Suffragettes: 2011

At the time of the General Election in May 2015, there were lots of discussions about voting – who to vote for, whether to vote, whether you can actually ‘make a difference’ by voting. There is an apathy about voting and it sometimes disappoints me that a lot of young people do not have the ‘political edge’ that I remember we all had in 1960’s. People who know me also know that it is a dangerous subject to bring up with me and usually ends up in a rant. I have a passionate belief in the fact that women campaigned, protested, demonstrated and sacrificed their reputations, and even their lives, to give me the vote and I have to respect that. Living in a democracy, for me, is a privilege that I cannot abuse. I may not think there is a great deal of difference between the main political parties but I do know there are parties I fear having power and therefore I have to exercise my right to vote. If I don’t vote, I have no right at all to complain about what happens in parliament. If I vote and my party of choice is not elected, I have had my say, and maybe I have to compaign for a different electoral voting system. When younger work colleagues say they are not going to vote they can expect one of my lectures about the political struggle for universal suffrage.

My two tea towels about Women’s Suffrage embody my passion for women’s rights and are a good example of how even the humble tea towel can be part of a political movement. The first I bought in London and is a representation of the Blue Plaques put outside the homes where notable people have lived. Getting the recognition of a Blue Plaque is not an easy task. The Blue Plaque scheme is run by English Heritage and is London-based only. It can take between two and three years to get a Plaque installed, after a great deal of research has been done to establish the residency of the person concerned.

There are many Blue Plaque tea towels but this one recognises 50 Clarendon Road, Holland Park, London W11, the London home of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Emmeline was born in Manchester and moved to London with her daughter Christabel in mid 1880s to broaden their campaign for women’s rights. The political struggle led by the Pankhursts was not an easy one and lasted many years. Their by-word was ‘Deeds not Words’ and by that they meant it wasn’t sufficient for politicians to say that votes for women was the right way to go, they had to change the law. The Women’s Social and Political Union worked to this maxim by holding rallies etc but they knew they had to take a more radical stance – chaining themselves to railway lines, hunger strikes, property damage which in the end meant that Emily Davison sacrificed her life at Epsom Derby when she tried to disrupt the race and was trampled by a horse. In Leicestershire, where I live, Alice Hawkins was a high profile suffragette in her day although probably not a name that is remembered as the Pankhursts were.

My second tea towel was produced by the Radical Tea Towel company. Their philosophy is to produce tea towels on radical and political topics that would not commonly be associated with housework. My glorious tea towel, celebrating the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was a 60th birthday present. I was very touched that someone could link my love of tea towels and my political beliefs for a ‘significant’ birthday. In 1908, WSPU adopted the colour scheme of purple, white and green: purple symbolised dignity, white purity and green hope. This tea towel has a real sense of drama in its striking colours and the image is the front of the song sheet of ‘March of the Women’ written by Ethel Smyth and became the anthem for the Suffragette Movement. The picture was drawn by the artist Margaret Morris in 1911.

Wiping up with it, gives me the feeling of empowerment and the somber thought of how strong these women were to challenge the status quo, ruin their reputations and certainly take the sort of action not associated with women in those days. Clearly, World War I helped their movement when women were needed to take up jobs in factories etc because men were at war; in recognition of this they ceased campaigning during the war and worked following their own by-word of ‘Deeds not Words”.  It was a huge disappointment to them that all their hard work during the war did not bring about the political change they wanted and it took another 10 years for universal suffrage to come about.  Members of the Suffragette Movement are my heroes; their tactics might not always have been the wisest but they fought for their beliefs about equality.  The disturbing thing is that legislation still has had to be refined in Britain by laws like the Equality Act 2010 because, for some reason beyond by comprehension, we still feel the need to discriminate.  Getting the vote was one hurdle; equal pay still needs to be achieved and the ‘glass ceiling’ still needs to be smashed to smithereens.  The discrimination stretches beyond women to disabled people, people who experience mental ill health, older people, people with dementia, travellers, asylum seekers, refugees and the list goes on…….


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