As International Women’s Day approaches, it’s time to celebrate the amazing things that the women of the past achieved when they worked together, as well as thinking about our next steps.
Last night’s Twilight Talk at the Fashion Museum, Bath, was all about the Batheaston suffragettes – the brave women in Bath who worked tirelessly with the national Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to secure the vote for women.
Speaker Professor June Hannam told us the inspiring story of Mary Blathwayt, who owned the red silk parasol currently in the Fashion Museum’s collection. The daughter of a retired army colonel, Mary and her mother Emily were active suffragettes in Bath in the early 1900s. They raised funds for the suffrage movement by working in the suffragette shop on Walcot Street and opened up their large home, Eagle House, to the cause.
Visiting speakers would stay at Eagle House, where many planted trees as hopeful symbols. One photograph taken by Colonel Blathwayt shows Mary planting a tree with South West regional organiser Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pankhurst, suggesting that the South West branch wasn’t as far removed from the London movement as one may have assumed. Suffragettes returning from harsh imprisonments and hunger strikes would recover at the house, too.
Mary’s dainty silk parasol is a fitting symbol of the elegance and affluence of the suffragettes in Bath and the South West, who raised funds for the suffrage movement by hosting and attending garden parties. Their parasols were delicate sun shields, not weapons for battering policemen, Professor Hannam told us. Many boycotted the 1911 census, writing ‘No Vote, No Census’ across their forms and then attending a supper together. They chalked Votes for Women slogans around town and two shouted “Votes for Women!” over an MP speaking in Colston Hall, Bristol (while safely hidden behind an organ).
Mary, in particular, grew in confidence through her work as a suffragette. She returned from a trip to London wearing a ‘Votes for Women’ badge, a bold statement then. Perhaps it was this visible sign of her convictions that led some local boys to throw things at her. Mary persevered nonetheless, and even went on to chair meetings for the charismatic Annie Kenney, something she had never done before. As Professor Hannam pointed out, Mary’s confidence was just one example of “things people got out of being in the suffragette movement with other women.”
There does seem to be something profound about working towards a cause with other women. Since I went on the Women’s March back in January, I’ve met up with members of the group that grew from it, Female Empowerment Network Bristol, and felt very inspired by our collective power.
If the suffragettes in our local area played a part in the national and international struggle to gain votes for women back then, who’s to say we won’t make a difference for women now? Until we can get rid of the gender pay gap, stop violence against women, stop sexist attitudes from holding us back, there’s still work to do. As this year’s International Women’s Day theme says, we need to be bold for change. And it’s always easier to be bold when you know a friend has your back!
Thanks to Desiree Goodall and the Fashion Museum, Bath, for the tickets. The Fashion Museum runs fortnightly evening talks on subjects linked to fashion and history, and hosts a vast and fascinating collection of items that tell the history of all sorts of people. See what’s on at the Fashion Museum here.
International Women’s Day is on Wednesday 8 March 2017. Events to celebrate it take place from this weekend onwards. Find an event on their website here.