Last week I went to see the film, Suffragette. I thought it was understated and moving, and it reminded me of the debt that we all owe to the brave women who fought for a fairer society. The film ends with the death of Emily Wilding Davison who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. But that was not the end of the fight; this particular battle for equality was protracted and fierce—it took until 1928 for women in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to be granted equal voting rights with men.
At the end of the film, the audience is reminded that this was an international struggle, and many countries were slower than the United Kingdom in giving women the vote. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance was formed in 1904 but it took until 1971 for Swiss women to be granted suffrage, and Saudi women have only, this year, been promised the vote.
The film also reminded me of something I learned when I visited the Statue of Liberty a few years ago. Her official name is ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, and she was donated to New York by the French in recognition of the friendship that was established between France and America during the American Revolution. The dedication ceremony for the statue took place in 1886, but despite the overt femininity of this symbol of liberty, women were banned from attending. Outraged suffragettes responded by hiring boats and bellowing through megaphones that even if Liberty were able to get off her pedestal, she would not be allowed to vote in either France or America. American women got the vote on equal terms with men in 1920, but their French sisters had to wait until 1944.
Another story that is not referred to in the film is that of The Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. This was formed in 1908 by women who opposed women getting voting rights. Over the next ten years more than a hundred branches were established throughout the UK and there were large demonstrations where women protested that they did not want the vote. The League depicted suffragettes as ugly and masculine, and with a tendency to wear unflattering pork-pie hats. Surprisingly the League garnered support from some women who were active in extending other kinds of female rights. These included Elizabeth Wordsworth, the founding Principal of the Oxford women’s college, Lady Margaret Hall. Anti-suffrage campaigners were content for women to get the vote in local elections as these were concerned with feminine-friendly issues such as education. But matters that were debated on a national platform, such as international relations and war, were considered outside the acceptable scope of feminine influence. The fear was that women would become masculinised if they were to become involved, and then men would be unwilling to marry them.
It seems to me that whatever you think, there will be someone who disagrees with you; politics, religion, philosophy, history, human rights, you name it—there are many potential angles. And the life blood of culture is that its interpretation is subject to opinion. Fashion, for example, thrives on pushing boundaries and provoking debate. Molly adores clothes and used to love reading what we called the ‘Poor Thing’ column; a regular fashion article in a national newspaper which took six women and put them in various ‘stylish’ outfits. Almost always, we would look at these women and say that if we saw them in the street dressed like that we would feel very sorry for them. This is how it came to be called the ‘Poor Thing’ column.
Book groups, too, thrive on disagreement. I’ve belonged to several groups in the past and on occasion I’ve admired and loved a book so much that I couldn’t imagine that anyone would dislike it. Rohinton Mistry’s, ‘A Fine Balance’ was a case in question. A rich tapestry of Indian society, it captivated me, but sure enough whilst some in the group shared my view, there were others who thoroughly disliked it. And then there was Iris Murdoch’s, ‘The Sea The Sea’ which I found intolerably tedious. That got high ratings in the group.
I am soon going to be at the critical coalface myself, as my book ’31 Treats And A Marriage’ is in the final stages of preparation and will be published at the end of the Spring. I shall have to harden myself to criticism. I hope that many people will like it but there is no getting away from the fact that some people will not. It’s just the way things are.
But at least I won’t have to face the humiliation of being reviewed by the acerbic Dorothy Parker, pictured above. In 1925 she started writing book reviews in the New Yorker under the name ‘Constant Reader’ and they were said to delight everyone except the unfortunate authors. She found A.A. Milne’s,,’The House at Pooh Corner’ sugary, and wrote that ‘Tonstant Weader Fwowed up’ after reading it.
Undeterred by these concerns, I’ve enjoyed the process of writing my first book so much that I’ve recently started on my second one. This combines visits to English cities with the stories of women who for a range of reasons have had to push against the constraints of society. It’s still open to debate but I think there will be a suffragette somewhere in there.
‘What’s your blog about this time?’ asked Molly’s boyfriend. ‘Disagreement’, I replied. ‘Whatever you say there will always be someone who disagrees.’ ‘No there won’t,’ he said with a naughty grin.