The self confessed oldest member of our audience expressed her regret that the road toward equality had not been covered more quickly in her lifetime. As possibly the oldest man present, my feelings were of shame but also anger at the largely male forces of reaction that, at every step, inhibit change.
Maggie Andrews and Janis Lomas had been commissioned to look at women’s history in an entirely new way. So much of history is recorded by men that it is difficult to see through the words. Not so with objects, which have their own clear voice. They embarked on a quest for one hundred objects which could tell the history of women.
They took us through a small selection.
The oldest, a ceramic depicting women baking bread, picked up the heartbeat of human history. For millennia bread was the principal food we ate and we were dependent on women for it. This led to a short tour of domestic objects, the fridge as an example. There was though much more: Documents as objects: an application for a Widow’s Pension in WW1 – the first time a state benefit had been directed specifically at women. The Barclaycard – the first source of credit available equally to women.
Jane Robinson took us on a quite different journey, one that lasted six weeks and the took many routes across the country, converging in London on 26 July 1913.
All week the Festival’s sub-theme of the granting of the vote to some women in 1918 has seldom been far from the surface. Jane addressed it directly, not through the Suffragettes, but through the lesser known, but in her view more influential, Suffragists. These were women, but also men, who, with patience and determination, pursued their aim of equal suffrage.
She painted cameos of some of those who went on the journey, The Great Pilgrimage. She told of the abuse they faced, of the dangers they encountered but also of the solidarity and support they received from so many ordinary people. The mother who saved up scarce food to offer them a packed lunch. The elderly woman from Cornwall who only intended to walk for a couple of hours but ended up in London.
The Pilgrimage was supremely well organised with clearly timed routes and advice on facilities; there were very few women’s lavatories. Burberry advertised a coat suitable for the Pilgrims.
The Pilgrimage culminated in Prime Minister Herbert Asquith acknowledging their case. The Great War then intervened, but on January 1918 the Bill granting the vote to some women was passed into law.
The Pilgrimage continues…
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