Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Uses of Religion in the Women's Militant Suffrage Campaign in England

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Uses of Religion in the Women's Militant Suffrage Campaign in England

Article excerpt

During the years of the early twentieth-century suffrage campaign in England, women who participated in its more militant faction, particularly the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), often located their actions within a religious framework. The suffragettes' militant actions were supported by, and given credibility by, their many references to traditional Christian experiences and beliefs. Participants in militant actions, the suffragettes, as well as many contemporary writers, were well aware of the religious dimension of the campaign. The suffragist Helena Swanwick noted it in her autobiography of 1935, I Have Been Young, stating, "For--let there be no mistake about it--this movement was not primarily political; it was social, moral, psychological and profoundly religious" (187). It may come as a surprise to find that a modern political movement, the militant campaign in England to win the vote for women, had such a strong Christian component. A further surprise is the adoption by the women of a French Catholic saint, Joan of Arc, rather than a British Protestant woman, as their model. These uses of religion by the suffragettes tell us a great deal today about how the suffragettes saw themselves and their actions in the context of history.

The appropriation of religion for the militant political campaign took a variety of forms. The suffragettes adopted symbolic Christian figures as well as the structure and tactics of other contemporary Christian organizations, particularly the Salvation Army. They infused their rhetoric, in both their autobiographical accounts and their novels, with the language of Christian theology and the Bible. They also adopted traditional forms of Christian experience, including calls to conversion, suffering, and martyrdom. A clear example of the militant suffragettes' appropriation of a religious symbol can be found in their adoption of Joan of Arc as their patron saint. For the suffragettes in their struggle against the English government, Joan of Arc, the fifteenth-century French peasant who heard voices from God telling her to take up the sword against the English, was the embodiment of religious militancy. The pictorial and written record of the time documents the many ways Saint Joan's image was employed by the suffragettes. For example, photos show a woman dressed as Saint Joan riding on horseback in the Women's Coronation Procession on 17 June 1911. On a 1915 cover of the Suffragette, the official organ of the WSPU, Saint Joan is depicted in armor with a halo around her head ("The Great Patriot," cover page). In an article in the Suffragette of 9 May 1913, a writer calls Joan of Arc "the militant women's ideal. They feel the closest kinship with her and in every word and in every act of hers they recognize the same spirit as that which strengthens them to risk their liberty and endure torture for the sake of freedom" (qtd. in Atkinson, 112).

Joan of Arc also appears in the literary record of the time, primarily as an inspirational figure. In Cicely Hamilton's play A Pageant of Great Women, first staged in 1909, a woman representing Joan of Arc leads the group of warrior women across the stage. The woman in the play who pleads women's case before the throne of justice introduces Joan with the words "Brave saint, pure soldier," providing an unexpected and interesting pairing of adjectives with nouns. To her loyalists, Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder and leader of the WSPU, was nothing short of a modern-day saint, even another Joan of Arc. Ethel Smyth, a composer and friend of Pankhurst, said of her: "Decades may elapse before Mrs. Pankhurst is seen for what she really was--an even more astounding figure than Joan of Arc, in that instead of performing her miracles in an age of romance, religious faith, and mystic exaltation, round about her blared the hard, skeptical light of the twentieth century" (188).

The choice of a religious warrior, Saint Joan, rather than a more secular militant woman warrior, such as Boadicea, as their inspirational figure was not an isolated ease of the suffragettes joining religion to the military. …

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