‘They Faced Death Without Flinching’
Author of Rise Up! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes, Diane Atkinson looks at the work of Scottish artist Ann Macbeth. Her remarkable tapestry (in the Museum of London) created in response to the barbaric treatment of the leading women of the suffragettes’ movement, serves as an important document in the struggle for votes for women.
Ann Macbeth’s banner, which was originally designed as a friendship quilt, hangs in the suffragette display at the Museum of London. It is one of the most important artefacts of the militant campaign for the vote. The banner records the names of 80 women who had served prison sentences for various offences between 1908 and 1910, including obstructing the police, protesting outside the House of Commons, heckling at political meetings and smashing windows. Almost all of the women had been on hunger strike and ‘faced death without flinching’, as the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women declared.
The embroidered signatures mostly represent women from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Two, however, are American, Alice Paul, 24, and Lucy Burns, 33, who were studying in London and met at Cannon Row police station after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square in 1909. They had active suffragette careers before returning to the United States, taking WSPU tactics with them to invigorate the campaigns in America where women were still unenfranchised.
The names of two of the founders of the militant movement, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, along with two of the leading lights of the movement, the treasurer Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and the mill-girl Annie Kenney, flank the title of the ‘Women’s Social and Political Union’ which blazes across the top.
The main section of the quilt consists of 80 rectangular pieces of linen which are sewn together and bordered by green and purple panels. The pieces are embroidered with the signatures of the women who had been to prison and gone on hunger strike for ‘the Cause’ in their struggle for the status of political prisoners. Many had been force-fed if they refused to eat, which involved being tied to a chair and held down by the wardresses, while liquid food was poured by the prison doctor into a funnel and rubber tube which had been inserted into the nose or down the throat.
Ann’s mother, RA Macbeth was herself a militant member of the WSPU and was sent to prison, where she went on hunger strike in 1912. She was a semi-invalid for several months after her release, writing to a colleague: ‘I am still very much less vigorous than I anticipated … after a fortnight’s solitary imprisonment with forcible feedings.’
Women from diverse backgrounds are here, too. Vera ‘Jack’ Holmes, a male impersonator and the lover of the Hon. Evelina Haverfield, was for a time Mrs Pankhurst’s chauffeur and the leading horsewoman at suffragette processions. Florence Spring, one of the five suffragette sisters, was a weaver, artistic dressmaker, woodcarver and lacemaker. Alice Hawkins of Leicester was a shoemaker and the mother of six children.
There are women of all ages, Jessie Spinks, a Londoner, was 17 when she joined in 1907, changing her name to ‘Vera Wentworth’ to spare her shop-keeping father’s embarrassment. The oldest name on the banner is that of Ellen Pitman from Bristol, who was 52 years old in 1909. Nurse Pitman was by no means the oldest woman to support the militant cause. The distinguished feminist Wolstenholme Elmy, born in 1833, was 77 years old when she walked alongside Mrs Pankhurst in a deputation to Parliament in 1910.
In the far right phalanx we see the autograph of Emily Wilding Davison. Born in 1871, she joined the WSPU in 1906 and 18 months later ‘came out’ as a suffragette, resigning her post as governess to the children of a Liberal MP and becoming a dedicated militant. By the time the quilt was made she had served four prison sentences, two in Holloway and two in Strangeways in Manchester. The first was for a month for trying to enter the House of Commons in March 1909; the second in July 1909 was for two months for protesting outside Lloyd George’s meeting in Limehouse; she was released after a five-day hunger strike. The third was served in Strangeways for obstruction outside a Liberal meeting in September 1909. Sentenced in October 1909 to a month’s hard labour at Strangeways, she went on hunger strike and was force-fed. Several more prison sentences later, on 4 June 1913 at the Derby, Emily tried to stop the King’s horse, Anmer, during the race. Her deathly dash was captured on film and made her the WSPU’s first martyr to the cause.
This is an abridged version of Diane Atkinson’s essay which originally appeared in the London Library Magazine