THE ART OF MARCH­ING

The Simple Things - - LIVING | HISTORY - Words: FRANCES AMBLER

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.

BAN­NER AC­TIVISTS

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.

FEM­I­NISTS UNITED

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

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