No more the meek and mild subservients we!
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly!
Never you fear!
‘Sister Suffragette’ is sung by Mrs Banks from Disney’s Mary Poppins
In this modern era of Third Wave Feminism, it is often hard to realise how much the suffragettes battled against the oppression of women. It wasn’t just a battle of debates and political lobbying, there was several aspects of the struggle that were life threatening. The Cat-and-Mouse Act of 1913 was brought into subjugate the women prisoners who took to hunger strikes, and was a cruel policy to negate the death of these women in custody. Hunger strikes are a non-violent method of protest. Some suffragettes were more militant.
The Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903, and ran until the Great War, where it turned its might to supporting the British war effort. It was only one of the suffragette organisations formed during Victorian and Edwardian times,but it was possibly the most militant. It had it own band of trained ‘soldiers’ who would protect and defend suffragettes, nicknamed by journalists as the Bodyguard, the Amazons and the Jiujitsuffragettes. Edith Garrud – the first female martial arts trainer in England – was one of their trainers, teaching the women Jujutsu, which the media renamed Suffrajitsu. I think this was rather cool, and levelled the playing field when these women went up against lines of policemen intent on subduing these nonconforming women.
In Britain, the pillar that supported the Suffragette Movement was Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, and later on, her daughters. The Women’s Social and Political Union was set up by her, one of a series of suffragette organisations she was to run during her lifetime. It was her tightly wound spring that powered the mechanism of the British suffragettes. On a side note, as an Australian, I was interested to discover her daughter, Adela, moved to Australia and became a political force for communism; this caused a rift between her and her mother (the irony is that – later in life – Adela became an anti-communist). Mrs Pankhurst died just two weeks before the act of parliament that saw every British woman over the age of 21 receiving the right to vote. As a writer, I can’t help wondering if her fighting spirit was what kept her going, and once she won, she had nothing else to live for…
In a Steampunk-genre writer, I can use all this lovely information to add interest to my characters and my plot. I have a love/hate relationship with Mrs Banks from Disney’s Mary Poppins, because she is often the only suffragette that people have seen represented in the cinema (though the Canadian television show Murdoch’s Mysteries is changing that.) In my work-in-progress, I am using the suffragette movement as a contrast to the misogyny of the Royal Society and the British academic scene in general. As with Mary Somerville, Mrs Pankhurst had the support of her husband, Richard Pankhurst, who also believed in the cause and the women’s right to vote. I enjoy seeing these husbands that didn’t just ‘allow’ their women to follow their interests, but actively encouraged them; unlike poor Mrs Banks, whose husband is quite the prig for most of the movie. Not all suffragettes were pacifists, and not all Victorian husbands dominated their wives. Break the stereotypes!