Dr Claire Eustance with David Natzler

Suffragettes in Trousers

Guest post by Claire Eustance

Earlier in 2017, I was delighted to accept an invitation from the Houses of Parliament Vote 100 project to curate a display on male supporters of women’s suffrage in Parliament. This was a welcome opportunity to revisit a subject I had first tackled in the late 1990s and that culminated in the publication in 1997 of a collection of essays, The Men’s Share? Masculinities, Male Support and Women’s Suffrage in Britain, 1890 – 1920 (edited by me and Professor Angela V. John).

In putting together, the material for the display I enjoyed both reacquainting myself with familiar subjects and individuals, including Frederick Pethick-Lawrence and George Lansbury and also engaging with new perspectives and approaches. In the twenty (yes, twenty!) years since The Men’s Share? popular and academic narratives of suffrage histories have continued to appear, and most successfully, in my view, when tackled from a gendered perspective.

Dr Claire Eustance interviewed by BBC Parliament
Dr Claire Eustance interviewed by BBC Parliament on ‘Suffragettes in Trousers’

I was initially unsure quite how I should – or indeed could – incorporate twenty years of scholarship, let alone significant innovations, such as ‘intersectionality’ into this display. Luckily Mari and Melanie from the Vote 100 project were on hand to remind me that I should not approach a display exhibition in the same way as an academic paper! Once I got beyond this hesitation, I found the process revealing, enjoyable and deeply satisfying. For the purposes of the display I realised it wasn’t necessary to explain developments in historiography, theory and methodology, but instead to allow them to inform my approach and to guide my choice of examples and exemplars!

What occurred to me when I looked again at MPs voting patterns on women’s suffrage bills and at the numbers of petitions calling for ‘votes for women’ presented in Parliament was the sheer numbers of Parliamentarians – in both the Commons and the Lords – who were by the end of the 19th century in favour of some measure of women’s suffrage. In one sense I found myself questioning whether women’s suffrage deserves its status as *the* critical indicator of ‘gender conflict’ in this period? Or, as Ben Griffiths has suggested, might it be as important to consider it alongside other questions and debates relating to women’s rights? On the issue of parental rights over children for example, it is evident that the support of some pro-suffrage MPs and Peers was at best, tentative.

Dr Claire Eustance with David Natzler
Dr Claire Eustance with David Natzler, Clerk of the House of Commons, at ‘Suffragettes in Trousers’

Nevertheless, I was mindful that my focus had to remain at least for the purposes of the display on male support for women’s suffrage, and on this issue I felt compelled to convey the increasing breadth of support in both Houses of Parliament in the period spanning the 1860s to the 1920s. This support, on the surface at least, often cut across Party affiliation as well as any obvious regional or class interest. I spent a lot of time considering issues of privilege and normativity as well as questioning whether and how different layers of their private and public identities might have influenced male Parliamentarians’ attitudes towards women’s suffrage. Too many issues and factors, notably sexuality, remain frustratingly illusive, while others such as class identity would benefit from renewed interrogation (she says hopefully, assuming that “class” is at last coming back into fashion as a subject for historical questioning?).

I admit that in the process of putting together this display, I became slightly obsessed with representing the full gamut of support for women’s suffrage and I tried to include details about pro-women’s suffrage Parliamentarians taken from every conceivable category/section of Parliament, every political party, region, country, ethnicity, age, nationality (I would have included sexuality if I could). My diligence resulted in a first draft that was crammed full of appropriate examples. Alas, Jacob Bright, Walter McLaren, James Keir Hardie, James Agg-Gardner and Henry G. Chancellor were among those pro-suffrage Parliamentarians whose contributions to “the woman’s cause” ended up on the textual equivalent of “the cutting room floor”. I take a moment to acknowledge their sacrifice (note the deliberate word choice and the reversal of the dominant gendered meaning!) in the cause of a punchier and clearer narrative to the display text.

Dr Claire Eustance with David Natzler
Dr Claire Eustance and David Natzler at ‘Suffragettes in Trousers’

A note about the display title. ‘Suffragettes in Trousers’ is taken directly from a speech made by the writer and women’s suffrage advocate, Israel Zangwill, in 1907. This choice of title recognises how before it became synonymous with extreme bodily sacrifice by women demanding the vote in the years 1910-1914, the term “suffragette” served as a linguistic lynchpin or ‘rallying cry’ at the start of the 20th century for vast numbers of supporters and activists – both female and male. One hundred and ten years later, it strikes me we have come full circle and it is possible to embrace the term “suffragette” once again as representative of a broad spectrum of support for gender equality dating from the Edwardian period through to the 21st century. As someone who has often struggled with the conflicted, confusing and sometimes controversial meanings attached to the “suffragette”, I find myself – at last – able to embrace the term!

I hope for those of you who have seen it, you enjoyed the display. For those of who haven’t, please look at the digital version which is available on Vote 100’s excellent web pages at: http://www.parliament.uk/suffragettesintrousers

Dr Claire Eustance

Dr Claire Eustance is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Greenwich.

‘Suffragettes in Trousers’ was on display in Portcullis House during April-May 2017 and Sept-Oct 2017.