876, over two million Scottish women had signed petitions calling to be given equal rights to those enjoyed by their male contemporaries.
According to Lynn Abrams, professorof genderhistory at Edinburgh University, Scottish women’s existing activism made it a natural home for the suffragemovement. “In nineteenth-century Scotland there was a lively range of organisations that women were involved in, covering areas such as housing, social welfare, education and the temperance movement,” she explains.
“They realised that no-one listened when they were campaigning on philanthropic issues, that they had no power to change things. If they wanted to get serious they needed to have a vote and they set out to get it. The suffrage movement did not come out of the blue. It was rooted in very real issues.”
Huge marches were held in cities across Scotland, attracting tens of thousands of women from all social classes. But progress was slow, and frustrations were growing. In England, Manchester-born Emmeline Pankhurst, togetherwith herdaughter, Christabel, formed theWomen’s Social and Political Union, and this time, direct action was on the cards.
In 1912, the first incidence of suffrage violence in Scotland occurred,with windows smashed on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. Public buildings became targets, along with tourist attractions such as Rosslyn Chapel, Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory and Robert Burns’s cottage.
Plenty of Scots women were ready for the challenge. They descended on leading politicians, such as the Prime Minister and Winston Churchill, both of whom held Scottish seats, shouting verbal abuse. In one case, “two well-dressed ladies” rushed at Asquith at Moray Golf Club, tugging at his clothes and knocking off his hat. Ethel Moorhead, from Dundee, threw an egg at Churchill, smashed a glass case at the Wallace Monument and was arrested for attempted arson, while Fanny Parker, a niece of LordKitchener calling herself Janet Arthur, burnt down the new stand at Ayr Racecourse. Parker was also behind a suffragette plot to blowup Burns’s Cottage. Arabella Scott’s attempt to burn down Kelso Racecourse’s stands was rewarded by five weeks at Perth prison, however Lilias Michelle avoided capture when she broke into Balmoral Golf Course, replacing the club flags with those in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple, and scrawling “votes for women” on a nearby fountain.
Maude Edwards slashed a portrait of the king at the RoyalAcademy in Edinburgh, and on a visit to Dundee, Emmeline Pankhurst herself joined a rooftop protest, throwing slates down at Churchill, the local MP.
“When women got militant, they certainly didn’t mess about,” says Gail Cameron, the curator of the London-based Women’s Library, which also holds many Scottish artefacts. “These were acts that would have been shocking today.”
Around 25 Scottishwomen served time in prison, five of whom were force-fed following hunger strike. “There are some heart-breaking accounts of the women who went to prison,” adds Cameron.
Dr NormanWatson, a Dundeebased researcher of the Scottish suffrage movement for more than 20 years, has been campaigning since 2004 for pardons for the convicted suffragettes, whom he claims acted politically rather than criminally.
“These women were turning their backs on their families by their actions,” he says. “People who were once friends would walkon the other side of the road, their husbands would be attacked and theirchildren spurned.Theirbehaviourwas simply not seen as appropriate. When they went to public meetings to ask for votes forwomen, they were ejected with extreme violence – they were thrown down steps, trampled and hit by policemen. It must have taken a huge amount of courage.”
Though his calls for pardons to be issued have so far been rejected from both the Scottish Executive and UK government, there has been some success. Tonight the first sculpture marking the efforts of the Scottish suffragettes will be unveiled at the Scottish Parliament.
It is fitting that their impact on the building, where 50 of 129 MSPs are female, will no longer go unmarked. But with voting at an all-time low, the exhibition is incredibly relevant, says Scottish Green co-convenorShiona Baird, one of several MSPs whose comments feature in the exhibition. “I was a student in the 1960s at the time of the rise of the woman’s-lib movement and feminism,” she says. “In the 1970s we got the equal pay act and we really did thinkwe’d got equality, but here we are, decades later, and we still don’t have equal pay. In certain professions there is still a feeling that women have to try harder than men to attain the same pay. There is still an awful lot to do.”
But perhaps future progress starts by paying homage to the actions of Munro and her fellow campaigners, and remembering just howfarwomen have already come. If I Can’t Vote, I Don’t Count is on display in the Scottish Parliament’s main hall from tomorrow until March 9.
FIGHTING SPIRIT: The arresting sight of Anna Munro attempting to rally the troops in 1912.