Suffragettes & Satire (2015)

Votes for Women RosetteRecently it has felt as though the suffragettes are everywhere. In Sarah Gavron’s 2015 Suffragette film, marching the streets with Glasgow Women’s Library, even popping up in the BBC’s Sherlock over the festive period – a good critical article on which can be found here, although as always I disagree that Emily Davison definitely committed suicide. However, fashionable as the female campaigners for the vote are right now, their own first-hand stories are sadly missing from the public’s consciousness. Many of the well-known suffragettes and suffragists wrote on their lives and political struggles, including WSPU founder Emmeline Pankhurst’s My Own Story (1914), her daughter Sylvia’s The Suffragette Movement (1931), and NUWSS president Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s What I Remember (1925). These accounts are not widely read, and can mostly only be discovered in the history sections of university libraries by students conducting niche research projects. Because these first-person stories of the suffrage campaigners are not readily available, the tale of the campaign for the vote which the average person comes to know is coloured by the dominating sources of negative, derogatory, and incorrect information such as newspapers and satirical publications like Punch (1841-2002). I wish to correct this.

In late 2014 I discovered that the archives of the University of Glasgow, where I’m researching my PhD, hold the unpublished memoir of a Glasgow-born and Edinburgh-based suffragette called Elizabeth Thomson. I had never heard of Thomson but after visiting the archives and reading her autobiography I became obsessed with this amazing woman. Thomson travelled the world with her sister Agnes, working as teachers and missionaries, before they joined the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union in their sixties. Thomson’s memoir details her many brushes with the law, her taking part in protests, her prison sentences, her hunger strikes, her arson attempts, and the female solidarity which she felt within the WSPU. I cannot believe that this piece of fascinating life writing, this unbelievable story, can only be read and enjoyed by those who happen upon it in the archives of the University of Glasgow. Even as a figure of the suffrage movement in Scotland, Thomson is not particularly well known, having only been mentioned briefly in Elizabeth Crawford’s The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland (2006) and Leah Leneman’s A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland  (1995) in relation to her part in the arson attempt on Kelso racecourse grandstand. In an attempt to gain Elizabeth Thomson a tiny bit of recognition, I undertook a research project on her life and work for the Hunterian Associates Programme. The culmination of this project is an online magazine about Thomson and other suffrage campaigners, comparing their views to those biased stories from the contemporary press that cloud our view of the women today. The magazine can be viewed as a cool flip book on Anyflip or as a PDF on Dropbox.