Historian and author Diane Atkinson – whose latest book has become the definitive history of the suffragettes – will be discussing some ‘remarkable lives’ at Wanstead Library this March
I’m really looking forward to coming to Wanstead Library to talk about my latest book, Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. It is a collective biography of 200 women – there were thousands more – who worked so hard and sacrificed so much for women’s suffrage.
Women from all social class backgrounds, all ages, all parts of the United Kingdom and all life experiences ‘came out’ as suffragettes, many of them leaving their previous lives behind forever.
For many years, the suffragettes were written out of the story of women getting the vote, or dismissed as self-interested, middle-class hobbyists, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In 1907, a woollen weaver from Huddersfield, Dora Thewlis, aged 16, was called ‘The Baby Suffragette’ by the newspapers when she was arrested in Westminster by the police while trying to enter Parliament with other Women’s Social and Political Union women. Her mother had put her on the train to London, telling her to do her bit for ‘the cause.’
Kitty Marion, a music hall artiste, was one of several dozen performers who were part of the struggle: in Kitty’s case, her road to militancy came after years of enduring sexual harassment while trying to earn a living.
Lady Constance Lytton, a close friend of Annie Kenney, a cotton worker from Oldham and senior figure in the movement, deliberately put her already frail health at risk by going on hunger strike and being force-fed in prison.
I first became aware of the suffragettes when I worked at the Museum of London, which has the largest archive in the world devoted to the militant struggle. In 1992 I curated an exhibition, Purple, White and Green: Suffragettes in London 1906–1914, which told the story of their brilliant marketing and merchandising skills in promoting their demand for votes for women, alongside their daring and dangerous struggle, imprisonment, hunger-striking and force-feeding.
Sylvia Pankhurst – who lived in Woodford Green from 1924 to 1956 – makes many appearances in the book, as do her east London comrades who gave her so much support.
The centenary of the first instalment of women’s suffrage in 2018, which was an important moment to celebrate the work of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union, also made clear that there is still much work to be done to improve women’s lives.