Review by Rachel Martinez Hall
In her largest publication to date, Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (Bloomsbury, 2018) is both valuable to the body of historical work on the suffragettes and vital to the genre of social and urban history.
Atkinson has been writing about the suffragettes for decades (her first book, Votes for Women, was published in 1988). Rise Up, Women! is an impressively comprehensive history that provides the most thorough retrospective biography on the suffragettes to date. Antonia Raeburn’s The Militant Suffragettes (Michael Joseph, 1973), Joyce Marlow’s Votes for Women: The Virago Book of Suffragettes (Virago, 2001), and Melanie Phillips’ The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement (Abacus, 2004) are slight compared to Atkinson’s tome. The depth of Atkinson’s research gives rich detail to her study, pulling readers into the suffragettes’ struggles and sacrifices.
For readers who want a full history, Atkinson gives an account of exactly how women got the vote in Great Britain and the progress for which women fought, starved, and died between 1903 and 1928. Her primary focus is on the suffragettes, members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), who had more aggressive and extreme tactics than the lawful suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the WSPU, said: ‘first of all [the vote] is a symbol, secondly a safeguard, and thirdly an instrument.’ The vote held the promise of the protection of women’s rights and the expansion of their freedoms. Moreover, the vote would legitimize women as citizens with an influence on the population, particularly to reform labor laws, call for fair wages, improve healthcare, and create senior care for women.
As a whole, the work assumes that readers have an understanding of twentieth century advancements and events around the lives of the suffragettes in Great Britain. Yet to her credit, Atkinson uses her pen as a meticulous curator, carefully collecting the women and men fighting as suffragettes as well as their defiant acts to ignite social change. The result is a dense text that features, it seems, every woman who engaged in women’s suffrage in Great Britain.
Atkinson characterizes the famous Pankhurst women and brutally martyred Emily Davison, as well as Annie Kenney – the only working-class woman to hold a senior position in the WSPU. She also gives us an account of Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, an early treasurer of the WSPU and her feminist husband, who used their wealth to further the message of the suffragettes. However, Atkinson doesn’t simply include the ‘popular’ women of the movement, but also those who were invisible. May Billinghurst, ‘the cripple suffragette,’ bravely suffered physical assault. Her wheelchair was torn apart by police, who ‘[took] all the valves out of the wheels and [pocketed] them, so that [she] could not move’ when she demonstrated in front of the House of Commons. I was particularly touched by the endurance of Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, one of the oldest suffragettes, who had been fighting for women’s causes for forty years when she joined the WSPU at age seventy. Though women’s suffrage was won on 6 February 1918, she died on 12 March 1918, nine months shy of the opportunity to cast her first vote in the December general election. Much like Moses, Elmy strove for the Promised Land and saw it from a distance, but was unable to take in its glory. Getting to know these women, just a little bit, is worth reading this book.
The comprehensive list of names of those who contributed to the movement tends to blur the women together – though that may have been Atkinson’s intended affect. While it hardly does justice to their individuality, each name added to the collective whole of the suffrage movement gives a strong sense of their solidarity. This frocked army grew by word of mouth, invitation, and the sweat and endurance of women who were so committed to the mantra of ‘Deeds Not Words’ that they suffered forced hard labor in jail, went on hunger strikes, were force-fed in prison, and ruined their reputations in ‘good’ society. Atkinson describes the events of the Mud March, Black Friday, and the suffragettes’ continual attempts to break into the Prime Minister’s chambers with a fixed intensity.
On 18 November 1910, police physically and sexually assaulted the crowd of women who marched to demonstrate against Prime Minister Asquith’s refusal to give more time to the Conciliation Bill for votes for women. Atkinson’s plain prose about the gravity of ‘Black Friday’ is authoritative:
On Saturday 19 November the front page of the Daily Mirror printed a photograph of Ada Wright, fifty years old, sprawled face down on the pavement outside the House of Commons. When she made a dash for the Strangers’ Entrance a policeman ‘struck her with all his force and she fell to the ground’. Ada […] told a Daily Mirror reporter she had been at seven suffragette demonstrations, but had ‘never known the police so violent’.
Consistently ignored for years, the suffragettes’ militancy began to increase in ferocity and severity. When Asquith refused to see the WSPU in 1909, a small group of women smashed government office windows, resulting in the imprisonment of fourteen of them. In 1911, the suffragettes smashed the windows of government and private offices and West End shops, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage and resulting in the arrest of two hundred women. Perhaps the most devastating events of the suffragettes occurred in 1913, after the discussion of votes for women was once again postponed to the following parliamentary session. Window-breaking was not enough; it was then the WSPU added arson to their tactics. The suffragettes bombed the home of David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was not using his position to promote his pro-suffrage views. Whilst reading, I was not disappointed by the suffragettes’ defiance, but by the cause for their desperation. The parliamentary discussion of women’s suffrage was tabled again and again, even by supposed allies of the suffrage cause.
After fifteen long years of the suffragettes’ concerted pursuit, Parliament passed The Representation of the People Act of 1918, giving women over thirty who were part of the Local Government Register the right to vote. A decade later, The Representation of People Act 1928 won women aged twenty-one and over the right to vote on the same terms as men. Atkinson’s brevity on the passing of this act is odd considering the length and detail given to all other aspects of suffragette history.
The concluding chapters, in which these acts are passed, feel long overdue and give the sense that the words ‘finally’ and ‘at last’ are not enough. Where women had once been unable to have custody of their own children (until 1839), where women had once been unable to own property (until 1882), where women had once been considered the property of their husbands (until 1884), women could now vote. They could influence the policies and future of their own nation – and their own livelihoods.
As a woman, I was humbled knowing that I owe an immeasurable debt to the suffragettes. A woman had been their Sovereign. With Queen Victoria’s passing in early 1901, these women rose up in the beginning of the twentieth century in Great Britain to speak for themselves. Despite the outbreak of World War I in July 1914, which diverted their efforts, the suffragettes pressed on. In the end, the war was a catalyst for the ‘first positive moves toward votes for women,’ since most of the voting population had left the country to fight. Atkinson’s work is evidence that the suffragettes set precedents to make women’s voices – particularly common women’s voices – heard for the first time. The suffragettes changed Great Britain’s social and urban history by being outspoken: they resisted the status quo forced upon their sex. They refused to continue suffering as their mothers and grandmothers had. They won the vote less for themselves and more for their daughters and granddaughters.
The Pankhurst women and Millicent Garrett Fawcett published firsthand accounts of the suffrage movement. Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Militant Suffrage Movement was published in 1911, Fawcett’s Women’s Suffrage: A Short History of a Great Movement appeared in 1912, and Emmeline Pankhurst published My Own Story in 1914. Though these autobiographies are invaluable to our understanding of suffragette history, they were all written before suffrage was won. Written to persuade their audience rather than to reflect on the hard-won fight, these works give readers a glimpse into the mood of the time. Atkinson’s work, on the other hand, fills a different need: it is a testament to honor the work of all – lauded and previously uncelebrated – suffragettes and what they accomplished together.
Rachel Martinez Hall holds a BA in English from Cedarville University. She is a second year MFA student at the University of St Andrews with a focus in nonfiction creative writing. Joan Didion, Charles Dickens, and Tobias Wolff are her favorites. Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she grew up in Fairfax, Virginia. As a result of having spent her childhood in periodic homelessness, Rachel is currently writing a memoir of the experience of homelessness and economic transience.