THE ART OF MARCHING
IN THE FIGHT FOR WOMEN’S RIGHT TO VOTE, CAMPAIGNERS MADE THE ART OF THE PROCESSION THEIR OWN. WITH THEIR CONTRIBUTION BEING CELEBRATED IN A CONTEMPORARY ART EVENT THIS MONTH, WE TELL THE STORIES OF THE WOMEN WHO STRODE OUT FOR SUFFRAGE
“Banners were... a kind of visual primer for the messages of the march”
On 10 June, thousands of women in the four political capitals of the UK – Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London – will parade through the streets. Rather than a protest, Processions is an event co-ordinated by arts charity Artichoke to mark the centenary of women in the UK being allowed to vote. Today, we take the right to stride the streets for granted, but we owe this to our female ancestors. The women’s suffrage movement made the art of processing their own, in a series of demonstrations between 1907 and 1913 that transformed protest into performance.
To counter the negative connotations between women and the streets, the parades were carefully planned demonstrations of the ( highly respectable) achievements of women. The demonstration organised by the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) on 13 June 1908 featured some 10,000 to 15,000 women, grouped according to their profession: a block of women doctors, followed by women dons and graduates, another block of clerical workers, followed by artists, actresses, musicians and nurses, gardeners, homemakers and more.
Central to this spectacle were the banners they carried: a kind of visual primer for the messages of the march. They indicated professions by displaying historical examples – the writers, for example, evoked famous foremothers with banners dedicated to the likes of Jane Austen and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – or unique slogans, such as “Speed! Fight On” carried by women who worked in shorthand. It gave the press something to report far more interesting than the typical minutes of political meetings – they grudgingly noted the lack of ‘shrieking sisters’ on display and images of the event circulated far beyond the people able to witness or take part in the procession. These images have lost none of their power. For Helen Marriage, director of Artichoke, it was a photograph showing Suffragettes “parading in white flanked on either side by men” that inspired the form of the Processions event.
The making of the banners was carefully considered. Clare Hunter of Sewing Matters (sewingmatters.co.uk) who shares her method for making a pennant over the page, researched women’s sewing for her book,
Threads of Life ( published next year by Sceptre). In contrast to the large, painted banners associated with trade unions, these suffrage banners were made, she says, “emphatically feminine to refute the accusation that the women were being de-sexed by political activity: embroidered, appliquéd, made in velvet, silk and brocade.” The making drew on, and emphasised, a common women’s skill (it was said if you could make your curtains, you could make a banner). Mary Lowndes – the stained-glass artist who established The Artists’ Suffrage League, to create posters and banners for suffrage events – encouraged women to join in “trooping the feminine” by making a banner that could “float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure”.
Each event had its own character, from the blacks and purples and flowers of the 1913 funeral procession for Emily Wilding Davison (who died after running in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby), to the countrywide pilgrimage of the same year, as explored in the recent book Hearts and Minds by Jane Robinson (Doubleday). One particularly noticeable banner, now in the Museum of London, was carried in the ‘From Prison to Citizenship’ Rally in 1910. Created by Ann Macbeth as a quilt, it was embroidered with the signatures of 80 hunger-striking suffragettes who had, Clare says “been forcibly fed and suffered the debilitating
brutality of prison doctors”. As a banner, it was carried at the head of the march.
The processions also created a sense of unity among the marchers. As the novelist Rachel Ferguson fictionalised in one of her books: “For thirty years I made jokes about the feminine ballot, to please the men. And one fine day, I found myself marching down Whitehall, revelling in every minute of it! By my side marched a dowager duchess and a laundry maid. Commonly, I detest these sentimental contrasts, but there it was.”
And such handmade items, created with a purpose, continue to inspire. While the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics holds many of the original banners and pennants, Clare cites the Peace Camp at Greenham Common where “everyday materials they had to hand – their children’s old clothes, bedsheets, towels, dish rags – were used to fashion dissent”. Helen gives a more recent example: “Look at the art generated by the 2016 Women’s Marches – humorous, beautiful, angry posters – women’s voices expressed in text and textile.”
With the march on 10 June, Helen hopes that participants will not only look back, but also look ahead to “all the issues in regard to gender equality that are still to be solved.” As she says, “we should never forget what it took for women to win the vote, and 100 years ago was really just the beginning.”
Inspired? We’ll be walking alongside you.
The Women’s Social and Political Union processing in 1908 with members recently released from Holloway Prison
To mark the centenary of women getting the vote, sisters across the UK are donning purple, green or white, making banners and taking to the streets
Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union making banners (above), ahead of their procession on 23 July 1910 through London to Hyde Park