Who were the ‘suffragettes’ really?

Headquarters of the Women's Social and Political Union in Kensington.  LSE Library / Wikimedia Commons
Headquarters of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Kensington. LSE Library / Wikimedia Commons

The first example of a suffragette that comes to mind is probably Winifred Banks, the mother of Mary Poppins. But is the character of Mrs. Banks an accurate representation of this figure? What exactly is a suffragette?

The term refers to members of the Women’s Social and Political Union who, during the first decades of the 20th century, fought to claim their right to vote in the United Kingdom. Unlike other existing organizations, this association created by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester in 1903 was characterized by claiming the majority female vote through anti-constitutional and combative tactics.

A gathering of suffragettes at Caxton Hall, Manchester, England, circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst standing in the center of the dais.  The New York Times / Wikimedia Commons
A gathering of suffragettes at Caxton Hall, Manchester, England, circa 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Emmeline Pankhurst standing in the center of the dais. The New York Times / Wikimedia Commons

Suffragettes vs. suffragists

The term “suffrage” designates a person who claims their right to vote anywhere in the world and exists in many languages.

The word suffragette It was coined in 1906 by a British journalist from the Daily Mail, who used it to refer disparagingly to the members of the union founded by Pankhurst. Her intention was to ridicule and condemn their campaign for women’s suffrage and to distinguish them from the suffragettes. Although both groups of women claimed the right to vote, the means they proposed to achieve this goal were different.

The suffragettes opted for peaceful and constitutional ways, such as formal petitions to the government or demonstrations. The suffragettes who made up the group created by Pankhurst justified and promoted the civil disobedience as the main form of protest, and its leader was in favor of resorting to violence, as long as it was exercised against property, never against human beings.

Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a crowd in New York in 1913. Hulton Archive - Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons
Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a crowd in New York in 1913. Hulton Archive – Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

Pankhurst made it clear that if anyone suffered or died claiming women’s suffrage it should be the women themselves suffragetteswho ended up adopting the term to refer to themselves and differentiate themselves from the suffragettes and their campaign.

The burning of mailboxes and the attack on public institutions were some of the most aggressive techniques adopted by the suffragettes. As a result of these practices, they ended up arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions.

This did not prevent them from continuing their campaign as they found new methods to claim the vote from prison. The most recurrent form of protest was the hunger strike. Following the example of Marion Wallace Dunloppioneer of this technique, many others suffragettes they argued that they would give up eating until the government did not heed their requests.

A suffragette on hunger strike force-fed with a nasal tube (The Conversation)
A suffragette on hunger strike force-fed with a nasal tube (The Conversation)

To prevent them from dying at the hands of the state, a forced feeding campaign was launched against them. In order to prevent the suffragettes If they resisted this procedure, they were tied and restrained, and then a liquid substance made up of eggs, milk and bread was introduced into their mouths or noses through a tube, causing choking and severe throat or chest pain.

Despite the brutality of this process, the suffragettes they continued to forego food intake, which shows their commitment to the struggle and how far they were willing to go to get the vote.

The suffragettes yesterday and today

The suffragettes they offered positive representations of themselves and their struggle and relied on the power of symbolism and propaganda to attract followers and convey their messages. However, the majority of men, and even many women, opposed her cause since in the society of the time it was considered that a woman’s duty was to dedicate all her time to housework and caring for the family. family.

A reflection of this is the advertising that originated during the time to counteract the propaganda campaign of suffragettes and suffragettes. These anti-suffragist publications caricatured the activist woman, dehumanizing her and presenting her as a criminal or a lunatic.

Despite belonging to the past, the figure of the suffragette continues to be valid in contemporary popular culture and has been the subject of multiple readaptations. An example of these is precisely the case of Mary Poppins.

Winifred Banks singing ‘Sister Suffragette’ in “Mary Poppins” (1964)

The Disney film portrays the suffragette not only conveying the unfavorable perception that prevailed in 1910, the time in which the story takes place, but also reflecting a conservative conception of gender roles that still prevailed in the North American context at the time it was released.

Instead of extolling the courage, effort and sacrifice that characterized the suffragettes, Winifred Banks appears as a negligent woman who does not carry out her duties as a mother and wife because she is busy claiming her right to vote, which is presented as a mere hobby. Another woman, Mary Poppins, is needed to restore family order and make up for the shortcomings resulting from Mrs. Banks’ participation in public life.

A more faithful contemporary representation of this feminist icon is the film Suffragette. Translated into Spanish as the suffragettes, premiered three years before the centenary of women’s suffrage for some women in the UK. The film pays tribute to these women and includes real historical figures, such as the leader of the movement Emmeline Pakhurstinterpreted by meryl streepmaking a rigorous recreation of key historical events. The purpose of this film is not to reconvert this icon for commercial purposes, but to pay homage to this group and its achievements.

film image "suffragettes".  filmaffinity
Image from the film “Suffragettes”. filmaffinity

More than an icon

Given the proliferation of popular and often superficial representations of the suffragette (in literary works and diverse audiovisual productions) it is crucial to adopt a critical point of view. It is important to distinguish between those products that degrade, trivialize or criticize it, and those that provide a faithful image of this figure. Doing justice to the role of these women is key to highlighting the relevance they had in the past and that they should continue to have today.

Although we women take the right to vote for granted, we must not forget that it was an achievement of women like the suffragetteswho suffered and, in some cases, gave their lives so that today we can enjoy such a basic and fundamental principle.

*Mariana Ripoll Fonollar is Professor of English Language and Researcher of Gender Studies, University of the Balearic Islands.

Originally posted on The Conversation.

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