Activism History Society

The suffragettes’ fight for equality

Liked A hunger striker’s medal, a Danish love token, and Hello Kitty by Monica McLaughlin (Dearest)

The medal above was awarded to suffragette Ada Wright (1861-1939) by the English women’s suffrage organization The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), in recognition of her efforts in the campaign to grant women the right to vote… Wright was a small, slight woman who was tireless in her work for the campaign, contributing both funds and action.

The WSPU’s motto was “deeds, not words,” and in addition to organizing rallies and protesting outside Parliament, they also advocated more aggressive means of demonstration. Members smashed windows, set buildings on fire, and assaulted the police — sometimes in a deliberate effort to be arrested and therefore gain more publicity. When incarcerated, the women often went on hunger strikes and were brutally force fed.

In a bit of serendipity, last night I reread one of my favorite books, The Suffragette Scandal, about an investigative journalist and advocate for women’s rights — and this morning read this auction newsletter about a real-life suffragette’s hunger strike and advocacy.

Reading about the hell these women went through to change public sentiment makes it all the more distressing that a hundred years later, women’s rights — and women ourselves — are still under siege. And voting rights — even the very concept of democracy — seems at risk in America.

Patriarchal, woman-infantilizing attitudes remain strong in our society. Society diminishes the value of care work, which is perceived as feminine work, and belittles the romance genre and “chick lit” — books written primarily by women for women, whose sales basically prop up the book industry. Women who express strong emotions are dismissed as hormonal or hysterical.

I don’t buy the concept of heroes, but there are a couple women I particularly admire, who both happen to be involved in women’s rights:

  • In the past, Ernestine Rose, a Jewish freethinker immigrant entrepreneur and admired orator who agitated for suffrage and abolition of slavery
  • In the present, Courtney Milan (pen name), author of The Suffragette Scandal, a former lawyer who is a huge advocate for women’s rights and voting rights today, who has endured personal attacks for speaking up but hasn’t stopped calling out injustice — and also got the dino emojis adopted 🦖🦕

Milan obviously wrote with the knowledge of history, but I’ve found her framing helpful for present battles. In the book, I especially appreciate this passage:

“She raised her chin and looked him in the eye. “You see a river rushing by without end. You see a sad collection of women with thimbles, all dipping out an inconsequential amount.”

He didn’t say anything.

“But we’re not trying to empty the Thames,” she told him. “Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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