The Suffragette Train

Watching the film Suffragette made me feel awed, angry, inspired, impotent, grateful. Without wanting to spoil the story, there’s a scene in the middle which made me cry, properly, and I left the cinema feeling limp, as though I’d witnessed great emotion and trauma. If the end of the film felt a little inconclusive, that seemed fitting; the road to gender equality is a long one, there hasn’t been a final destination point yet.

The film concentrates on the lives of working class suffragettes. There’s a view that middle and upper class ladies got the glory and fame from the suffragette campaigns, but working class women had more to lose by breaking the law and going to prison, and were therefore more deserving. Actually, this was, kind of, the subject of my undergraduate dissertation.  Now, I’d say that trying to make gender equality about class is falling for the establishment’s old trick of divide and rule. Women of any background risked a lot by being sent to prison; that would be true today, and it certainly was true in 1913.

The best thing, I think, in my dissertation, is this anonymous account of travelling to London to take part in a WSPU organised procession in June 1911. A special train leaves Manchester Victoria:

‘…in a train over half a mile long, corridored from end to end, and carrying nearly a thousand suffragists, we rushed and roared over the metals at express speed to London.  It was a unique experience in British railway travelling…it rather seemed like being in a merry beehive.   A peep into one compartment found merry fingers making up rosettes and sashes for those who had failed to supply themselves with these emblems; in the corridors pretty girls sold badges and suffrage papers. In the saloons secretaries wrote industriously, regardless of the sixty miles an hour pace of the swaying train! Committee meetings were held and a scratch choir was formed by an energetic lady to go round and teach the occupants of every compartment the marching song!’ **

So, much like any expedition of Northern women to the capital, really.

Reading this now, there’s so much more I want to know. Why’s it anonymous?  I Love how visual it is; they weren’t wasting a moment, they were so industrious and organised and serious, but there’s such a sense of building excitement too; it would have been fun. I’ve always wanted to see this turned into a lift-the-flap picture book; maybe, even, and I might be getting carried away here, but a musical lift the flap picture book. Now I know that’s just what Flora wants for Christmas.

** From Selina Cooper:The Life and Times of a Respectable Rebel, by Jill Liddington, Virago, 1984.

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