Taped to the wall above my desk is a postcard of Diego Velázques’ portrait of Venus. Two years ago, I stood directly in front of this seventeenth-century nude and squinted at the canvas. After some time, I was able to discern them: five thin slits across the back of the painted goddess.
On the 10th of March 1914, Mary Richardson entered London’s National Gallery with a wood chopper fastened inside the sleeve of her dress. Disgusted at the ‘Venus’s embodiment of female objectification and determined to rouse publicity for the female suffrage movement, Richardson walked up to Veláques’ oil painting, smashed the sheet of glass protecting it, and proceeded to slash five cuts across the canvas. Richardson was immediately arrested and sentenced to six months in prison.
After detecting the traces of Richardson’s action in the restored ‘Rokeby Venus’, I cast around for a plaque or a notice that would alert visitors to the portrait’s significance to the suffragette movement. I found nothing. Just as Venus’ scars have been sealed over and made invisible to unsuspecting observers, the history of the female suffrage movement has often been erased and overlooked. The postcard over my desk works to remind me of society’s attempt to silence and repress the stories of female rage and rebellion.
Even Westminster – the supposed seat of British democracy – confines female defiance to the closet. Illegally erected on the door of a cupboard at the back of the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft, is a plaque commemorating Emily Wilding Davison. On the night of the 1911 census, Davison snuck into Parliament and barricaded herself in a broom cupboard, an action which allowed her to mark her address as ‘The House of Commons’ and consequently claim the same political rights as men. Acting against the wishes of the House, who wanted to hush up this instance of female insurgence, Sir Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn snuck into parliament, tool box in hand, to drill Emily’s history into Westminster’s walls.
The actions of Richardson and Davison attest to the creativity, diversity, and dedication that defined both suffragist and suffragette action across the early twentieth century. If you were taught about the suffragettes in school, however, your classes most likely presented these champions of female rights as controversial characters. All too often the suffragettes are reduced to stone-throwing, window-smashing, rioters; women who chained themselves to railings, refused food, and threw themselves under horses. The women of the suffragette movement are often demonised and presented as extremists rather than celebrated as the custodians of democracy. “Essentially, they were terrorists”, one of my own teachers summarised.
History forgets that these women were the victims, as opposed to the perpetrators of violence. Though the suffragettes sought to make the country ungovernable, destroying pillar-boxes and buildings, as well as the odd seventeenth-century painting, they vowed never to harm a human life. Indeed, suffragettes were known to search for cats and dogs in the properties they marked for destruction, seeking to ensure that not even a ‘canary’ would be killed in the quest for female suffrage. While the suffragettes favoured disruption over violence, the police response to suffragette protests was forceful in the extreme. In 1910, two suffragettes died as a result of injuries sustained during the Black Friday protest, a peaceful march that ended in calamity due to the brutality of the police response. More than a century has passed since the dark events of Black Friday, yet female anger is still met with unwarranted outrage and judgemental rejection.
We are all familiar with the phrase ‘history is written by the winners.’ The eradication and corruption of the histories surrounding the female suffrage movement, however, serves as a reminder that history is also written by the custodians of patriarchal order. As a society, we cast rebellious women as uncomfortable characters and look scathingly at their stories. Subsequently, the history books seek to silence stories of female outspokenness and demonise depictions of female disquiet. Today, the militant actions of the suffragette movement are presented as controversial and extreme, rather than the natural consequence of a quarter of a century of both political and public dismissal.
While women’s history month provides an excellent opportunity to celebrate the women of the past, it is also a time to look back in search of the outspoken, disruptive, and rebellious women that the history books try to hide. Women’s history month is a time to re-evaluate the response to female rage and to remember the women who struck out against social imbalance.
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