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Suffragette City: The fight for equality through the eyes of Suffragettes

a composite black and white photo showing Edwardian Suffragettes

Surveillance photographs of suffragettes who had been imprisoned in Holloway. Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

Museum Crush explores a diverse collection of archives that will be helping put audiences at the heart of what it meant to be a Suffragette

In today’s society, both men and women are part of the democratic process. The act of voting is so ingrained into our culture that many simply do not bother to vote at all. Hundreds of years ago, equality was a thing of dreams as only some men were allowed this right and women fought, suffered and died for this privilege.

Their stories are now being retold using archives, collections and live action to remind people that their suffering was not in vain.

Marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which finally extended the parliamentary vote to some women, Suffragette City, is a partnership between the National Trust and National Archives revealing the challenges women faced before they achieved the partial right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Once a pivotal site for the Suffrage Movement, the London Pavilion will play host to a series of dramatisations which will invite the audience to step into the shackles of suffragettes by exploring the inner workings of campaign organisations in a traditional Edwardian setting. As well as experiencing the emotions evoked by historic places, such as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) headquarters, visitors will experience the cold, lifeless interior of a police cell in which women were imprisoned for fighting for what they believed in.

a composite photo showing Edwardian Women photographed in a yard

Surveillance photographs of suffragettes who had been imprisoned in Holloway. Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

a list of names of women and the crime for which they have been imprisoned

Individuals listed in surveillance photographs imprisoned in Holloway for militancy. Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

a front cover of the Suffragette - a plain white cover with the word Raided!!

Front cover after a raid on Lincolns Inn House. Image from The Suffragette, reproduced from the collections of The National Archives.

The immersive exhibition draws on documents highlighting the lives of well-known Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, the only working-class suffragette to be a part of the WSPU, to demonstrate what it was like for the women who paved the way to universal suffrage.

Rowena Hillel, Education and Outreach Officer for The National Archives says, “It’s ultimately about challenging people’s perceptions”.

“I think our records really challenge the idea that there were these isolated acts by hysterical women, with evidence that it was actually an incredibly skilled and planned out campaign,” she adds.

Lillian Ball received a very harsh sentence because she was a working class suffragette

The lesser-known story of one woman in particular, emerges from the archives. Lillian Ball was an ordinary working class Suffragette, a dressmaker and mother of three from Tooting, South London who was arrested for getting involved in a window-smashing campaign in March 1912, which involved around 150 women in London’s West End.

“She received a very harsh sentence because she was a working-class suffragette,” says Hillel, “including two months of hard labour in prison where she was blackmailed and coerced by police officers to give evidence against some of the key leaders of the movement.

“We’ve also got this amazing statement where she describes in real detail the organisation and the journey that she goes on throughout the campaign and it’s so rich, and it’s one of the things that we wanted to get across because she’s an ordinary woman that’s had to make really difficult decisions in extraordinary circumstances.”

a photo of a page of codewords for places in London

WSPU message codes, seized as evidence against Emmeline Pankhurst, 1913. Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

a pamphlet with a blued image of a a group of three women in a police station

Cover of pamphlet ‘The Trial of the Suffragette Leaders’, 1908. Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

Visitors will encounter actors recreating scenarios and posing questions directly to the audience, which are designed to test their sense of commitment when faced with the same adversity experienced by women 100 years prior and pays homage to key female campaigners by recreating the backdrops and real-life experiences. It’s a unique exploration of how suffragettes eventually found the strength and bravery to make major life choices in order to implement change.

The scenes are inspired by an extensive collection that includes Home Office, Metropolitan Police and Cabinet archives as well as newspapers, pamphlets and letters seized during raids at the WSPU.

Hillel says, “The whole idea is that it’s an immersive experience, so people are aced with the same decisions that Lillian Ball had to make, so t will be using documents or parts of documents from the National Archives.”

One piece of evidence that plays a major role is a letter sent to Lillian Ball, inviting her to smash a window during a large militant protest. When presented to visitors it raises questions such as: Will you join the protest for equality? Would you smash a small or a large window? Are you prepared for a long or short prison sentence? Will you follow a militant or non-militant group?

A pamphlet for the WSPU seventh annual report

Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives.

a photo of a stage set showing an Edwardian office

National Trust, Suffragette City, Photo Oskar Proctor

“Lillian’s story is just the tip of the iceberg,” adds Hillel, “the National Archives holds hundreds of records which give an important insight into the suffrage campaign and the thousands of women and men who fought for the vote.

“They had extensive networks of support and in really unusual places. For example, an analytical chemist called Edwin Clayton used to supply explosive materials to the Suffragettes and we have lots of evidence, lots of secret, cryptic letters that were written from him to some of the readers.”

The term ‘suffragette’ was initially an insult coined by Charles Hands who worked on the Daily Mail. Different to the term ‘suffragist’ – representative of both men and women who believed in extending the right to vote – the -ette suffix was meant to be a marker of things that are smaller or shorter, and was designed to ridicule the hard-line suffragettes by making them seem inferior.

But these women who had the system against them, battled back to reclaim the term as an emblem of strength and action, their success – evidenced in the gender-neutral labels we use today – led people to forget the connotations of the word and perhaps with it, the process by which women achieved such success.

“Our records raise awareness of the incredibly difficult choices these women have had to make, particularly when, like Lillian Ball, the audience is faced with the struggles that come with being of a working class background with a family that is highly dependent on you, you are left to think about what you would actually have been sacrificing,” says Hillel.

a photo of a set showing a front room

National Trust, Suffragette City. Photo Oskar Proctor

a photo of a woman in Edwardian dress adjusting a map

National Trust, Suffragette City. Photo Oskar Proctor.

The immersive exhibition will revisit the situation real women experienced by providing audience activities like jujitsu – because the suffragettes trained in self-defence – as well as screen printing, choral singing and life drawing. All of them based on genuine evidence from the records.

“It is a privilege to tell Lillian Ball’s story,” adds Hillel. “This partnership with the National Trust allows us to use records in a creative and imaginative way to bring the life of suffragettes to a 21st century audience.”

Acting as a stark reminder of what happened before equality trumped prejudice this project exploring the evidence of this iconic movement promises an innovative reading between the lines of the stories we think we know so well.

All of the records have been made freely available to look at online at the National Archives website: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk 

Suffragette City takes place Thursday 8th – Sunday 25th March 2018 at the WSPU Café, London Pavilion, Corner of Coventry Street and Great Windmill Street, London W1J 0DA. Tuesday – Saturday 12.30pm – 3.30pm, 5.30pm – 8pm (9.30pm close) Sunday 12.30pm – 3.30pm (5pm close). There are four slots per hour available. 

Tickets, which cost £18.50 with £12.50 student concessions can be booked at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/london

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