I thought I knew how the vote for (some) women had been won in 1918. I had a reasonable working knowledge of what the suffragettes had gone through in their struggle for representation: I knew about the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act; I had watched newsreels of Emily Davison’s fatal actions at the Derby. But I am ashamed to say that I had not heard about the Great Pilgrimage. Nor did I know much about the non-militant Suffragists, the women, and men, who campaigned tirelessly for the vote and who, in their hundreds, joined the Great Pilgrimage in the summer of 1913.
Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds tells the stories of the women who chose to follow a non-violent approach to convincing those in power, and those around them, that women deserved a vote. After all, as many pointed out, women were expected to pay the same taxes – no lack of equality there. I enjoy Robinson’s style of historical narration and this is a detailed, moving, and warm account of the background to the march, its organization, and the realities of marching faced by women who were often mistaken for their more confrontational ‘sister’s, the Suffragettes. Robinson’s narrative makes clear the differences between the ‘-gists’ and the ‘-gettes’, whilst reminding us always that their end goal was of course the same.
An early chapter, Bread and Roses, establishes just what Suffragists were up against. Robinson quotes Dr Henry Maudsley’s 1874 idea that ‘If women used their brains too much their wombs would wither’. Sir Almoth Wright, writing forty years later, still believes that biology is a reason to deny the request for a vote and that women need to accept the fact ‘that man cannot and does not wish to work side by side with her.’ Such ridiculous views were reasonably easy to dismiss – and Robinson’s research finds some nice ripostes – less easy was a general refusal on the part of the establishment to listen and, when convinced, actually act. Throughout the book, there’s a sense of heavy inertia on the part of government to accept what increasing numbers were saying. The Great Pilgrimage was a step towards showing the scale of support and, as Robinson makes clear, it was also a means of showing the public that the Suffragists were not the same as the Suffragettes.
It is perhaps this aspect of the book that was perhaps most revelatory, for me at least. The story of female political emancipation told in schools – when it happens – is that of the Suffragettes and the increasingly violent means by which they brought their fight to public attention. Here, the Pankhursts and their followers are not central stage – that is reserved for the likes of the rather likeable Millicent Garrett Fawcett and those who felt that winning of hearts and minds was perhaps more likely to bear fruit in the end. In addition, Robinson has uncovered and now retells the stories of women from all walks of life who joined the cause. My particular favourites are the incredibly brave and resilient Dr Emily Inglis, and Kate Frye, who pounded the streets of provincial towns and cities to build up support for the cause, sometimes gaining male attention and who confessed in her diary, ‘…it is hard to live up to Suffrage. In some moods I could flirt with a Broomstick.’
The march itself is recounted using information from diaries and newspapers, and I am again astounded that I haven’t heard about this huge public act of political campaigning. Routes from all over England (a small contingent marched from Pontypridd too) led down to London, converging in Hyde Park on 26th July, 1913. Along the way, there are harrowing tales of violence enacted against these peaceable women, and I was taken aback by the sheer hostility they faced from other women. However, Robinson also captures the sense of sororal achievement these women experience, marching alongside people who will become lifelong friends, and in challenging public perceptions. Later, she makes the point that many of these women play key roles in the war and that it is this grounding in organising and campaigning that makes them so useful to the war effort. This in turn is, she suggests, behind the about-face in 1918 when it is finally decided that some women may be permitted the vote.
Ultimately, this is a book about brilliant and brave women who fought for their rights in ways which wouldn’t necessarily make the headlines but which undoubtedly changed the lives of millions to come.
Read my review of Jenni Murray’s A History of Britain in 21 Women here