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Stitching banners for freedom – the Suffragettes

It is difficult to step into the shoes of the women and girls who bravely pressed for the right to vote, even with the current celebrations marking the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which gave a limited number of women the right to vote - how could I really comprehend their ordeals, creative opposition and perseverance?

I decided to read up on some of their history via recently published books and access some of the valuable online information from The National Archives and The Women’s Library at LSE in London as well as visit The Keep, my local Sussex Archives.

In the UK from 1832 attempts were made to create legislation that gave women the right to vote, thirty years later the first Woman’s Suffrage Committee was formed in 1866 by Barbara Bodichon, but it then took almost another 40 years for the suffrage call to be loudly present in the public consciousness due to more militant cries from the well-known Pankhursts and the women who joined them to form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903.

Members of the WPSU were considered radical and were first called ‘Suffragettes’ in a newspaper article in 1906. This label was chosen because it had a derisory meaning, as a compound of suffrage (casting of a vote) it was given the suffix ‘ette’, as a trivialising diminutive and like leatherette “signalled the idea of imperfect imitation, as well as inauthenticity” (Oxford Dictionary blog 2015). Whereas the ‘true women’ (as described by anti-suffrage writers) were called ‘Suffragists’ because they preferred the use of concessionary, constitutional methods such as those of Millicent Fawcett who formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1897.

The two labels may place a divide between those who were more or less radical but many shared membership between groups during the campaign years, some taking less direct action than others. Buildings may not have been burnt by members of the Women’s Freedom League but they did have a mass boycott of the 1911 census. In The Keep Archives I saw a copy of a 1911 census that should have been completed by Mary Hare an active suffragette and Hove resident who wrote across the form “Women don’t count therefore they will not be counted”. While other ladies belonging to the Tax Resistance League avoided paying their tax with the slogan ‘Taxation without Representation is Tyranny’. Opposition to their cause resulted in many women suffering intimidation, violence and brutality, especially when some of them where force fed while in prison, to see archived accounts of their ordeals please refer to the references.

To publicise their cause.

There were centres of political action all over the country but they usually had little funds to rely upon for their advertising campaigns. They applied their own talents and some of the women specifically contributed to the design of regional art work, for example Mary Lowdnes, a stained glass artist and important member of the Artists’ Suffrage League designed many of the county banners, there are over 200 watercolour designs online at The Women’s Library and Mary created many of them.

Design for the NUWSS Banner by Mary Lowdnes Source: The Women’s Library (LSE)

They also used creativity to reach those who would not listen; in October 1908 they used a printed poster which was pasted onto cloth and mounted on bamboo sticks at the top and bottom. The suffragettes then smuggled the rolled up banner into the Ladies Gallery (part of the House of Commons) by passing it through a grille that covered the window, once inside they unfurled it into the debating chamber (Parliament UK).

Making Banners for a WSPU rally Source: The Women’s Library, LSE

Stitching for freedom

Each woman had a treasured skill that was usually regarded as a working class craft, used to make do and mend or bring beauty to the home – their embroidery. The banners were not like those used in trade union demonstrations which were manufactured, each of their flags were hand sewn. They linked a catchphrase and picture with imaginative use of mixed media, combining highly skilled embroidery techniques with textural stitches such as stump work with collage, patchwork, applique and paint. Their embroidery, not usually considered as high art was worked in solidarity and to publicise their noble cause in a resourceful, artistic, innovative way – so appropriate for their trailblazing cause.

Suffragette Handkerchief, Holloway Prison, March 1912 Source: Sussex Archaeological Society

As well as banners, life size posters of leading suffragettes, postcards and pamphlets were also used, they ran national campaigns such as the ‘Bugler Girl’ who stood on a parapet and trumpeted for woman to make the country a better place. They sold literature, lapel pins, badges, jewellery, flags, playing cards, decorated parasols and some household goods e.g. packs of tea, which were often decorated with the WSPU colours - purple for dignity, white to symbolise purity, green for hope. Sylvia Pankhurst and her break-away East End Federation of Suffragettes also included bright red to signify their socialism.


Term Suffragette:

The Women’s Library Banner Suffrage Collection:

NUWSS banner:

National Archives:

Banner Smuggled into parliament:

Suffrage handkerchief:


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