We’ve got an image of the Suffragette – a feisty well-dressed woman wearing a sash, perhaps having just chained herself to some railings. Suffragettes are the acceptable face of direct action, chained to railings and breaking windows.
From Margaret Thatcher to Tony Benn, everyone cites them as a thoroughly good thing. This might explain why we don’t know about the suffragette who was suspected of hatching a plot in 1909 to shoot the Prime Minster, Asquith, in the name of women’s suffrage. Nor do we know about the women who carried out widespread arson attacks when it seemed that the less menacing tactics would never work.
In the 1920s, some Suffragettes began to write the movements’ history, and they failed to acknowledge the bits that didn’t fit their view of what the movement should have been like. Out went alliances with the working class, and opposition to war. Out went violence.
For forty years this simplified image ruled unchallenged: only in the last few years have historians begun to uncover and expose the true complexity of the Suffragettes.
First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4