It is an indictment on those who hold power and are resistant to its democratisation that days such as yesterday’s International Women’s Day remain such an important reminder of the discrimination women face throughout the world. Here in the UK, it is particularly poignant given the upcoming general election, where women’s role in politics is still far outweighed by men; though I do like to think it is no coincidence that the more progressive political parties of the United Kingdom, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and SNP are all now led by women.
The suffragette movement of course was instrumental in creating change. But I used to think it was portrayed as a rather middle/upper class movement, when, this is clearly not the case. There are many examples of working class women involved in the movement, and campaigning for equal rights many years before the turn of the century.
A programme just this week on BBC television, Suffragette’s Forever, showed how in the 1850s, in response to the male dominated Chartist movement, there was the formation of the Sheffield Female Political Union, who proclaimed: “To the women of England, beloved sisters, it is our birth-right, equally with our brothers to vote for our destiny, …and we ask in the name of the new justice must we continue ever the silent and servile victims of his injustice? Is the oppression to last forever? We, the women of the democracy of Sheffield, answer – No!” As Professor Amanda Vickery says, ‘it disputes the idea that working class women were downtrodden and prepared to suffer and be still; but more than that it gives a lie to the idea that the suffragette movement was a snooty middle class affair born in drawing rooms in Kensington and Mayfair. It seems to me it was born here in Sheffield in 1851.”
Katrina Naomi’s elegiac poem ‘For Eliza (my great-grandmother) who ‘ran away to north London,/never spoke of home, fled as a child/from that gap on the form where your father would have been;’ and who went on to be part of a movement that changed the course of history ‘When you straightened up,/out of the poor light, you thrust a pin/through the crown of your best straw hat/worked amongst those with a larger vision.’ beautifully encapsulates the height of the suffragette movement, its ultimate success, and the fact it was still influenced by working class women. The poem comes from her collection, Hooligans, which she wrote after learning that her great-grandmother was involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union – one of the more militant of the Suffragette movement. Hooligans considers the nature of women’s protests for the vote, ranging from violent demonstrations and window breaking, to imprisonment and force feeding.
Katrina Naomi‘s poetry has appeared in The TLS, The Poetry Review, The Spectator and on BBC Radio 4. She has a PhD from Goldsmiths and is a 2015 Hawthornden Fellow. She has won Royal Literary Fund and Arts Council England awards, the Templar Poetry Competition, and was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award. Hooligans is available from Rack Press and her forthcoming second collection, The Way the Crocodile Taught Me, will be published by Seren in 2016. She teaches at Falmouth University and lives in Penzance. www.katrinanaomi.co.uk
For Eliza (My great-grandmother)
‘Go home and darn the old man’s socks.’ – Popular anti-Suffragette insult
You ran away to north London,
never spoke of home, fled as a child
from that gap on the form
where your father would have been;
a mother you rarely mentioned. You ran
to a life of needles and silks, martyred
your eyes for those who could pay,
embroidering a cape for the Coronation;
never a dress for yourself.
When you straightened up,
out of the poor light, you thrust a pin
through the crown of your best straw hat,
worked among those with a larger vision.
I can’t know what my Great-Grandfather said
of your views as you patched his shirts,
kissed him off across the Channel;
or where you were when the telegram messenger
came running, just days before you won the vote.
First published in Mslexia