Thursday, May 06, 2010

Searching for Suffragettes in the South-West; Election 2010

As I wander lazily up the road today on my way to the Polling Station to mark my cross for my chosen local candidate, I have plenty of time to idle, look around and contemplate. I'm thinking how different it was for women one hundred years ago - just a whisper of time ago. My mother's birth was only a couple of years away, my grandmother was in her mid twenties and not until she was 44 years old, in 1928, did she have full and independent  voting rights. 1910 was a year when courageous women were taking violent action to gain the right to vote. The Women's History Timeline on BBC presents the factual dates,Wikepedia, an interesting summary Women's Suffrage.

In a spare moment or two over the last days I've tracked down several suffragettes who had connections to the south-west (especially with Devon) and tried to collect a few relevant texts. Approximately a century ago these women were deeply involved in the then current campaign to obtain the vote for women. This piece does not pretend to cover the subject in any detail, but rather, just picks up a few names, places and begins to explore their engagement with writing and others' writing about them. I'll also point to a few relevant sites. It's a kind of Homage. If not for their courage and resolve where would today's women stand in the political order? Currently the general grievance seems to be a complaint about fewer women at the top level. 'Why not another female prime minister,?' people ask. All too many seem to take for granted their right to vote, and are shamefully ignorant of any historical slant to the current debates - and that is even with the renewed flurry of interest in politics, since 'that' now famous televised debate.

The formidable Lady Constance Georgina Bulwer-Lytton had ancestral connections to Devon through several grandparents. Her paternal Grandfather, the novelist/poet  Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton, died at his winter home, Argyll Hall in Torquay in 1873; before his death Constance's parents had stayed there for a while after a diplomatic spell abroad. It's quite likely that the four year old child Constance would have been with them, although biographies of her suggest she spent her first eleven years in India. Her maternal great-grandmother was from Saltram House; she was Theresa Parker, daughter of  John Parker, 1st Baron of Boringdon and his second wife Theresa Robinson. You can read about the remarkable life and work of the redoubtable Constance Lytton  on many web-sites. Suffice to note here that her most proactive year was in 1910 when she spent much time in prison; her book Prisons and Prisoners was written in 1914. Her forebearers would no doubt have been intensely proud of their courageous descendant, whose mausoleum at Knebworth says

"Endowed with a celestial sense of humour, boundless sympathy, and rare musical talent, she devoted the later years of her life to the political enfranchisement of women and sacrificed her health and talents in helping to bring victory to this cause."

 Here at google-newspapers you can read about the by-election in Mid-Devon in 1907/8 and how some of the key suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst, were involved in active work to disrupt and influence the result, distributing slogans and speaking at meetings. In Newton Abbot things came to a head and Pankhurst was injured. This Emmeline Pankhurst biography by June Purvis tells the story.

Here is a contemporary newspaper report from The Morning Post on Pankhurst's arrest in 1913 about how on her return from America she was taken from Plymouth to Exeter. And, here in The New York Times a piece about Mrs Pankhurst's release from Exeter prison.

Pankhurst's daughters Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, Evelina Haverfield, Vera Holme and Alison Vickers Garland all had connections with Devon. They were activists in the county, spent holidays here and Haverfield and Holme, who were lovers, bought and lived in a cottage in Brendon. There are records of letters exchanged between Holme and Haverfield and at least one poem written by Holme for Haverfield, at the Women's Library Special CollectionAlison Garland lived in Devon during part of her life, at Dousland Grange, near Yelverton. She spoke at meetings of the Central and West of England Society for Women's Suffrage, was a novelist and was acclaimed for her suffrage play 'The Better Half' .

Much more recently, Jacqueline Mulhallen, herself born in Devon, wrote and performed 'Sylvia' a play about Sylvia Pankhurst.

Of course, the correlation between suffragettes and the right for women is not always accepted and many consider that it was the respose to the actions of moderate women during the first world war, rather than the violent actions of the activists themselves that made all the difference. I'm not sure what I believe, but what is certain is that these women made the public aware of the issues in the context of a very different political arena than we have now.