by

Nicola Gauld

Freelance Project Manager

 

scene of a protest march

Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes was an opportunity for young women living in Birmingham to explore the activities of both sides of the suffrage campaign, militant and non-militant, in Birmingham in the early 20th century. Female students aged 12-15 from two local schools, Kings Norton Girls’ and Waverley, investigated social and political change by exploring different ways of campaigning and protesting by women who wanted to gain the vote. The young women involved in the project believe that the Birmingham suffragettes are an important part of their heritage. While some of those involved had some prior knowledge of the suffragettes, they knew very little about activities that took place in Birmingham: Fight for the Right aimed to re-dress the balance by exploring women’s voting history from a local perspective, focusing specifically on the activities of the Birmingham suffrage movement between 1909 and 1914. While primarily a history project, we also explored social and cultural change within women’s rights today, by encouraging these two diverse communities of young women to explore ideas about voting and politics.

The project took place over a period of twelve months and was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. A series of workshops were delivered by myself as project manager, local historians, a film maker, a drama practitioner and Education staff from Birmingham Archives & Heritage. The project planned to interpret the knowledge gained through workshops and archival research where debate and campaigning formed the focus. This led to the students scripting and filming a historical re-enactment film interpreting the Birmingham story and focusing on the activities of both the suffragettes and the suffragists. The project allowed us to research those events through local women and local actions, increasing a sense of connection between the participants and the past. We wanted to explore the hidden “herstories” that were not part of the students’ everyday learning, where the stories told often focus on a London-centric viewpoint and focused on the most famous protagonists. We wanted to know what happened in our own area. In a year of suffragette-related activity, Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes seems to be unique in its focus on young women interpreting their own local history.

 

rehearsals at Kings Norton Girls' school

The project began with a series of workshops held at Birmingham Archives & Heritage, our project partner. Here we looked at archive material related to the suffrage campaign and examples of both peaceful and non-peaceful protest that occurred in the city. None of the project participants were aware of the division between suffragists and suffragettes and we spent time exploring both. One of the most notorious incidents of militant protest occurred when Prime Minister Asquith visited Birmingham’s Bingley Hall in 1909 to address the Liberal meeting. Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) tried to gain entry to the meeting but were prevented from doing so by a heavy police presence. Alternative tactics were then employed by the suffragettes in order to gain access to the meeting: two of the women climbed onto the roof of a nearby house and threw roof slates at Asquith’s car (the newspapers contain amazing stories of “fragile” women climbing out of windows onto ladders!). Ten women were arrested in connection with the incident, one of whom, Hilda Evelyn Burkitt, a WSPU committee member from Sparkbrook, seemed especially interesting to us and formed the main focus of our subsequent research. We first encountered Burkitt in the Birmingham Weekly Mercury in October 1908, where she is shown participating in a peaceful debate about women’s suffrage at the Aston Parliament. Unfortunately, her militant activities at Bingley Hall resulted in a custodial sentence and she was sent to Winson Green, where she was one of the first suffragettes to endure forcible feeding. The prison minutes record an ambiguous statement by Burkitt: ‘I complain that I have not been treated properly since I have been here. I have been forced to take food against my will. I protest against it. I have been told that it is illegal to have a nasal pipe used. I complain of being wrapped in blankets with hands tied down and forced to take food. No more force was used than necessary. Kindness was used’. Hilda continued militant action after her release: she was arrested numerous times across the country and was involved in window smashing and arson. In total, she was forcibly fed a shocking 292 times from 1909-1914 (Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1999, p. 87)

 

Waverley students at Birmingham Archives & Heritage

The frustration of the suffragist Catherine Osler at not being allowed into the Asquith meeting was reported in the Birmingham Daily Gazette:  Osler had written a letter in which she observed that ‘women citizens had undoubted reason to feel insulted and injured when denied the right of listening to the exposition by the Prime Minister of proposals which affected them equally with men, and on which they were refused the expression of an opinion through the vote. The injury and insult would be most keenly felt by those who like herself strongly condemned disorder and violence as a means of public agitation’ (18 September 1909). It was important for us that we did not just explore the militant activities of the suffragettes but also the methods of the peaceful campaigners connected to Millicent Garret Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Catherine Osler, president of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society (BWSS), provided us with the perfect counterpoint to Burkitt. Osler had grown up in the midst of liberal politics and the fight for enfranchisement; her parents were founding members of the BWSS and by 1901 Catherine was President. Although she did not condone the militant actions of the WSPU, Osler did condemn the practice of forcible feeding, indeed, she resigned her presidency of the Birmingham Women’s Liberal Association in protest at the government policy (although this reason was not reported in the press).

In addition to these major incidents, we also learned about an incident at Kings Norton train station where a carriage was set on fire, the vandalism of St Philip’s Cathedral and the burning down of Northfield Library. We looked at the suffrage campaign within the wider context of being a small part of a much longer struggle and what happened after the outbreak of the First World War. And we also looked at media representations of suffragettes and the lack of coverage for suffragists at the time alongside media representations of women in politics today.

Fight for the Right – the film

 

scene set inside the regional WSPU office

The second half of the project concentrated on interpreting archive research through a short historical re-enactment film focusing on the incidents that occurred in Birmingham from 1909-14. Both schools worked closely with film director Sima Gonsai and drama practitioner Juliet Raynsford to develop the script and storyline and we held regular drama coaching sessions. We filmed scenes over four days from March to May. None of the girls who acted in the film had any previous drama experience, which is remarkable given the level of performance delivered.

scene with Hilda Burkitt (Faisa) and Ellen Barnwell (Najma) in Winson Green Prison

Involvement in the project had a significant impact on the participants thinking about archive collections, women’s history, voting, politics and democracy. Interviews with the participants support this:

Blythe said, ‘I take interest now [in politics and news]’. She knew a bit about the suffragettes but didn’t realise there were two sides, ‘without either side none of them would have got the vote’.

Nibah commented: ‘It strongly affected me to know a lot about history…at first I couldn’t even say the word ‘suffragette’…I hadn’t heard of them…I’ve now found out a lot’, ‘when I give my vote I’ll remember these women’.

When asked what she would take from the project Ayah, who plays Catherine Osler in the film, replied ‘dignity’ and expressed how proud she felt to be a woman.

Falis said she was proud of her achievement and observed that ‘if suffragettes hadn’t protested then we’d still be protesting today’. She also commented that ‘this was an excellent learning opportunity for us. It was awesome!’

Faisa, who plays the role of Hilda Burkitt, described how she was normally shy in class and would never volunteer for role playing but the project ‘really improved my self-confidence’.

Aisha thinks it’s a waste to not use your vote and remarked that she will remember the project when she comes to vote.

rehearsals at Waverley school

Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes gave the young women involved a huge opportunity to develop skills, awareness and knowledge of their city’s history alongside learning about the stories of individual women who campaigned to be given the vote. The Birmingham suffrage campaign is not taught in school and by not being involved in this project, the participants would not have known about the contribution made by women in Birmingham. They also may not have recognised the importance of voting and being politically and socially informed. The project also had significance by tapping into what is happening in the UK today in terms of women’s rights and feminism.


workshop with local historian Don Hazzard

As project manager, it was an absolute pleasure to work with these young women and with their teachers. The students have been dedicated, enthusiastic and hard-working throughout and I hope that they are proud of their huge achievement with this project. The film they have produced has been shown in their schools and there will be a public screening to celebrate the project at the new Library of Birmingham on November 1st from 6-8pm. We are blogging and tweeting about our project as it develops so you can keep up-to-date here:

www.birminghamsuffragettes.wordpress.com

@suffragettes12