At the International Women’s Day event orchestrated by Bristol Women’s Voice on Saturday 3rd March, I had the splendid luck to get an interview with suffrage historian (and actress, and comedian, and activist) Dr Naomi Paxton. I was interviewing her for Bristol Women’s Voice, of course, but it felt like a stroke of personal good fortune.
You see, the month of February had seen me delving into women’s suffrage history for a project with the National Trust (and learning more about it in that three-week period than I had in my entire life up to that point, History A level notwithstanding) and I had questions that felt urgent. How was it that I had come out of my Modern History A level with more admiration for David Lloyd George and his welfare reforms than for the women who fought so hard for the vote – for the right to have more say in the welfare of the nation?
So I told Paxton that I was concerned, as an educator as well as a feminist, with how we can better teach the admiration of these women – without it being shouted down as propaganda, which is an accusation that has already been levelled at the National Trust for their ‘Women and Power’ exhibition. She asked me with a shrewd gleam if it hadn’t been propaganda that had led me to admire Lloyd George. Of course I knew that really, but it was so good to have it from the historian’s mouth: we are subjected constantly to a stream of patriarchal propaganda from multiple directions, but this is so normalised as to appear neutral. To teach the admiration of suffragists and suffragettes, in this context, qualifies as resistance or redress.
Let alone admiration, her schooling hadn’t covered women’s suffrage at all. “I did the Tudors, and then I changed schools and did the Tudors again – so I knew quite a lot about the Tudors but nothing about women’s suffrage.” She discovered that history through theatre: through the discovery of suffrage plays. When I asked if she thought it ought to be taught in schools she said, rather generously I thought, that she was sure “every historian is clamouring for their bit of history,” but added that “as a latecomer to this whole story I would have loved to have learned it earlier, yes, and I would love to have learned more.”
This is a big part of the problem, I realised, as I listened to her speak: what we do tend to learn about the suffrage movement is so selective that it creates a partial and distorted image. We tend to learn about the WSPU, or Suffragettes, who were not the largest but only the most militant suffrage society – “perhaps because it’s the most voyeuristically pleasing to find out about” – but we rarely get to see “the wider picture”: it started long before 1903, and it wasn’t all militant campaigning, even for the militant societies. Neither do we get to see what Paxton calls “the wider point”: that “it was never all about a vote – it was about equal pay and better rape conviction rates and anti-vivisection”… and parental rights for women, better conditions for workers, and any number of reforms to “wider society”.
“Without being conspiracy theorists about it,” says Paxton, “I think there’s a sense that people want to consign it to a neat package.” To focus on the vote alone, and on the dramatic clashes between state and suffragettes, is “to consign the suffrage movement to a part of history that feels very ‘done’ … and that allows you to steer attention away from the other subjects that are still relevant and problematic now.”
Yes: when you consider that the fight for women’s suffrage was a fight for better conditions for working class women, for single mothers, for children, for married women, for widows, for prostitutes, for women of all professions, for entry into professions from which women were excluded, not to mention animal welfare and all kinds of social reform – and when you look at the extraordinary opposition to the movement – then it becomes harder to deny the great urgency behind the campaign, or to consign its significance to the past. “Those things are all still very relevant now, and maybe that’s not the best advertisement for our society and how far we’ve moved. Yes women have got the vote, but actually have all these other things moved forward? Do we have equal representation, do we have equal pay, do we have an end to violence against women and girls, do we have equality of opportunity for all? No. That’s hugely problematic, and obviously posting up those things is hugely important.”
Indeed. I had imagined that I couldn’t possibly feel my feminist convictions more intensely – until I began looking into this history and realised what a deprivation it had been not to have known about it before. As Paxton puts it, once you begin investigating one aspect of women’s history you end up asking yourself “‘why am I not learning about women inventors, why am I not learning about women explorers, why are the only women here painted to be very much extraordinary rather than ordinary – why are we not learning about women more widely in our history?’”
Which is why all this noise about the centenary of votes for some women is absolutely vital.
“This year’s really exciting because it gives us a chance to talk about the diversity of the campaign,” says Paxton. Especially now that the film Suffragette has been “done” (“a lot of the major issues have been dealt with: forceful feeding, militancy, and Emily Wilding Davison – tick”), we have the opportunity to explore “the stories that are less violent, or less extraordinary, and that relate more to how people live their lives now. These are the stories that say, ‘Why might you get involved, why might I have got involved? Are you involved in activism; what would make you become involved in activism – and if you did, how would that manifest in your day-to-day life, within your social circles, within your family circles?’ Those are the things that are really important, I think, about learning suffrage history.”
This gives me the occasion to ask her about her own activism: how it manifests in her life – and how much it can change anyone’s day-to-day.
“Oh, hugely,” she says without a moment’s hesitation. Paxton is on the steering committee for a lobbying group called 50:50 Parliament (for which she also actively campaigns); she’s a trustee for a group called Not Buying It, which campaigns against sexualised images of women in the media; she has been involved in London’s Reclaim the Night, in Bechdel Theatre and with Women@Rada (working on gender equality in the field of performance); she’s an associate artist of Scary Little Girls, a feminist production hub; she performs feminist comedy in character as ‘Ada Campe,’ and at present she is working as Research Assistant at Parliament with the Vote 100 team and others on a joint project called ‘What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women’, which you can take a look at online.
Parliament’s Vote 100 project will culminate in a fascinating exhibition this summer called ‘Voice and Vote’, exploring at “how women have interacted with politics and politicians on the Parliamentary estate throughout the past two centuries”. The exhibition will demonstrate, for instance, how the spaces to which women were confined (thrillingly named ‘The Ventilator’, ‘The Cage’, and ‘The Tomb’) created physical as well as symbolic obstacles to their participation in politics. It also looks at how women’s participation in Parliamentarian spaces has changed them. Some online exhibitions from the project are already available: have a look!
The team have also been involved with putting together a ‘MOOC’ (Massive Open Online Course) called ‘Beyond the Ballot: Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today.’ (You can take it for free! I for one am certainly joining the 11,000 who have signed up.) There has been a lot of positive feedback from learners already.
Paxton concludes this list of things she’s doing for the cause of women’s rights and representation with a sincere “and one can do more; but I absolutely try to use my powers for good.”
Trying to imagine how exactly one could do more, I ask her what she might say to women interested in getting into activism, or just setting out: where can they start?
“Oh, well, welcome!” she says, as if really pleased. “Thanks, come and join, and you can start wherever you are. Part of it is finding your own language and articulating your thoughts and your experiences and your ideas; you don’t necessarily have to be the most articulate or have the most knowledge, but find out where you are and work within what you know – and then just try to find out more about the things that you are interested in. Really it’s about becoming articulate in your own way and expressing your ideas and not being intimidated. If there’s a campaign that you don’t see, perhaps start it, or talk about it.
Go to WoW festivals. (I’ve been to so many of them and they’re hugely exciting.) Look at websites. Read books. Research history: if that’s family history, that’s great; if that’s suffrage history, that’s great; if that’s the history of the last five years that you can read on blogs online then do that. Yes, welcome, and start from where you are: there’s no gold standard to be met. It’s about feeling that you have something to contribute – and if that’s three minutes a month, then that’s three minutes more than there were before. Everybody’s voice is important, everyone should have equality of opportunity to participate in creating change for the future – and in representing people who are not always represented. So if you don’t hear your voice there, get it there somehow.”
Before we parted ways I couldn’t refrain from asking her what had come out of the research project: what difference did the war make? This was one of the questions that had a personal urgency for me. That it was the war rather than the campaign which secured votes for women (that the Suffragettes needn’t have bothered making all that unladylike fuss, in short) was the truism repeated by my A level teacher, the same I’ve heard repeated by so many others since then, as though all their teachers had repeated it too… I confessed to Paxton that I felt the argument of the war was used to dismiss the intelligence, the courage and importance of the women’s political campaigning.
“Exactly, yes,” she said, “and it’s really not the case that they got it because they worked hard in the war. It’s just not true.” Politicians at the time stated clearly that “it wasn’t a reward for war work” but a right that ought to be extended to women anyway. And it certainly was no reward, “because some of the women who were most heavily involved in some of the heaviest war work were not enfranchised by the war” – the majority of the Munitionettes and women who worked in the Auxiliary Corps, for instance, were under 30.
There were a number of complex factors, she says, but of crucial importance were the fact that the franchise had to be revised anyway for the men who had been excluded from it by the war (fighting away from home so long they didn’t meet the property qualification); the change in Prime Minister from anti-suffrage Asquith to relatively sympathetic Lloyd George; and – last in this list but certainly not least – the continued campaigning of every single suffrage society other than the WSPU. A deputation of more than 80 women from 33 suffrage societies pushed to have the matter tabled at the 1917 Speakers Conference which was held to discuss the franchise, and which afterwards made recommendations to Parliament. Then it was down to the Commons to decide, and when it came to it Lloyd George did not send out the government whips to push MPs to vote for women’s suffrage. In short, as Paxton puts it, “it could very easily not have happened.”
So there was nothing inevitable about women getting the vote: it had had to be fought for; the fight had mattered. And it matters to us, to know that now: it reveals how much those women shaped our world – teaching us to admire them – and it reminds us how much power we have to shape it for those who will come after us. Which teaches us to admire each other and ourselves.
Having thus soothed my heart, which had so wanted a historian to tell me I could take pride in the world-shaping powers of those women, Paxton left me with this parting advice:
“Read Suffrage newspapers! If you want to find out more, if you want to learn what happened in your area, you want to know a little bit more about the diversity of the campaign – and you have access to the internet – read the suffrage newspapers because they will just open up a whole world. … If you read just one issue you will realise how diverse and representative the campaign was. They are reporting about all the things that happen across the UK, they are reporting about working class women, about women in other countries, they’re reporting about what’s happening in parliament… you’ll see.” She flatly denies the frequently-levelled accusation that the movement was not inclusive. “People want to find fault: ‘where are the men, where are the working class women?’ And they are there, they are absolutely there,” she says.
“And do the MOOC, because it’s free!”
You can read the suffrage newspapers for free, on Google Newspapers: it has Votes For Women – initially the WSPU newspaper, later was taken over by the United Suffragists – The Common Cause, the NUWSS newspaper, and The Vote, the Women’s Freedom League paper, listed under the title The Globe.
Find out more about Paxton’s comedy as well as her research, and enjoy her highly readable blog, at http://www.naomipaxton.co.uk/.