Suffragettes – Dandizette Heroines
by Tyne O’Connell
The suffragette heroines epitomised the qualities of the feminism of Dandizettes by retaining their elegance and humour even in battle. Their movement was not just about votes for women. The suffragette’s defined what it meant to be a modern woman – elegant, intelligent and pure of heart but most decidedly not submissive!
Surprisingly women were not prohibited from voting in the UK until the Reform Bill of 1832. The suffragette movement began with the suffragists in 1872 who were determined to shake off the limits placed on women in public life by the reform act of 1832 which had them – along with lunatics and children – barred from voting and holding public office. Before 1832 there were many men and women who supported votes for women. In 1825 two Irish writers and Philosophers, Anne Wheeler and William Thomson published a book. The title says it all.
“An Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery: In Reply to Mr. Mill’s Celebrated Article on Government”
James Mills was a Scottish political theorist who had published a pamphlet stating the rights of “women may be disregarded, the interests of almost all of whom are involved in that of their father or in that of their husbands.”
Despite opposition from both men and women, the Reform Act went through under a Liberal government using the word “male” rather than “person” thereby prohibiting voting for women. Yet even after the act was passed many politicians argued in parliament that women of property should be able to vote. In fact Lily Maxwell a property owner even managed to register on the electoral role and voted in the elections of 1867 – becoming the first British woman to vote. However the philosophy that women’s thinking must submit to male thinking was ultimately enshrined in law in 1883 to prohibit any further cheeky women venturing to think for themselves.
“By marriage, the personal identity of the woman is lost. Her person is completely sunk in that of her husband, and he acquires an absolute mastery over her person and effects. Hence her complete disability to contract legal obligations; and except in the event of separation by divorce, or other causes, a married woman in the United Kingdom cannot engage in trade.” Leone Levi International Law 1883
Effectively the 19th Century saw women’s rights sliding backwards. Despite peaceful protests and tireless campaigning by suffragists, women were now the slaves of men. Like lunatics and children they had no say in the running of their own lives and after the Levi law of 1883 they weren’t even allowed to earn a living. Women were the property of their fathers or husbands. By the time the 20th Century dawned women en masse were fed up with their status as chattels and determined to reject submissiveness as a “feminine trait”.
It was a groundbreaking concept – eliminating submissiveness from the list of feminine virtues and remains one of the only common ground between the multitudinous branches of the modern feminist movements.
The battle colours of the Suffragettes symbolised the feminine ideals they did embrace: Green for Hope, Purple for Dignity and White for Purity – not as has erroneously been suggested, Green for Give, White for Women and Violet for Votes. The Suffragettes were proud of their feminine virtues and united in eschewing submissiveness as a virtue let alone a quality inherently female in nature.
Their thrust of their push for votes was in their assertion that women are not the property of their husbands and therefore they wanted the freedom to express their views. Perhaps the most long ranging effect of the Suffragettes on modern feminism was their dismissal once and for all of the notion that women are inherently “submissive”.
Lord Fredrick Lawrence, whom upon marriage combined his name with his wife’s becoming Lord Fredrick Pethick-Lawrence stood shoulder to shoulder with his suffragette wife, wrote:
“Nothing has done more to retard the progress of the human race than the exaltation of submission into a high and noble virtue. It may often be expedient to submit; it may even sometimes be morally right to do so in order to avoid a greater evil; but submission is not inherently beautiful – it is generally cowardly and frequently morally wrong.”
In true dandizette fashion, the ladies of the suffragette movement took up their parasols and wide-brimmed hats to defend themselves against their detractors who counted notable men such as Arthur Conan Doyle in their number. He described them as “female hooligans” which seems a bit rich given it was standard practice for men to let rats loose into suffrage meetings while pelting the ladies who hailed from all ages and social classes with missiles. Never-the-less the ladies – and ladies they were – maintained their elegant cool along with their sense of humour as rotten eggs and fish rained down upon them, hurled by men outraged that were daring to object to submissiveness. The ladies only managed to keep their eyesight as a result of the huge hats that were then fashionable, the wide brims saving them “from hard missiles and the cayenne pepper blown at us from bellows”.
After a meeting of 30,000 suffragettes in 1906, Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence who also created Maison Espérance, a radical dressmaking cooperative with a minimum wage, an eight-hour day and a holiday scheme, said, “I never saw a suffragette, under menace of violence, otherwise than cool and collected.”
Listening to anti-suffrage diatribes from men, women were beginning to realise – many for the first time – what many men really thought of them. What they heard wasn’t very nice nor was it gentlemanly. Raping of suffregettes was standard practice and widely applauded. Yet rather than bowing to the violent feelings and attacks against them, the suffragettes took their strength from their detractors and most importantly, maintained their sense of humour and style.
Images of the inhumane practice of the forced feeding of suffragettes, the death of Emily Wilding Davidson and the sexual assault they were regularly subjected to by police and outraged men, one can forget just how popular these elegant feminists were. The nation was utterly transfixed by their bold deeds. It cannot be overstated how thrilling it must have been to witness the sisters of the suffragette movement marching in their thousands in their broad-brimmed hats, behind their white, green and purple banners.
They were mistresses of audacious publicity campaigns – like innovative flash mobs. Combining humour with their zeal, sealed their place in the popular imagination. An estimated half a million people attended their Hyde Park demonstration in 1908 – a far greater number than any line up of rock rebels of today can hope to attract to a Hyde Park concert.
One of their more hilarious stunts was to boycott the census in 1911. In a mass protest against a government they had no say in, the women of Britain decided to play hooky and stayed out all night partying, declaring: “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted.”
Suffragette flash mobs took to Wimbledon Common in horse-drawn caravans, others spent the night roller skating around the Aldwich Rinkeries dressed in white green and purple. In support of their protest the venue was kept open especially. Emily Davison hid herself in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons. On another occasion two suffragettes posted themselves as human letters to Downing Street.
The Suffragettes dandizette style was soon influencing fashion. In 1908 London Jewellers, Mappin & Webb honoured the popularity of the suffragette movement by issuing a catalogue of suffragette jewellery for Christmas 1908. The idea was to tempt devoted husbands to honour their bold wives with jewellery tributes to their daring deeds. Combining Peridot to symbolise hope, amethyst to symbolise their dignity and pearls to represent the purity of the suffrage cause – the collection was an enormous hit.
Despite the fact that women kept Britain going during the first world war while the men were fighting, they did not win their battle to be legally viewed as human beings rather than chattels of husbands and fathers until 1928. It was then that The Representation of the People Act was eventually passed, granting all women over the age of 21 the right to think for themselves along with the freedom to work or run a business. A side effect of the Representation of The People Act was that women had the right to vote on the same terms as men but the real victory was that women ceased – in law at least – to be viewed only as the property of men. Finally the appeal of One Half of the Human Race (women) Against the Pretensions of the Other Half (men), to retain them in political, civil and domestic slavery had been heard and heeded.
It is important not to minimise the goals or achievements of the Suffragettes in thinking that it was only a matter of the right to cast a vote that they won. The suffragette’s achieved for women is equivalent to the anti-slavery act. Every woman owes a debt to these bold ladies of the Suffragette Movement.
The jewellery they wore to represent their virtues remains highly collectable today. In wearing a piece of jewellery once worn by a suffragette, it is hard not to feel the esprit de corps of the ladies of suffrage. Their movement was not just about votes for women, it defined what it means to be a modern woman – elegant, intelligent and pure of heart, but most decidedly not submissive! Whether its poor health, an interview, a hot date or a public appearance, – fastening a suffragette brooch to your breast – will undoubtably boost your zeal.
The Suffragette Jewellery pictured and others are available at Gillian Anderson Price
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