[Pictured above right is Emmeline Pankhurst.]
This March, we have been celebrating Women’s History Month at The Joy Club, taking the opportunity to shine a light on overlooked perspectives both past and present. In our creative writing workshops, facilitator Grace encouraged attendees to explore the theme of honouring women from history. We were overwhelmed by the stories that came out of the class, which is why we have decided to publish them over the next few weeks as part of our ‘Unsung Voices’ showcase. Thank you to all our member writers for giving a voice to these women, reigniting the intelligence, love and resilience that burned so brightly in them.
We hope you have enjoyed this showcase. Today we are sharing the final story from ‘Unsung Voices’, which is a beautiful piece written by member, Avril. In it, Avril imagines the personal conversations behind women gaining the right to vote in the early 20th century.
‘Who knows, we might even get the vote’
‘Emmeline, what is the plan for next week? Should we visit London? Aim for the Houses of Parliament?’, called the voices.
Emmeline looked around the sea of faces in the headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union and was silent for quite a while. It was July 1915.
What would be the next step? Too many of the WSPU members had been jailed in recent months for their militant activities, but one had to take a stand. It was the only way to get the government to listen. Women’s rights and social conditions, that was the focus. Manchester’s workhouses had been in a terrible state for far too long and women surely deserved a voice. Doing nothing was surely not an option. Christabel, her eldest daughter, had a sense of what Emmeline was going to say next.
Another voice could be heard, ‘Mildred is in HM Peterborough, She is going to go on hunger strike. What do you say, Emmeline?’. There was no reply. Expectant silence filled the room.
‘No, no, ladies. No more breaking windows, no more chaining yourselves to railings, no more hunger strikes. We need to try something completely different.’
After a shocked silence, a younger woman looked at her aghast, ‘What, – what are you talking about? You are not suggesting that we work with Asquith? That we go against everything we have ever stood for? Remember our slogan, ‘deeds not words? The government won’t take any notice otherwise; you know that.’
‘No. I propose a demonstration to give us a voice in the war. Why should it just be the men? Are we to continue to be thought of as second-class citizens? 50 per cent of British citizens are women.’
‘What demonstration? We’ve done them. It’s not made any difference,’ shouted another woman.
‘I am proposing a Right to Serve demonstration, to show the government what we are capable of,’ continued Emmeline. Christabel stood beside her and nodded.
‘Mother’s right,’ she said. `We need to show what we are capable of, see what we can do to help the war effort. Munitions factories, they need help; clothing for the soldiers, etc. Let us show that we are indispensable to men. That is in keeping with ‘deeds, not words.’ We are certainly their equal. In fact, aren’t we stronger, for we bear pain in childbirth? What use are we in prisons?’
Emmeline reflected on her younger daughters, Adela and Sylvia, who had left the WSPU, disagreeing with the group’s tactics. Would this be in keeping with what they wanted to achieve? It was too late now, especially for Adela, who had emigrated to Australia.
‘Ladies, you must understand that in war, we need fresh tactics and this may even be a more effective strategy. We need to show a united front, even if it does mean working with the Liberals. Let us prove they can’t do without us. Who knows, we might even get the vote!’
What do you think? Share your thoughts with Avril in the comments below!