Review published on March 10, 2018.
It is 100 years ago that some women finally gained the vote, after years of fighting for the right to do so. Some 110 years ago this year, close to half a million people gathered in Hyde Park, London, and celebrated “Women’s Sunday”. This was a peaceful, good humoured event that still did not persuade the Members of Parliament or the Government to extend the franchise to women. Peaceful campaigning had gained nothing in the fight for suffrage, so women began to look at other ways to protest.
Today, even as someone who has studied history at both undergraduate and post-graduate level, I had forgotten the humiliation that the suffragettes endured. When you listen to the government today lecturing the world about democracy, one just to look back at how women were treated, and all they wanted was the vote.
Diane Atkinson has managed to bring this to the fore, with her brilliantly written and researched Rise Up Women!. She brings some clarity and honesty to the vitriol the suffragettes faced, as the white middle-class and upper-class males protected their monopoly on the levers of power.
What comes through in this excellent volume is the power of the bloody difficult women who continued to challenge the establishment and at the same time changed the perception of women, for the better, before the war in 1914.
I must admit I do like the riposte Kitty Marion gave to the magistrate, who said women may get the vote if they behaved, Marion replied “Men don’t always behave properly and they the vote.” When one thinks what these men did to the suffragettes is unforgivable, force-feeding with maximum violence. Noses and throats widened with knives to insert the unwashed feeding tubes.
It must never be forgotten that by 1903 seven countries, among them two countries in the Empire, Australia and New Zealand, had some form of female suffrage. It was Emmeline Pankhurst, Mancunian social reformer, and her three daughters who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in October 1903, which Atkinson rightly begins with, after discussing the previous reform acts.
From here, Atkinson gives a voice to the hundreds of unsung women who fought and supported the suffragette campaign. While Atkinson gives as many women as possible a voice, it can sometimes feel like an encyclopaedia, although it is the first encyclopaedia I have read cover to cover and enjoyed.
What does scream out from every page is the sheer bloody-mindedness of the women, the courage of large numbers of women campaigners. It also reminds us of the disgusting brutality by the government and their agents of violence, the police against the women. The so-called national hero, Winston Churchill, when Home Secretary, told the police to “throw the women around from one to the other.”
Sometimes history is never straightforward, it leaves some questions unanswered, and those answers we do get are not necessarily easy or pleasant. The research that went in to this book and the accounts relayed reminds us that the battle for female suffrage was not easy or pleasant.
This is a wonderful book, a totally engrossing read, and with over 600 pages to read and digest, an education and a reminder of what we have now and what work still needs to be done.
Paul Diggett 5/5
Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson
Bloomsbury Publishing 9781408844045 hbk Feb 2018
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