A Rebel’s History of Parliament

Vote 100 was thrilled recently to exclusively reveal the cover design for Sally Nicholls upcoming book about young suffrage campaigners, Things a Bright Girl Can Do. She then came to see us in Parliament, and we were even more excited to meet her in person!

A Rebel’s History of Parliament

Guest post by Sally Nicholls

In 1866, two women – Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies – brought a petition to Westminster Hall to present to the Liberal MP, John Stuart Mill. The petition asked that the House of Commons consider giving women the vote. It had 1521 signatories, and was rather bulky, so the suffragists asked an apple-seller if they could hide it under her cart. She agreed. There’s an obligatory joke to be made here, so I’ll make it; women have been upsetting the apple cart of male political dominance ever since.

I’m told this story by Mari Takayanagi, who is here with her colleague Naomi Paxton to give me, my editor and my publicist a suffrage tour of the Houses of Parliament. We’re in Westminster Hall itself – an imposing 11th century building, with stone floors and a medieval timber roof. Mari and Naomi are part of the Parliamentary team working to celebrate next year’s centenary of women’s suffrage in Britain. I’m here because my young adult novel, Things a Bright Girl Can Do, is about three teenager suffragists. My book is set just before and during the First World War though, so this bit of history is new to me.

After conferring with a security guard, Mari and Naomi take us through into the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft. This isn’t usually open to the public, but there’s an important piece of Suffrage history just around the corner. A broom closet, to be precise. In 1911, as part of a national suffrage campaign to disrupt the census, Emily Wilding Davison snuck in and spent census night here alone.

Plaque to Emily Wilding Davison by Tony Benn. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate.
Plaque to Emily Wilding Davison by Tony Benn. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate.

There’s a small plaque on the door, screwed there in secret by Tony Benn. “If one walks around this place,” he said, defending himself, “one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else.” Mari and Naomi are here to show me the story of those who did believe in democracy, those who were not honoured by statues, but who showed up anyway.

Appropriately enough, our next stop – back in Westminster Hall – is a new piece of art commissioned to celebrate women’s suffrage and installed in 2016, one hundred and fifty years since the 1866 petition. Called New Dawn, it’s a light installation in the colours of the various suffrage societies. The lights change as the tide ebbs and flows along the Thames – because tides, women, says Mari with a grin. The installation is made up of 168 Venus symbols. The artist, Mary Branson, wanted to honour the thousands of anonymous men and women, who marched, petitioned, sold newspapers and went to prison for the suffrage campaign.

Sally NewDawn2
Sally Nicholls and New Dawn

We continue, through St Stephen’s Hall (where a statue of Viscount Falkland is still missing a spur thanks to Suffragette Marjorie Hume, who chained herself to it in 1909). After women were banned from the Houses of Parliament, many suffrage protests took place in here.

We pass through the Queen’s robing room, through various other halls and corridors and into the House of Lords. It’s a lot smaller than you might expect. Although women won the right to stand as MPs in 1918, it took them much longer to gain access to the House of Lords. In 1922, Viscountess Rhondda – an ex-Suffragette, who was once jailed for setting fire to a postbox – tried to take her father’s seat. She argued that under the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, it was illegal to refuse women to right to exercise any public function on the grounds of gender. The House of Lords Committee for Privileges found in her favour, but the Lord Chancellor forced them to reverse their decision. Women were not allowed to sit in the House of Lords until – astonishingly – 1958.

We pass through the Lords and into the House of Commons. This looks even smaller – perhaps because we’re so used to seeing it on television. It’s so small that when all 650 MPs are present, some have to stand. The building was bombed in the Second World War, but was recreated as closely as possible to the original design. You can see where the tiny women’s gallery was, where the Suffragettes chained themselves to the grille. Male suffragettes, in the main visitor gallery, once threw flour down on the MPs below.

Today, 32% of MPs are female, the highest percentage on record. 489 women have been elected since 1918, a tiny figure when you consider that 442 men were elected in the last election alone. The first MP to sit here was Nancy Astor, in 1919. (The first MP to be elected was Constance Markievicz, but like all Sinn Fein MPs, she did not take her seat.)

Around the walls of the House are small plaques honouring MPs who died in service. Almost all are men, most killed in the two World Wars. There is one woman, however. Because the Cox family do not have a coat of arms, Jo’s plaque was designed by her children. It’s green, white and violet. Suffrage colours.

Jo Cox memorial, House of Commons. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate
Jo Cox memorial, House of Commons. Courtesy of the Parliamentary Estates Directorate

The Houses of Parliament are a definitively male place. Great Men look down at you everywhere; from the portraits on the walls to the statues that line the hallways. Even the names of the various buildings – Big Ben, the House of Lords – are male. It’s somewhat disheartening.

But once you start looking out for them, women are everywhere. There’s Queen Victoria, who keeps popping up – the Houses themselves are Victorian. There’s our own Queen, Elizabeth. There’s Anne Boleyn on the walls of the Prince’s Chamber, artwork by female artists, even one statue of a woman; Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister.

Sally Nicholls in the Original Act Room, Parliamentary Archives
Sally Nicholls in the Original Act Room, Parliamentary Archives

Next up is the Parliamentary Archives to see the Original Act Room. This sounds like it’s going to be boring, but it’s anything but. On the shelves are vellum Acts of Parliament, dating back to the fifteenth century. They’re rolled up like something out of the Great Library of Alexandria; some enormous, some – mostly Acts permitting divorces – tiny.

It’s dizzying to be surrounded by history like this. And Mari and Naomi have a surprise for us. They’ve got the original vellum copy of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act 1913 – more widely known as the Cat and Mouse Act. This was designed to break hunger-striking Suffragettes without resorting to the hugely controversial force-feeding. A Suffragette would hunger and thirst strike until she was in physical danger, at which point she would be released for a week to recover, then rearrested and forced to do the same thing again until her sentence had been served.

Sally Cat andMouse
Sally Nicholls holds the original Cat and Mouse Act in the Parliamentary Archives

It sounds humane, but it isn’t. Sylvia Pankhurst’s description of hunger striking in The Suffragette Movement is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. The idea that you would be released and then rearrested and do it again – and again – and again – is shocking. At one point Emmeline Pankhurst was facing a sentence that would take three years to serve. And the reason for the hunger strikes? Suffragettes were protesting that members of the Irish independence movement were treated as political prisoners, while Suffragettes were treated as common criminals. The purpose of the Act was to save face, neither to acknowledge the Suffragettes as a political movement, nor to face criticism about the use of the feeding tube. There’s a lot of suffering in that one piece of paper.

Sally Henry VII
Sally Nicholls looks at Henry VIII Acts in the Parliamentary Archives

We ask about some of the older Acts. Would we like a closer look? says Mari. Would we ever. She shows us an Act signed by Henry VIII and then, obviously pleased by our rapturous enthusiasm (we work in stories, this stuff means a lot to us), offers to find us ‘A decent example of Elizabeth I’s signature’. Since we’re here to celebrate women in Parliament. Of course.  She flips through the Acts, then finds the one she’s looking for. A bold curlicued Elizabeth. Another woman who was never expected to amount to much.

Another woman who changed the world forever.

Back in Westminster Hall, we take another look at New Dawn. Some of the colours have faded, others have risen to prominence. It’s still beautiful, though.

We finish our day with lunch in the House of Commons canteen. Here, unsurprisingly, women do make up more than fifty percent of the workforce. Because of course, despite what the statues might tell you, there have always been women in this building. Mopping floors, making tea, selling apples.

We don’t know the name of the apple-seller who hid that first petition, though historians think she may have been a Mrs Furlong. We don’t know whether she was still alive in 1918, when the House of Lords finally passed the Representation of the People Act, giving votes to women over thirty who fulfilled a property requirement. But Emily Davies was. By then she was eighty-seven, a veteran of the suffrage movement, co-founder of Britain’s first woman’s college, Girton in Cambridge, and leader of the campaign which won girls the right to take secondary school examinations. Elizabeth Garrett just missed it, although she lived to see it passed by the House of Commons. She’s better known as Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first British woman to be awarded a medical degree, co-founder of the first hospital staffed by women, and the first female mayor and magistrate in Britain. I wonder how many of the men whose statues line the corridors of Parliament had an influence as great as those two young women, embarrassed to be seen holding piles of paper in the great Westminster Hall.

You can still buy apples here in the House of Commons canteen. Life has changed unimaginably for the women who sell them, but the fight isn’t over yet.

Sally Nicholls

Sally Nicholls is an award-winning author of young adult fiction.  Things a Bright Girl Can Do is published on 7 September 2017.  http://sallynicholls.com/

Find out more about some of the wonderful things Sally found on her visit!

The Palace of Westminster

The 1866 suffrage petition

New Dawn

Emily Wilding Davison hiding in Parliament

Parliamentary Archives

Visit Parliament: http://www.parliament.uk/visit


One thought on “A Rebel’s History of Parliament

Comments are closed.