The destination for history

Women represent: Artefacts that tell the story of suffrage


International Women’s Day has a special significance for women in Britain in 2018. A century ago the Representation of the People Act gave some women in Britain the chance to vote in parliamentary election for the very first time. But the struggle for women’s rights has a long, complex history, involving a multitude of women across the world. Objects provide a prism through which to explore this history.

In the Constitution Room of the Archives in Wellington, New Zealand there is a ground breaking object in the history of women’ struggle for the suffrage. It is a monster petition stretching to over 270 metres with more than 30,000 signatures, which was presented to the New Zealand parliament in 1893. It was glued together from individual sheets signed by women from across all of the country. Latter that year New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world to enfranchise women. Just over 100 years latter in 1997 the petition was placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register.

A modest house in Illinois, USA houses another object, which encapsulated women’s progression towards independence, Frances Elizabeth Willard’s bicycle. This American educator, suffragist and temperance reformer learnt to ride a bicycle at the age of 53 in in the 1890s. She described her bicycle, known as Gladys, as the:most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet’. The invention of what was known as the ‘safety bicycle’ with equal sized wheels and pneumatic tyres had by the 1880s opened up cycling to women. Cycling not only provided women with transport it was a pastime, which necessitated abandoning some of the more cumbersome Victorian women’s clothing. Little wonder that the social reformer, women’s rights activist and anti-slavery campaigner, Susan Browell Anthony, suggested in 1896 that cycling had: ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’.

There are objects that tell a rather less celebratory history of women’s enfranchisement. Force-feeding equipment was used on militants who went on hunger strike following the example of Marion Dunlop, sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for stamping ‘Votes for women’ on a wall inside the Houses of Parliament. Marion was released after 91 hours without food and suffragettes hailed this as a victory over the authorities. Asan increasing number of women went on hunger strike and had to be released the British Government introduced the practice of force –feeding. A rubber tube was inserted 45cms down the throat or through a nostril, into the stomach. Once in place, a thin gruel or beef extract drink, was poured through a funnel into the tube. The physical and emotional effects of this process included: nausea, bruising, damage to teeth, throat and lungs which could last a lifetime.

Women’s progress towards political equality has been slow, partial and remains incomplete. Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, USSR and Canada had already enfranchised women in advance of Britain, but French women could not vote until 1944, in Switzerland women only gained the right to vote in federal elections in 1971. Finland elected the very first female MPs in the world in 1907 but when Margaret Thatcher became the MP for Finchley in 1959, the House of Commons was made up of 25 women and 605 men. At the 2015 General Election, 191 women were elected as MPs, a record high but only 43 women have ever been served as Cabinet Ministers and no women had ever been Chancellor or the Exchequer. 

More than 70 countries have now had a woman president or Prime Minister including India where Indira Gandhi first served as Prime Minister from 1966 to 1977. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to become the head of government of a major western democracy in 1979. Hers is the only female statue in the Member’s lobby of the House of Commons, an object marking women’s progress in politics. However, Thatcher’s politics are rarely seen as feminist, arguably if they had she would never have been elected as leader of her party or of the country.

By Maggie Andrews

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