Looking Back at ‘Centennial Reflections on Women’s Suffrage and the Arts – Local, National, Transnational’

Three participants in the recent ‘Centennial Reflections on Women’s Suffrage and the Arts – Local, National, Transnational’ conference hosted at the University of Surrey reflect on the two day event.

Amy Galvin-Elliott (University of Warwick)

The sun was shining at the University of Surrey on Friday 29 June 2018 as we welcomed both a glorious day and the long-awaited conference ‘Centennial Reflections on Women’s Suffrage and the Arts – Local, National, Transnational’.

The day started with a Keynote Address by Elizabeth Crawford, OBE on Pictures and Politics: The Art of Suffrage Propaganda, exploring the visual suffrage campaign of the early twentieth century. Crawford began by illustrating the ubiquitous role of posters in early twentieth-century political campaigning and their consequent function as a tool for the suffrage campaign. She explained how the Artists’ Suffrage League in particular used posters, holding competitions for suffrage designs that were then widely disseminated to further the cause. The Suffrage Atelier and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) also commissioned their own posters.

Crawford then discussed the role of the postcard, and particularly that of the photographic postcard in allowing the WSPU leadership to personalise their campaign by making its leaders accessible and relatable. Suffrage designs also featured on everyday items such as jewellery and tea sets, as visual propaganda permeated the suffrage campaign. Crawford finished by considering the role of the street as a space for political protest, where banners and posters were accompanied by the visual spectacle of women’s bodies. She also noted that buying a suffrage postcard, wearing jewellery in suffrage colours, or setting suffrage china on a table were all political acts, and that these visual objects allowed the campaign for female enfranchisement to reach a much wider audience.

Discussions of the wonderful Keynote continued over coffee and established fruitful discourse on suffrage and the arts to lead into the first parallel panels. These were wide-ranging, with one entitled ‘Visual Identity and Stereotypes’ and the other ‘From Local to Transnational Suffrage’. I attended the former and was treated to three papers that further explored the integral nature of the visual arts to the women’s suffrage campaign.

Brigitte Dale from Brown University opened the session with an interesting paper on the performativity of the suffragettes, viewing them as ‘radical actors’ within a staged campaign. She challenged the common view of their time that they were ‘odious Amazons lusting after notoriety’ and instead explored the planning, organisation, tactics, and bravery involved in using the female body as a site of political protest.  Art historian Anne Anderson followed with a fascinating presentation that traced the colours of the suffrage campaign from pre-Raphaelite art. She revealed how women made use of encoded symbols that were entrenched within British cultural ideology to create a visual identity for the suffrage campaign.

Finally, Katy Birch offered an alternative reading of Punch, challenging the view that it was entirely patriarchal and anti-suffrage to explore more nuanced and sympathetic views of suffragettes in the writings of Jessie Pope and Evelyn Sharp. She posited that women endeavoured to reach politically undecided demographics through more conventional channels whilst simultaneously refuting derogatory stereotypes of the ‘ugly suffragette’.

The second parallel panels considered ‘Painting and Politics’ and ‘Ethel Smyth, Suffrage, and Transnationality’. I opened the first of these sessions with a paper on Georgiana Chatterton’s painting of women watching Commons debates from a ventilation shaft in the attic of Parliament building in the early nineteenth century. Those who are interested in finding out more may like to visit the free exhibition in Westminster Hall, ‘Voice & Vote’, which traces the history of women in Parliament. It is open until 6 October 2018 and tickets can be booked online. For further information, see: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

The University of Surrey’s own Gursimran Oberoi then gave a fantastic presentation on G.F. Watts’s She Shall Be Called Woman and the visual protest of suffragettes damaging famous artworks. Contrary to the view that these acts represented protestations against misuse of the female form, Oberoi argued that they could be better understood more as making a political statement and damaging popular or well-known works.  The panel was concluded by Michaela Jones from Royal Holloway, University of London, who gave an interesting paper on Christiana Herringham and how she used her social connections to facilitate the furthering of the careers of women artists in the suffrage campaign. Jones explored the expansive story of Herringham’s support of, and involvement, in the campaign that has (until now) gone untold.

Following the paper sessions, the first day concluded with a roundtable panel discussing recent artistic projects on themes of women’s suffrage, before the treat of a recital of readings from Jacqueline Mulhallen, Lucy Stevens, Su Moberly, Broc Silva, and Kate Willoughby. It was a thoroughly enjoyable first day that fostered much valuable discussion around the role of art and the visual in the women’s suffrage campaign, and sparked exciting ideas that were carried both on to Day 2 of the conference, and stayed with delegates to inform future research.Many thanks to the conference organisers Christopher Wiley, Charlotte Mathieson, and Lucy Ella Rose for organising such a wonderful event, and to their conference helpers for their warm welcome and excellent hosting.

Many thanks to the conference organisers Christopher Wiley, Charlotte Mathieson, and Lucy Ella Rose for organising such a wonderful event, and to their conference helpers for their warm welcome and excellent hosting.


Ellery Weil (University College London)

Saturday 30 June dawned warm and bright for the second day of ‘Centennial Reflections On Women’s Suffrage and the Arts’, the unique and celebratory conference at the University of Surrey.

Day 2 opened with two parallel paper sessions – ‘Women’s Suffrage in/and Music’ and ‘Female Experience, Politics, and Society’. I had the honour of presenting at the latter, where I gave my paper, ‘Radical Thoughts in Russell Square: Suffrage Activities and the Bloomsbury Set’, in which I explored the unconventional approaches to suffrage taken by the writers and artists of early twentieth-century Bloomsbury, many of whom mixed their suffrage advocacy with other unconventional political and religious beliefs.

Michelle Rushefsky of the University of Surrey then gave a lively presentation on ‘Florence Farr and the Liminal Female Experience’, examining not only Farr’s life and work, but also how she has been relegated by history to a subordinate, male-defined role all too common for women of her era, despite her influential life’s work.

Finally, Kristin Franseen of McGill University, Canada spoke on ‘Women’s Musical Agency and Experiences in Vernon Lee’s Music and Its Lovers’, which successfully combined musicology, art history, and political history to explore perceptions of womanhood and agency through the work of one author. This was followed by a probing series of questions for all those presenting, facilitated by the University of Surrey’s Lucy Ella Rose.

Further discussions of the two parallel sessions took place over a sandwich lunch in the Lower Foyer, where speakers and attendees had a chance to socialise before the second parallel paper session of the day, where the two topics were ‘Poetry, Theatre, and Women’s Suffrage’ and ‘Narratives of Female Experiences’.

I attended the latter, which opened with the University of Surrey’s Kate Johnson delivering a paper on Christabel Pankhurst’s The Great Scourge(1913), which adopted a unique perspective on the famous pamphlet as an early ancestor to broader debates on women’s sexual rights.

Professor June Purvis of the University of Portsmouth then discussed the film Suffragette, on which she served as a historical advisor, giving due consideration to its historical accuracies, artistic licence, and the academic and popular responses to the film. This sparked a broader discussion on the purpose of historical films and how academic historians should approach them.

To close the session, the University of Surrey’s Eleanor March gave a stimulating paper on suffragette prison narratives, exploring them not only as historical documents, but as literature with a purpose. Prison narratives are a compelling subject for historians and literary scholars alike, and the records of imprisoned suffragettes have often been overlooked by academics.

The second parallel session was followed by an EqualiTeas tea break, which offered refreshments and more enlightening conversation, as well as materials specifically provided to engage people with suffrage history in a friendly and light-hearted way.

The conference closed with a Keynote Address by historian, curator, and author V. Irene Cockroft, on ‘New Dawn Women—Somehow the Tide Keeps Rising’. This fascinating lecture not only discussed different suffrage societies and their relationships to one another, but delved into the aesthetics of suffrage art and imagery. Cockroft herself wore a suffrage brooch to the lecture, and illustrated her presentation with many slides featuring beautiful suffrage artwork including pins, crockery, and banners.  It also incorporated some fascinating local history, relevant to her new book and to the county of Surrey.

And with that, the conference came to a close, its participants returning to their institutions inspired by the fascinating presentations and discussions that had taken place on both days. Many thanks to the conference organisers and presenters for putting together this wonderful event, and to its supporters, the School of Literature and Languages at the University of Surrey, The British Association for Victorian Studies, and The Feminist and Women’s Studies AssociationUK & Ireland.


Brigitte Dale (Brown University, Rhode Island)

As an American student of British women’s suffrage history, I am often confronted with blank stares when I explain the subject of my studies to my peers back home. Just the other day, I was asked to name the principal people I’ve researched. When I responded with Emmeline Pankhurst, a brief pause ensued. “Have you heard of her?” I asked. The answer was no.

Such was not the case at the ‘Centennial Reflections on Women’s Suffrage and the Arts’ conference at the University of Surrey last month, to which I travelled all the way from the USA. There I met wonderful scholars – those I’d long admired, like Professor June Purvis and Elizabeth Crawford – and those whose forthcoming work I am eager to read. When one is as engrossed in a research topic as I have been for the past few years, it can feel somewhat isolating. However, at this timely conference, I felt a welcome sense of community. And in the UK more broadly, during this centennial year, I sensed for the first time that people might actually know and, dare I say, care about women’s history.

The day before the conference, I visited the new statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square. I did not anticipate the emotion I felt as I watched a group of young girls pose excitedly for a photograph in front of the statue, shouting “Girl Power!” in unison. I then crossed the street to Victoria Tower Gardens, where I revisited the oft-overlooked statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, which had been bedecked with a sash of violet, white, and green by a previous passer-by. It was heartening to see women’s history being acknowledged publicly, and history’s heroines receiving their deserved (albeit delayed) recognition.

One of the most fruitful exchanges I had during the conference linked the historical suffragettes and suffragists we have admired and studied with the issues women encounter in the current sociopolitical climate. From the #MeToo movement of today to the assaults on women during Black Friday in 1910, and from the recent women’s marches worldwide to the WSPU’s Women’s Sunday in 1908, the clear connections between our own era and the legacy these pioneering women left for us were elucidated both in paper presentations and informal conversations.

I am grateful to have attended and presented at the conference and I come away with a sense not only of the incredible research taking place in the field, but also of the community of scholars whose dedicated engagement is bringing the crucial stories of women’s history into contemporary public conversations. As I return home, I hope that I can apply the same visibility to the upcoming centennial of US women’s suffrage, which we will commemorate in 2020.