As Parliament marks 100 years since the Act granting some women the vote, a rare wooden doll highlights some of the contemporary depictions of suffragettes
This rare anti-suffrage doll is on display in Westminster Hall as part of an exhibition celebrating one hundred years of women’s votes in parliament.
The wooden doll is thought to have been made in Germany c.1912-1914 and vividly offers a seemingly hostile perspective of suffragettes. Featured in the Voice and Vote exhibition, co-curators, Mari Takayanagi and Melanie Unwin, acquired it on loan from a private owner and experts agree, it is undoubtedly a very rare survivor from the fight for women’s suffrage.
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“There’s certainly nothing like it in the Museum of London collection,” says Takayanagi, “and the Museum of London holds the major suffragette, WSPU militants’ campaign collection in the country — and the curator there had not seen anything like it.”
Through artefacts such as this, the exhibition highlights the successes and struggles experienced by pioneering suffrage campaigners whose work eventually led to the passing of The Representation of the People Act 1918; an Act granting the vote to women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications.
It has been a century since the legislation was passed which subsequently led to another law reform ten years later in 1928, widening suffrage by giving women electoral equality with men.
The doll appears to be hand painted and curators originally believed it could be a one-off creation and that its meaning can also be ambiguous. “It’s a hostile depiction of a suffragette but the family has no idea whether anyone in their family was either pro or anti-suffrage,” says Takayanagi.
“My understanding is that both pro and anti-suffrage campaigners may have bought such a doll as they bought and sent anti-suffrage postcards; just because they found them amusing. Maybe the original owner saw herself in it,” she adds.
The doll wears a masculine tie and pork pie hat and carries a handbag – alluding to a weight that might be used to smash windows. Postcards on display with the doll share similar images of an aggravated ‘harridan’ of the kind common in anti-suffrage memorabilia.
“The root of it is fear of course,” says Takayanagi, “the fear that you may end up with women voters and by extension women members of parliament and the horrors of what that might bring, and so the anti-suffrage campaigners and commercial companies wishing to capitalise on that drew on these caricatures.”
As well as these artefacts the exhibition features interactive and immersive displays allowing visitors to tangibly experience the stories of women in parliament.
One of these spaces is the Ventilator, given its name because it ventilated foul air and smoke up from the House of Commons. Before 1834 women watched parliamentary debates from here through holes in the attic because they were banned from the public galleries.
“In the exhibition we have a half-ventilator, it’s half an octagonal structure with holes, and you too can put your head through the windows just as women did at the time,” says Takayanagi.
Whilst it is important to explore the achievements and milestones of the suffragette movement, disturbing artefacts such as this are essential in order to contextualise the journey and understand how wider society tried to censor and oppress women.
“I think it’s really important that we don’t forget the anti-suffrage campaign,” says Takayanagi. “There’s an assumption that a sort of natural justice was always going to win out and it was clearly the right thing to do — to give women the vote.”
But the journey to equal franchise was full of challenges and took many decades. Takayanagi points out that, as well as men, there were many women who resisted the journey and actively campaigned against it.
One of them was novelist and leader of the anti-suffrage campaign, Mrs Humphry Ward, who was just as fervently prepared to get on a platform and speak.
“I think it’s important to understand what may seem to us very odd contradictions today; you have to understand that they were there in order to understand why the campaign took so long,” says Takayanagi.
Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition is at Westminster Hall until 6th October 2018. Admission is free.
London, Greater London
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