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Singing for Suffrage: The Legacy of "The March of the Women" and the Role of Music in Feminism

By Sonya Robotham

Front cover of Ethel Smyth’s composition The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1911


The Legacy of "The March of the Women"


Dame Ethel Smyth's "The March of the Women" (1911) holds a prominent place in the history of the women's suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. Written for the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), this song became the anthem of British suffragettes, symbolising their fight for equal voting rights. Its stirring melody and powerful lyrics unified and energised campaigners during rallies, protests, and in prison cells.

The song gained further cultural significance when it was featured as the theme for the BBC's "Shoulder to Shoulder" series in the 1970s, which chronicled the history of the suffragette movement. An iconic moment in its history occurred when Dame Ethel Smyth conducted her fellow suffragettes singing "The March of the Women" with a toothbrush while imprisoned in Holloway Prison in 1912, illustrating the indomitable spirit of the movement.


Music's Enduring Role in Feminism


Music has always been a potent tool for social change, and its role in feminism is no exception. Songs can transcend language and cultural barriers, uniting people around a common cause and spreading messages of equality and justice.

Contemporary feminist anthems continue this tradition. Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" celebrates female empowerment and resilience, while Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" promotes self-acceptance and challenges societal norms. "Quiet" by MILCK became an anthem for the Women's March in 2017, capturing the collective strength and solidarity of women around the world.

These songs, much like "The March of the Women," serve as rallying cries, offering strength and unity to those who fight for gender equality. They remind us of the progress made and the work that still needs to be done.


Conclusion


To all the women who have continued to sing for justice and change, thank you. Your voices carry forward the legacy of pioneers like Dame Ethel Smyth, whose work has paved the way for future generations. Your courage and passion inspire us all to keep striving for a more equal and just world.

Thank you, Dame Ethel Smyth, for your indelible contribution to music and the women's suffrage movement. Your legacy as a pioneer in both fields continues to inspire and empower women around the globe.


Dame Ethel Smyth wrote the March of the Women (1911) for the Women's Social and Political Union, the leading organization of the suffragists in Britain. It was used as the theme for the BBC's "Shoulder to Shoulder," in the 1970s. WhenEthel Smyth was in Holloway Prison 1912 she conducted her fellow sisters in this song with a tooth brush she'd be given by the warden.

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