National Portrait Gallery has a particularly good collection of small-scale displays dotted round the various rooms at the moment. One of them is a memorial of the fact that a hundred years ago one of the slightly insane followers of the reasonably sane Emmeline Pankhurst attacked one of the portraits in the Gallery about the same time as another member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Mary Richardson, attacked Velasquez's painting in the National Gallery, The Rokeby Venus.
The point is that the WSPU, though it is extraordinarily well known and has had a great deal of attention devoted to it by the journalists, writers and the entertainment industry, was only one of several organizations and not a particularly popular one among suffragists in general. (The word "suffragette" was first coined by the Daily Mail as an insult and has been used as a sort of rough distinction from "suffragists" who wanted to achieve votes for women through peaceful means and rational arguments.)
Looking at the undoubtedly fascinating collection of photographs, some known but mostly not, and documents issued by the police and the Home Office I was reminded that I still have not written sufficiently about Conservative suffragists, which I shall do very soon.
However, it was undoubtedly annoying to see some of the old myths being peddled if only indirectly. The introductory comments explained that the fight for women's suffrage had been going on for almost a century before the WSPU was formed but with no success. Therefore, some of the suffragists, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, especially the lawyer Christabel, decided on ever more violent action. This made the cause well known though divided opinion, added the note. The implication, unstated because it would not be true, that the militant activity of the Pankhursts was successful in the way previous peaceful campaigning had not been.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Women did not get the vote until 1918 and that was the result of their supreme war effort that really destroyed the argument that women cannot be trusted to think about bigger issues than their homes.
It does seem to me that the myth of the victorious violent and often left-wing (certainly as far as Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst were concerned) should be laid to rest. Would the National Portrait Gallery consider an exhibition of portraits of Suffragists, many of whom were Conservative?
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