Persephone Books on Lamb’s Conduit Street, London was absolutely the perfect place to indulge my current obsession with the incredible unknown women of the late 19th century and early 20th century! Specialising in forgotten women writers of this period, I spent an afternoon browsing their catalogue and purchasing some wonderful books.
It’s very sobering to read the battles that were waged by these women for rights that we largely take for granted now. Any woman who sits on the sofa and says they aren’t going to vote in the general election should read about the price the Suffragettes paid to win us this right – the first and only guerilla war waged by women, and largely middle and upper class women at that – the prison beatings, the hunger strikes, respectable ladies of nice London boroughs being force fed through their noses in Holloway Prison. They considered themselves martyrs to the cause of winning women the vote and were as uncompromising about it as they were flamboyant in their methods.
They waged guerilla war with a sense of theatrical panache – staking claim to the pageantry and the processions they’d previously only been distant spectators to. Instead of waving a lacy handkerchief as the male bands marched past, they began adopting the same sense of pageantry and occasion in their own affairs. When meeting released comrades from the prison gates, carriages would turn up drawn by white horses and flanked by lady outriders (accomplished horseriders could be found aplenty such was the strength of upper class representation amongst the Suffragettes).
They understood the power of the grand gesture. They sailed up the Thames to harrangue the guests on the terraces of the Houses of Parliament, lay in wait for hours on the roofs of public buildings for the beginning of meetings before attaching themselves to ropes and launching themselves through skylights to disrupt the events taking place below. Groups of fashionably dressed ladies would sashay up Bond Street, casually open their elegant shopping bags, whip out hammers and break all the shop windows within reach.
This was war, waged by women, to win the vote. 100 years ago.
The much larger war that followed quick on its heels put paid to the Suffragette movement as everyone mobilized behind the war effort. And the war won women many more rights as they proved themselves equal to men in the factories and in the fields. But that’s another story.
Before all that though; before the war, the suffrage movement and the beginning of women’s empowerment, all women could do, to escape their fate, was hope to marry well.
In H.G. Wells’ book Ann Veronica, a woman runs away to escape the tyranny of her father. Her elder brother tries to coax her back by telling her that the best thing she can do to get away from her father is “…get some other man to live on as soon as possible. It isn’t sentiment, but it’s horse-sense. All this woman-who-diddery is no damn good.”
Well, I raise my glass to all those women-who-diddery all those years ago!
It’s not over!