Review of the last lecture

Votes for Women; Art, Suffragettes and Female Politicians

By Caroline Shenton.

Votes for Women. Next year sees the centenary of the first time women got the vote in this country; it took another ten years and a world war for universal suffrage to be introduced.  So provided one was over thirty and owned some property a women could influence the result of the general election.

Dr Caroline Shenton had, of course, no 'old masters' to show us.  Instead we feasted on cartoons which portrayed women in various, often unflattering, guises. We saw geese going to Parliament captioned 'Every proper goose should have her own propaganda'.  

Unwomanly women were shown leaving a note - your cold meat supper awaits, I have gone to a meeting - or leaving nothing but an untidy house with screaming kids to which the tired working man returned.

The campaign for Votes for Women took 68 years; in 1866  J.S. Mill presented a bill to Parliament to replace the word man with person in the law.  It failed.  The attitude in the country and particularly in the Houses of Parliament was to keep women in their place.  Even in the House of Commons the only way a women could follow the debate was in a tiny upper area behind a grill.

There were two suffrage movements, one eschewed violence, the Suffragistes, who kept within the law.  The better known movement, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, Women's Social and Political Union, was known as the suffragettes and embraced more violent tactics with the slogan 'Deeds not Words'.

A Punch cartoon "The Upside Down Parliament' all women, poorly dressed, plain featured and wearing bloomers, that recently introduced garment which enabled a woman to ride a bicycle sitting on the parliamentary benches.

The unflattering cartoon of Mrs Speaker was contrasted by Caroline Shenton with a splendid portrait of Betty Boothroyd - Madam Speaker.

Inevitably the suffragette movement fought back with cartoons of their own.  Ernestine Mills painted a postcard image of Mrs Partington, who ran the Anti-Suffrage Society, being King Canute; trying desperately to hold back the tide with a broom.  Other images carefully included rising suns, new dawns and more geese.  This time 'What's Sauce for the Gander is Sauce for the Goose'.

In addition to fighting for the vote the suffragists and suffragettes worked hard to reduce slave labour, terrible working conditions for so many women, earning pittances, working for long hours and generally downtrodden by society.   Catherine Courtauld, (sister of the founder of the Gallery), designed a moving poster "Waiting for a Living Wage" where the thin bowed down woman is shadowed by the spectre of a skeleton - labelled starvation.

One cartoon showed the jobs which women could do - local mayor (they had had local voting rights for some years), teacher, nurse, doctor, factory hand, mother, and those who also did not have the vote - convicts, lunatics, drunkards, and white slave traders!

The WSPU published a newspaper, at its height it sold 40,000 copies a week. Editorially it was less keen on violent protests than Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst although the death of Emily Davison at the Derby was commemorated with an Art Nouveau Angel bearing her features with the words 'Love that Overcometh' forming a halo.

Force Feeding when imprisoned and on hunger strike aroused strong feelings in the population at large and was described as torture by the campaigners.  The Cat and Mouse Bill was introduced to ensure that women who were too weak from hunger striking were sent home, and then when they were stronger, re-imprisoned.  

Mrs Richardson hit the headlines by taking a knife to Velasquez's portrait of The Toilet of Venus and slashing it.  She got six months.

Caroline Shenton ended by giving us a quick look at some modern portraits of well known political women of our day, Shirley Williams, Margaret Beckett and others.  We left the hall on that cold evening feeling that we would understand a great deal more next year when the centenary was celebrated.