Dhaka, Bangladesh
Learn from Literature: Suffragette Movement

Learn from Literature: Suffragette Movement

For me, the literature I find most compelling is didactic. If a novel, poem, or play has taught me something, I consider it a text worth reading again and again. However, literature is not just fiction. Non-fiction books are constantly being written by historians attempting to provide a new, idiosyncratic and perhaps more accurate interpretation of a past event or period. These books have been created with the intention of teaching the reader something about their topic of interest. As 2018 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Representation of the People Act which granted some women over the age of 30 the right to vote, I thought it would be apt to discuss what the secondary literature on the Suffragette Movement has argued and more importantly how it has changed and enhanced my understanding. When examining a historical text, first we need to try to understand the facts Prior to reading Jill Liddington and Jill Norris' One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978), I assumed that the Suffragette Movement was solely a middle-class campaign. When examining a historical text, first we need to try to understand the facts, what actually happened, who has been included and more importantly, who has been excluded from the narration of a historical event. When we think of the Suffragette Movement, the key figures that come to mind are the Pankhurst family and Emily Wilding Davison; all of whom were middle-class women. If the prominent figures of a movement are middle-class, it is easy for historians and their readers to focus primarily on their impact. But in doing so, they neglect to examine the grassroots of the movement, in this instance, the working-class women on whom the Suffragette Movement depended. I was first made aware of this misconstruction when reading Liddington and Norris' book. They draw attention to the numerous factory, textile and cotton workers who were at the heart of the Movement. This included the uneducated Lancashire women who were debating the issue of women's suffrage outside their factory gates in 1905, before the term 'Suffragette' had even been coined. From this book, I understood that only recently have historians made an attempt to explore the part played by working-class women in the Movement From this book, I understood that only recently have historians made an attempt to explore the part played by working-class women in the Movement. I realised that I too had been caught in the trap of misconception due to the lack of representation, both fictional and non-fictional, that has been given to these working-class women, who I now believe were the pioneers of the Movement. Although presumed to be a bourgeois affiliation, these working women, whom Liddington and Norris have identified as the "radical suffragists", wanted the vote not just for middle-class women, but for all women, including those like themselves. When reading a historical, non-fiction text, arguably it is not the facts that matter but rather how these facts are interpreted. My interpretation of the facts that Liddington and Norris have provided is that these were working women who therefore could not participate in the Movement as frequently, or as obviously as their middle-class counterparts, which is why their involvement has been under-researched by historians. Historical books will continue to challenge and enrich our understanding of a historical event or era From reading Liddington and Norris' text, for me the Suffragette Movement was in fact a cross-class campaign, but for another individual reading this same text, their perspective may differ to mine. That is one of the fascinating things about what you can learn from literature; no one individual's reading experience will be the same as another's. Historical books challenge and enrich our understanding of a historical event or era and it is this new insight that I gain each time I read a different non-fiction text that, for me, reinforces the power of literature.

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