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Suffragette stories come out of the shadows 100 years on
A picture shows the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the founders of the British suffragette movement, outside the Houses of Parliament in London on February 1, 2018. British women won the right to vote 100 years ago after an intense struggle marked by a violent fringe campaign that shocked the country but helped to change the world. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP.

by Pauline Froissart


LONDON (AFP).- The Suffragettes risked imprisonment and were dubbed "wild" in their campaign for women's rights to vote, but a century on their stories are being brought out of the shadows.

A hundred years to the day since voting rights were first granted to women in Britain, images of the activists behind the momentous occasion are on display in London's Trafalgar Square.

The outdoor exhibition, taking place where Suffragettes once held their rallies, is one of numerous events across Britain to celebrate the movement.

Later this year a statue of Millicent Fawcett, a heroine of the campaign, will be placed in nearby Parliament Square alongside other historic figures such as former prime minister Winston Churchill.

Fawcett was a "Suffragiste", a campaigner for voting rights through non-violent action, as opposed to the Suffragettes who advocated direction action to advance their cause.

But according to Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of celebrated Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, their peaceful campaign should not be forgotten.

"The Suffragists have become lost in the story and I think they need to be part of the story", she told journalists at the Foreign Press Association in London.

'Fearless mavericks'
While Emmeline Pankhurst and her three daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia, were figureheads of the movement, thousands of women of all ages and social class joined in the campaign.

Close to 1,300 activists were arrested and some were force fed after going on hunger strike.

"Emmeline on her own would not have done what she did, no doubt about it," said her great-granddaughter, whose book on the movement takes its title from the activists' own motto: "Deeds not Words."

Describing her great-grandmother as the "icon" of the struggle, a charismatic figure with great strength of character, Helen Pankhurst nonetheless puts the campaign's success down to the broader movement.

"Without the other people underneath her, in particular her daughters, I think it would have never happened."

One of those unsung heroines was Alice Hawkins, a shoe factory machinist who led the campaign in Leicester, central England, where on Sunday a statue of the Suffragette was unveiled.

A fitting tribute, according to her great-great-granddaughter Kate Barrat.

"Suffragettes were not upper class feminists with time on their hands, but fearless mavericks who brought together women (and men) from all economic and social backgrounds," she told Sky News.

'Wild Woman'
The Suffragettes are also being celebrated by the institutions they once attacked, such as London's National Portrait Gallery where an image of its founder Thomas Carlyle which was slashed in July 1914 is back on display.

The culprit Anne Hunt, who was dubbed a "Hatchet Fiend", "Fury with a Chopper" and "Wild Woman" in press reports, was sentenced to six months in jail for the stunt.

Fear of such attacks prompted museums to request women leave their bags and coats in cloakrooms, to stop activists concealing weapons, but a century on the Suffragettes have themselves become exhibition subjects.

"The suffragette general" Flora Drummond, "the arsonist actress" Kitty Marion, and "the organiser" Charlotte Marsh are among the forgotten activists featured at the Museum of London.

Objects used to chain themselves to railings, or to smash windows, are on display alongside postcards and materials such as dolls and games sold to fundraise for the cause.

"I think that it feels to the youngest generation a bit that they are on the shoulders of giants," said Helen Pankurst.

But 21st-century feminists should not be dissuaded, she added, as there are "many parallels" with women's campaigns today.

"They are still challenging the norm," she said. "The main parallel is women saying, 'enough!'; women coming together, saying: 'We can change things!'."


© Agence France-Presse





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