OPENING today at cinemas across the UK, Suffragette stars Carey Mulligan as a laundry worker who joins the fight for women’s rights in pre-First World War England.
Though fictionalised, the movie features very real figures including Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself to her death before the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Written by Abi Morgan, who wrote Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady, directed by Sarah Gavron, who made Brick Lane, and featuring Meryl Streep in the role of Pankhurst, the film is unique in being a major production that focuses on the battle for votes for women.
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The failure of the film or TV industry to document this historically significant struggle until now is, according to experts, symptomatic of a culture that fails to recognise or value the experiences and contributions of half of its members.
Donna Moore of Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), the only dedicated museum of women’s history in the UK, said: “Women’s history is often neglected and thrown away and forgotten.”
A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE
According to Moore, that lack of appreciation can be summed up in the story of one of the most prized items in GWL’s suffrage collections; an iron umbrella stand painted by women held in Duke Street Prison under the “cat and mouse act”.
The legislation allowed authorities to temporarily release hunger-striking suffragettes, only to take them back into custody when their health improved.
Many were force-fed in custody, but the governor at Duke Street was sympathetic to the suffrage movement, known in Scotland as “the gude cause”, and did not carry out the practice.
Instead of such torture, he provided the women with the umbrella stand and paints to decorate during their incarceration.
They didn’t have the green, white and purple of the WSPU so made do with pink, blue and cream, and the finished item stayed within the prison until it was demolished in the late 1950s.
Moore said: “A social worker who used to visit the prison passed by and found the umbrella stand in a skip. She dragged it out and eventually it found its way to us.
“We cherish it. There are so many amazing women from Scottish history. Our aim is to shine a light on women’s lives and history and achievements.”
Those women include Jessie Stephen, a domestic servant and WSPU member who put acid into post boxes, her maid’s uniform rendering her invisible to the authorities who focused on middle-class activists.
They also include postal worker Flora Drummond, who played a key role in the “battle of Glasgow” in 1914.
POLICE surrounded a public meeting after rumours grew that Pankhurst, who was wanted following release under the “cat and mouse act”, was to appear.
The WSPU leader and her guard of female jiu-jitsu experts took the stage, with batons hidden in their clothing, taking their place behind a string of green, white and purple bouquets.
Eventually Pankhurst, who had sneaked into the venue, stood up from the audience and mounted the platform to speak, and the officers moved in – some were caught up in barbed wire hidden within the flowers, others were held back by the guard, but eventually Pankhurst was arrested.
Drummond, whose military-style dress led her to being known as The General, finished her speech and went on to deliver it in Dundee and Edinburgh.
It was a pivotal moment in the suffragette cause. Moore said: “Pankhurst knew she was going to be arrested and said, ‘If I escape everybody will laugh at the government, if I am caught public sympathy will turn towards suffragettes’, and the latter happened.”
WHEN DID WOMEN GET THE VOTE?
WOMEN over 30 finally got the vote in 1918 and the road to the Representation of the People Act was trodden by Stephen, Drummond and many more involved in direct action.
The stand at Ayr racecourse had been burned to the ground in 1913, with an attempt also made to set Kelso racecourse alight.
A bomb was planted at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow and a glass case at the Wallace Monument in Stirling was broken by Ethel Moorhead, who became the first Scots suffragette to be force-fed.
GWL’s archives include written testimony from Moorhead and her contemporaries, as well as later-life interviews with some and a host of suffragette-era materials like postcards for and against the social change.
One, which bears a Christmas greeting on the back, is illustrated with an image of a woman with a nail through her tongue.
Moore said: “We have lost so many of the stories of these women, and the voices we do have left are often middle-class, which doesn’t tell the whole story. It wasn’t just a middle-class issue, there were many, many working-class women involved and it certainly wasn’t something that only happened in London or that didn’t come to Scotland.
“There were a lot of very active women in Scotland and it’s just such a shame that they aren’t celebrated in the way that they should be.
“Look how many statues we have of men; in Glasgow there are statues commemorating just three women.
“These are amazing characters with powerful stories. We need to tell them and we need people to listen.”