Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Suffragettes Revisited

My improvised work station.

I have set up a workstation where my arms and wrists and gaze are all properly aligned. Hopefully, I can get to typing Diary of a Confirmed Spinster, my story about Edith Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, a prim and proper Presbyterian teacher who was all for the militant suffragettes.

The other day I listed to some installments of a BBC Radio Four re-run, called History We've Forgotten to Remember.

The series reminds us that history gets rewritten, often by omission, and often on purpose.

I listened to the episodes called "The Suffragettes." I wondered what part of the Suffrage Movement they'd focus on, so much of it has been rewritten and/or forgotten.

Well, they focused on that fact the suffragettes were militant, even committing 'acts of terrorism' over and above the window-breaking that has been remembered in popular culture such as TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs etc.

Well, nothing I don't go around telling people. The suffragettes were the militant arm of the suffragists.

As I Canadian I learned NOTHING about the suffragettes at school. *I'm pretty sure, anyway. I took two years of British History in High School.

 Indeed, I only started learning about them when I started researching the background to the Nicholson Family Letters I found in 2005.

I couldn't help it. The Nicholsons left behind plenty of Montreal press clippings about the suffragettes. Some I transcribed and put on the Tighsolas website.

One such clipping told the story of British suffragette Barbara Wylie's September 1912 trip to Canada.  As she detrained in Montreal's Place Viger, reporters asked her about the hurling of the axe at Asquith. (It would have knocked some sense into him had it landed, she replied.) Also about a bombing at a Dublin Theatre.

1912/13 was when the militancy was at its height, over and above the famous theatrics of Pankhurst's WSPU.

Indeed, the suffragettes became militant because the government over-reacted and sent them to jail for acts that were not criminal, just effective in getting good press, in getting the word out. If they were going to be persecuted for non-criminal acts, such as chaining themselves to buildings, they  might as well do criminal acts. That was the thinking.

Asquith getting 'pied' with flour

The BBC Four Story focused on a possible assassination attempt by some suffragettes on Asquith. Not all the scholars interviewed agreed this happened for certain. Somewhere on this blog I have an press image of the suffragettes throwing flour at his car. Today that probably would be considered an act of terrorism - and not mere theatrics.

One scholar who disagreed thought that the Pankhursts were far too image conscious to allow this to happen. That's another thing, apparently, forgotten by history about the suffragettes.

Again, nothing I haven't figured out myself. The suffragettes were masters of the media image, for their time.

Hence this Miss Wylie, a fairly unknown almost rogue? spokesperson, dazzled reporters with her wit and good looks. Suffragettes made sure to dress well. Even their magazine was full of dress ads. The WSPU magazine is online and I just had to read a few issues to realize how clever these suffragettes were.

I have put something about Wylie's visit in Threshold Girl  my story about Flora Nicholson in 1911/1912. I will put something from WSPU magazine in Diary of a Confirmed Spinster. I have her reading the article on Russian Treatment of Women in Prison, the force-feeding.

On her trip, Wylie tells reporters that there are many members of the WSPU in Canada. I know Edith was a militant suffragette supporter because she writes so in a May 1913 letter. I guess I have to go through all era issues to see if her name is listed as a donor.

All to say, there is a great deal to be learned from History, REAL history. The protests happening right now in Quebec could be analyzed from that angle, but won't be.

Edith's clipping of the Wylie Visit from September Montreal Daily Star. "Will Canadian suffragists adopt militant tactics?" the headline asks.

Well, I also listened to another edition of the History program on BBC. This one about the Great Depression. Their conclusion, the New Deal did not end the Depression, WWII did. Hmm. I read so much about the mass youth unemployment in the Western World. It scares me because they had the same problem in the 1910's... and that's probably why there was a War. To kill off these excess souls rendered unemployable by the change over from an agrarian to industrial economy. (At least some historians say.)

But they can't do that now, right? They learned their lesson. WWI killed off many unemployable men and then also the best and the brightest.

My BBC Program claims that  history has forgotten the militancy of the British Suffragettes because it was soon followed by the carnage of WWI that made the violent actions of the militants seem like harmless child's play.