2018 marks 100 years since some women in Britain got the vote. Nowadays the colors most associated with the suffrage movement are the purple, green and white of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), but almost every suffrage society – and there were over fifty of them by 1914 – had its own color scheme. You can’t tell from black and white newsreel of suffrage processions, but they were alive with vibrant hues – from the pink and green of the Actresses’ Franchise League, to the blue and silver of the Artists’ Suffrage League, and the black and gold of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. The largest society, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), used red, white and green, whilst the colors of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) were green and gold. This branding helped suffragists recognize each other, and campaigners often wore the symbols or colors of societies on their clothing.
A huge range of branded goods and accessories was produced to take the message of Votes for Women into everyday life. Suffrage newspaper sellers sold their papers on the streets of towns and cities across the UK and suffrage shops sprang up to raise money for the cause. You could buy badges, jewelry, scarves, bags, china, food and drink, and even bicycles branded with the symbols and colors. The experience of campaigning was also changing the way suffragist women shopped. Novelist Evelyn Sharp overheard a discussion in which a woman chose a new hat with politics, rather than fashion, in mind:
"We all knew what it meant to stand on a lorry on a windy day… The woman of the future… will know how to choose a hat that will allow her to hold her head up instead of down, even in a high wind".
Suffrage plays showed activism and activists on stage, giving writers and performers exciting opportunities to explore the wider ideas of the movement and their hopes for the future. Performances took place all over the UK, alongside many other types of performative propaganda created to challenge old fashioned and sexist views of how women should behave and be represented in public space.
Suffrage fairs and exhibitions had interactive activities for visitors of all ages – from Suffrage Punch and Judy shows to suffrage shooting galleries, magicians, ju-jitsu demonstrations, dancing and music. The all-female WSPU Drum and Fife Band, marching through the streets of London, and the Scottish WSPU Pipers marching through Edinburgh helped to make suffragist women unmissable – they were confidently taking up space, embracing visibility and spreading the message of the movement. There were films, songs, and documentary photography - and if suffrage campaigners had had social media, they would have embraced it!
The statue of NUWSS leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett that now stands in Parliament Square shows her holding up a sign saying ‘courage calls to courage everywhere.’ As well as colors and symbols the movement used memorable slogans - the WSPU’s ‘Deeds Not Words’ and the WFL’s ‘Dare to be Free’ are probably the best known but others are frequently visible in pictures of marches and demonstrations. Unable to protest democratically, campaigners fought the government through practical action like tax resistance and boycotting the census, refusing to provide data and resources to those who would not recognize their right to represent themselves.
In response, negative stereotypes of campaigners in the media, the popular press and on stage became ever more grotesque, portraying suffragists and suffragettes as unmarried, miserable, violent, ugly and loud. Unsurprisingly suffragist campaigners, like current feminist campaigners, were subject to abuse when they expressed their views. In June 1914 suffragist actress Eva Moore spoke in public in support of Mary Blomfield, who had caused a scandal the day before by getting on her knees in front of the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace to protest about the forcible feeding of suffragette prisoners. In her autobiography, Moore recalled her feelings about Blomfield’s action:
"It may have been, probably was, the wrong time to do it; it was probably the wrong way to attempt to do it; but I did feel, and still feel, that the girl must have called up every ounce of courage she possessed to say what she did".
In her speech, Moore said ‘we must all take our hats off to such terrific courage,’ a comment that was subsequently reported widely in the press. The backlash was immediate and vitrolic. Moore wrote of her shock and distress at the ‘abusive, indecent’ letters she received from male strangers during this period of publicity, declaring that if she had not already been a suffragist, those letters would have made her one.
Modern day feminists, like their counterparts a hundred years ago, are very aware of how they are seen, and how past and present negative portrayals of feminists and feminism affect public perceptions. However they also know just how important it is to keep campaigning and challenging those ideas. The direct action of groups like Sisters Uncut and Pussy Riot, a drive for intersectionality within the mainstream and grassroots movements, campaigns like 50:50 Parliament and mass protests like the Women’s March harness media attention, stimulate discussion, and engage new audiences across the globe.
We have ten years until 2028 and the centenary of women getting the vote on the same terms as men – ten years to keep speaking up, speaking out, supporting each other, raising each other’s voices and campaigning for equal rights and opportunities for all people. We have the strong and courageous shoulders of suffrage campaigners to stand on – let’s hold our heads up, continue their legacy, harness their energy, and keep moving forward!