Hyenas in Petticoats

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 21st November 2012

Heather Lonks, Project Officer/Research Assistant for Our Democratic Heritage

On Saturday, 24 November, on behalf of Our Democratic Heritage, I’ll be leading a walk tracing the historical footsteps of the militant suffrage movement in London.

When I began this project, a little over a year ago, I knew nothing of the Pankhurst family or the infamous Emily Davison who died after being trampled by King George V’s horse.  I had no idea that the women who fought for my right to vote in the States began their work here in the UK. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, two of the most important figures in the American women’s suffrage movement, were originally members of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Both young women originally came overseas to work towards degrees. However, after learning about the WSPU’s activism, Paul and Burns, who did not know each other, dropped their studies in order to work with this organization and their fellow suffragettes.

When the women finally returned to the States in 1912, they drew on their experiences in England to gain the right to vote.

I’ve always been fascinated by the minority experience in history, whether it’s due to their gender, race, or otherwise. I can’t help but get excited when reading about people who fought for what they believed was right and overcame obstacles no matter how daunting. To this day, historians still disagree on whether the Suffragettes, as they came to be known thanks to the Daily Mail, helped or hurt the women’s suffrage campaign.

“I hope the more old-fashioned suffragists will stand by them.   In my opinion, far from having injured the movement, [the Suffragettes] have done more during the last twelve months to bring it within the region of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.” – Mrs. Millicent Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, writing in 1906.

Since its inception, Our Democratic Heritage has provided a platform for student projects that focus on raising awareness of the historical development of British democracy.

As an intern for Our Democratic Heritage, I researched and wrote this project focusing on woman’s suffrage as part of my Masters coursework in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London. The walk is a result of extensive research using museum collections, archival documents, as well as a range of oral and photographic sources, in order to share these incredibly exciting, but forgotten stories from the women’s suffrage movement.

This heritage walk is part of ODH’s greater goal of establishing democratic history alongside our royal, military, artistic and scientific heritage.

Every so often when I tell people that I’m part of a charity known as Our Democratic Heritage, they ask me “Is it an American group?” I’ve actually been asked so many times now that I tack on a little disclaimer that the group is focused on British history.

I feel as if I’m constantly reminding people, there is democratic history here too. While of course, I understand, Kings and Queens are fun!

Look at Henry VIII, probably the most popular monarch when it comes to the heritage industry. You can visit his apartments at Hampton Court and see some of his lavish tapestries that still survive, or maybe visit the Tower of London where he had two of his six wives beheaded? People enjoy these stories because they are far-fetched. I doubt any of us have ever thought about creating a new religion in order to divorce our spouse.

Yet, that’s the beauty of democratic history. It’s history about the everyman. The kind of history you can imagine yourself in.

Would I have been brave enough to sign the Levellers Large Petition in 1647?

Would I have stood up for equality and marched with the suffragettes to Parliament, risking my safety and freedom?

Thankfully, because of these incredible people, we don’t have to answer these tough questions. They’re just hypothetical “what if”s.

These people fought, risking everything they had, for us, for the future. So we need to remember how hard these people fought for democracy and the sacrifices they made, not just to thank them, but also so we can draw strength from their stories to face the future.

“Hyenas in Petticoats” – A Suffragette Heritage Walk
Saturday, 24 November 2012
Meeting at Temple Tube Station
13:00 – 15:00
FREE! All are welcome!

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