Suffragette Stories – an exclusive interview with Dr Diane Atkinson
We had the honour of sitting down with Dr Diane Atkinson – acclaimed author of ‘Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes’ – to talk about the women who inspired her book and the impact they continue to have on society in the 21st century. On Monday 8th March, we will be hosting a special talk with Diane on the suffragettes and women’s history exclusively for our members and their friends and family to celebrate International Women’s Day. Members can sign up for Diane’s talk here. If you’re not yet a member of The Joy Club, why not sign up and today and secure your place?
And now, over to Diane…
The Joy Club: What first inspired your interest in women’s suffrage and the lives of the suffragettes?
Diane Atkinson: I used to work at the Museum of London where they have this world-famous, very important archive called the ‘Suffragette Fellowship’. It was given to the museum in 1950 by a group of suffragettes who had made an effort to collect the material of their campaign since the 1920s. They have a huge collection of banners, posters, photographs, letters that were written on Holloway prison lavatory paper, which they smuggled out to the outside world – it’s a wonderful archive of the most extraordinary material – and as I worked at the museum I had full access to it.
I hadn’t really learned about the suffragettes through my education – they were barely mentioned at all in the curriculum – and it wasn’t really until very recently that they started to get better press. It became part of my mission when I was at the Museum of London to start talking about them and educating people – talking to colleges, students, anybody really – and making the archive available.
Then, in 1992, I curated an exhibition called ‘Purple, White and Green’, which talked about how the suffragettes effectively invented branding and merchandising. They marketed their movement as militant and branded the look of it with a unique, highly recognisable colour scheme, giving it a whole new modern spin to their demand for the right to vote. Not requesting it – demanding it. It was truly a brilliant bit of marketing and PR and branding and as far as I’m aware, they’re the first people to have done it.
I brought this to everybody’s attention in 1992 with my exhibition and that started to get the message. For too long the suffragettes had been rubbished, diminished and demeaned as busybodies who were only interested in obtaining the vote for their own ‘type’ of women. That had been the standard belief system but I knew it wasn’t true, so my work since 1992 has been to shout from the rooftops about how innovative, cross-class and diverse they were and how inspiring they are still today.
TJC: Your most recent book, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, was published in 2018 – the centenary of (some) women getting the right to vote. In it, you share the stories of the women who answered the call to ‘Rise up’ – which of the suffragettes’ stories is your favourite and why?
DA: My book goes into the stories of some 200 women but there are thousands more out there. These women listened to the call and took a huge step into the unknown because to be a suffragette was a very difficult, dangerous and unpopular thing to be. Most people didn’t want women to have the vote and that included lots of women, and society thought that suffragettes were threatening, undermining and man-hating. The usual stuff that comes along when women say, “We want something different from what you’re prepared to offer us”.
If you really took your suffragette career to the max then it involved danger, suffering and sacrifice. A lot of suffragettes were abandoned by their families, marriages collapsed, engagements were called off, friendships broken, careers ended. It was a really big deal to ‘come out’ as a suffragette, as it were. But many of them did – thank God – and that’s why we have this remarkable benefit that we all enjoy by being able to vote.
In terms of stories, I’ve always been interested in the unusual – stories of diversity, really. For years everybody thought the suffragettes were just posh ladies messing about with politics but that simply wasn’t the case.
One of my favourites was a 16-year-old girl called Dora Thewlis. She was from Huddersfield and she worked in a carpet factory. Her parents were very political and they guided her towards joining the suffragettes. So from a working-class family background this young girl is thrust into the midst of the action. She’s taken to the railway station by her mum and put on the train to London to be part of a much bigger protest in Parliament, where she ends up being arrested and taken to prison. There’s a very famous photo of her being picked up and bundled off by policemen. In the newspaper she’s called ‘the baby suffragette’ because she looks so much younger than 16.
The local newspapers in Huddersfield were scandalised at the notion that this girl had been ‘seduced’ by the suffragettes, but when they asked her parents about the arrest they learnt that Dora’s mother and father had encouraged her to go! There’s this real forward-thinking attitude and I really like that story – it’s fabulous!
Another favourite of mine is Edith Rigby – a truly amazing woman. She lived in Preston and came from a very middle-class background (her father was a doctor and she married a doctor, yet she was motivated by the working conditions of women in the cotton mills. She very much focused on getting the vote for working women because she believed they had the worst lives of all of us.
As an organiser, she’d hold meetings in her house and would pay train fares for women who wanted to go to London to be part of the protests. But as a character she herself was highly individual, as were many of the suffragettes in their personalities and attitudes. Edith was very progressive in her views and was certainly very much a feminist. She didn’t wear corsets, instead preferring to wear loose, unstructured clothing and making her own dresses. This was completely unfashionable and frighteningly scary at the time! She also wore sandals all the time and made her own jewellery, which was completely at odds with the fashion. There she was wearing big, chunky necklaces when everyone else was wearing very delicate, fine lovely things.
She just didn’t care about anybody and their opinions and for that, she had a lot of trouble with her neighbours. She lived in quite a nice house in the square and her neighbours got together and went to see her and tried to get her to stop campaigning. They didn’t like the fact that she helped out with the cooking and cleaning in the home and – even though she had servants – she didn’t make them wear uniforms and would let them eat at the same table. This was entirely bewildering to her neighbours who thought that this woman was an anarchist.
She also had a fantastic husband – it would have been miserable if she hadn’t had such a supportive partner in Charlie. He backed her all the way. He was very scared about her going on hunger strike and being force-fed, but he always supported her and even said, “I’m a moral coward when I compare myself with my wife”.
Edith was a terrific woman who had a militant career and experienced it all: she went to prison, she went on hunger strike, she was force-fed, she went on the run and even went to Ireland to hide from the police. She was a truly hard-core suffragette and the sort of person that you would really want in your life because she was so inspiring and gave such confidence to people. I’d love to have met Edith. She just didn’t give a damn and that’s a really hard position to take – even now.
TJC: What are the lessons that women (and men) in 2021 should take from the suffragettes and their lives?
DA: The suffragettes were operating in a very hostile environment but I think that’s the case for anyone involved in political campaigning now, although it’s grandstanded by unpleasant behaviour on social media. Whether you’re a man or a woman, if you’re involved in political campaigning you need to be persistent and have endurance. Just be determined to keep going and stick with it. The suffragettes were able to demonstrate to the world, which wasn’t sympathetic, that the vote was important not just for women’s lives but for men’s lives, too. They showed that it was good for society for women to have a vote and to influence political discourse. Persistence, therefore, is very, very important.
Courage. People who want to make a change have to be prepared to make sacrifices. Whether that’s dealing with arguments at home or the possibility that you might lose friendships along the way. People will fall by the wayside if they don’t agree with you and you’ve got to be prepared to put up with that.
Stubbornness – like persistence – is important and it’s also the hardest bit. A lot of day-to-day political campaigning is really boring. It’s tedious, it requires a lot of donkey work and a lot of plodding on but it pays off. The suffragettes were great organisers and this is crucial to any movement.
Finally, having a nice, broad base of support is key. Taking feminism as an example, it’s not just about sitting around with a glass of wine saying, “Aren’t men awful?”. Feminism can’t just be a conversation over a white wine (although that is important, too) – it’s got to be more than that. Your efforts have got to be strategised and bookended with lots of organisation and it’s got to be reviewed to see what’s working. This takes a lot of energy. It’s physically and psychologically demanding, which is true of all campaigning. By the way, Extinction Rebellion have undoubtedly been influenced by the suffragettes – the really annoying protests methods they employ where they close all the roads is a typical suffragette tactic.
TJC: If you had the opportunity to meet any of the suffragettes, who would it be and why?
DA: I had the great fortune to meet a suffragette in 1992, whose name was Victoria Lidiard. She was living in Hove but originally came from Bristol where she and her sisters and her mother were all active suffragettes. They came to London in 1912 and a couple of them smashed windows and went to prison – Victoria would have been about 19 at the time. She’d been to prison twice and had been involved in lots of activism and it was a privilege for me to be in the same room as her. She was 102 years-old but had the mind of a 40-year-old. After the war she got involved in other political campaigning – suffragettes often persisted with political campaigning across a broad spectrum. She was involved in animal rights and anti-vivisectionism and she was big into vegetarianism. The last big campaign that she was lucky enough to see come to fruition was the ordination of women priests. This was a campaign that she’d been involved with from her 80s onwards. She was pretty fantastic!
To be in the same room as her I got a tiny taste of what it was like to be with the suffragettes. She was old but not remotely frail, extremely sharp and still very engaged with politics. I loved her. I loved that time with her. I often think about her.
TJC: What would the suffragettes make of modern life? Would they be pleased with the progress we’ve made as a society?
They’d be pleased with lots of the milestones that women had achieved, but I would think they’d be disappointed – if not horrified – that we’re still having the equal pay argument. Equal pay was one of their big platforms so they would be really disappointed that that’s still an issue and that there’s still so much pushback against it. It’s often covert and hidden, of course. Organisations are found wanting when they audit the salaries for men and women and the suffragettes would be sickened about that.
The suffragettes would also be shocked at the fact that we’ve had to have a Me Too moment. One of the things they were very annoyed about was sexual harassment and the idea that women have to give sexual favours to get on in life. There was a brilliant woman called Kitty Marion who was a musical performer – a comedian and a singer – whose career suffered because she wouldn’t do the whole ‘casting couch’ thing. She used to find it hard to get work because she wouldn’t ‘put out ’ for the agents and the producers. It was her experience of struggling to work that led her to join the militant campaign and take the issue forward. That then led her to be identified on more than one occasion in the papers as ‘that malignant suffragette’ – such an appalling term.
Finally, they would also be disappointed that we don’t have more women MPs.
TJC: You spent four years researching and writing Rise Up, Women! How did working on the book change you?
DA: Writing the book changed me a lot and it’s still with me today. It made me even more angry about equality. Yes, the suffragettes were operating in a really difficult and dangerous environment as are political campaigners today, but the idea of the vote is so basic and yet when women demanded it they were cast out as social pariahs. What they had to do to get the vote was awful – going to prison, going on hunger strike and being force-fed – they were tortured. The idea that they had to go that far to get a basic human right… It made me very angry.
I was very angry with the people who stood in their way who deliberately, wilfully ignored the justice of their demands. I found it also made me bolder and more assertive. I’m pretty assertive anyway – but now I just won’t take it from people who treat me with disrespect. The suffragettes have helped me a lot actually! I sometimes think to myself, “What would the suffragettes do? Would they stand by and accept rudeness or disrespect or inequality?” No, they wouldn’t! I think we all need to have a bit of the suffragettes in us.
TJC: What are you working on now? Do you have any books planned for the future?
DA: I’m working on something but it’s not something I can talk about yet. I am enjoying it though!
Diane Atkinson completed a Ph.D. on the politics of women’s sweated labour and has worked at the Museum of London, where she was a lecturer and curator, specialising in women’s history. She is the author of many books about the suffragettes and about women throughout history. You can purchase ‘Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes’ here.