Drawing on the Legacy of Suffrage

By Gentleman, Amelia | International Herald Tribune, June 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

Drawing on the Legacy of Suffrage


Gentleman, Amelia, International Herald Tribune


There's a rush of British interest in the suffrage movement of the early 20th century, as seen in a BBC comedy series. Some are also using the moment to reflect on what still has not been achieved.

The early years of the British suffrage movement make an unlikely subject for a comedy show, but this is the theme of a new prime- time BBC series that transports us back to 1910 and depicts the ineffectual efforts of a group of women from an Oxford suburb to transform their craft circle into a radical protest group.

In the first episode of the series, "Up the Women," few of the women understand what the movement is for. "Women do not need votes," the craft circle's chairwoman announces. "The present system works perfectly well. My husband votes for whom I tell him to vote. What could be a better system than that?"

Other members express bewildered skepticism at the decision by one of their members to become a suffragette. "And your husband approves of this?" they ask, aghast. "Margaret can never be a suffragette. They're all mannish, flat-chested, bottom-heavy spinsters, aren't they?" one woman declares. "I've read that they've malformed heads and webbed hooves," another ventures.

But by the end of the episode the Banbury intricate craft circle has voted to rename itself the "Banbury intricate craft circle politely demands women's suffrage." Soon they are marching to the village post office, carrying banners marked "Kill the king."

Britain is experiencing a new rush of interest in the women's suffrage movement, marking the centenary of some key moments in the suffragettes' history. The BBC comedy, written by Jessica Hynes, joins documentaries exploring the theme and a wave of books on the subject.

One hundred years ago this month, Emily Wilding Davison ran in front of the king's horse at the Epsom Derby race, carrying two suffrage flags. She suffered fatal injuries -- a fractured skull and internal bleeding -- and become a key suffragette martyr.

She was convinced that by committing this one great act of self- sacrifice, she could help put an end to what she called the "intolerable torture of women."

Clearly she failed in that ambitious goal. But she did raise the profile of the campaign, which five years later -- toward the end of World War I, which upended the 19th-century world order -- secured votes for some women in Britain, and by 1928 had achieved equal suffrage.

While there is much to celebrate about the suffragette legacy, the anniversary has prompted new analysis of how the campaign for women's equality in Britain is faring, with the inevitably bleak conclusion that there is still a very long way to go. …

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