No Surrender is novel about Suffragettes, written by one and published before votes for women were won. It describes why they decided to become militant, and what they did to draw attention to them and their demands. Constance Maud knew what she was talking about. Alongside the activism there are love stories, adventure stories and some jolly humour, mostly at the expense of the ‘Antis’.
Jenny Clegg is a Lancashire millworker. She gets good wages, but appalling working conditions and comes from a family where her brother Peter was wounded by a shuttle in the weaving shed, and her married sister has two of her children sent to Australia because her estranged husband doesn’t want to support them. Her mother is downtrodden and her father takes advantage of husbands’ rights to help himself to her earnings. Other downtrodden women appear within the novel, including Maggie who becomes pregnant by her employer, murders her baby and is sentenced to hang. She is Peter’s sweetheart.
Mary O’Brien is Irish and comes from a different class. She is well connected and interested in the welfare of women. A visit to her uncle’s mills results in her conversion to the women’s cause and from then on we follow Mary and Jenny as they join the WSPU and take on active roles. The movement becomes increasingly concerned to draw attention to the demands for the vote, which gives rise to some interesting demonstrations. Both are imprisoned.
Published before the vote was secured, and when it was still likely or possible that it was a vain cause, Constance Maud could not give the reader the happy ever after ending. It was not until 1918 that some women gained the vote and it was 1928 when we got the vote on the same terms as men.
There is considerable humour in No Surrender, especially in the creative ideas for action that the Suffragettes make: posting themselves in parcels to Downing Street, ambushing cabinet ministers in the village church and at a society dinner party. Even the male staff were in on that one.
Along the way we hear all the argument of the Antis and the men who have not yet thought enough about it, and those who are resisting, including men in the Labour movement. The arguments are rehearsed by characters who ask questions, especially the French Count who is shocked by what he hears of the treatment and abusive descriptions of the women of the WSPU. We read about women from other countries (Australia, US, New Zealand, Scandinavia) and how they the vote has benefited their countries.
And we hear the idiotic arguments of officialdom, the church, the privileged, the politicos, and the organised groups called ‘The Antis’.
While it is a campaigning novel No Surrender is not didactic. In its details it is commanding. One of the most difficult passages to read is the force feeding of Mary O’Neill. We should recall that this treatment was the official response to the women who went on hunger strike in prison.
What I liked
I enjoyed a familiar sense of rightness, exultation and action of involvement in political protest as I read this novel. Think Aldermaston Marches, Greenham Common Occupation, demos for Women’s Right to Choose, Stop the War … This last proved that a government does not have to take any account of opposition. Just like the continued refusal to hear the feminist voices today.
Does it matter any more?
We take the women’s vote for granted now. We are accustomed to seeing cabinet ministers who are women, and endured a prime minister who was a woman. Women are represented on the boards of companies, in local government, everywhere. Still in a minority however.
Every argument against Votes for Women is aired in this book. You would think that women had little to campaign about and that winning the vote would make everything ok. Of course it did not, although it was an important part of the struggle.
The book I picked up immediately after No Surrender was Do it like a Woman by Caroline Criado-Perez. No Surrender was the motto of the WSPU, and PUSH: Push Until Something Happens is the motto of a Liberian activist, – in her case the abolition of FGM. Caroline Criado-Perez reminds us that there is still so much to do. PUSH!
I am often daunted by women’s struggles, and the very slow progress made, but I recall an educator saying to me ‘Nothing like a good experience of daunt!’
No Surrender by Constance Maud originally published in 1911 and reissued by Persephone in 2011. 328 pp
Do it like a Woman … and change the world by Caroline Criado-Perez (2015) published by Portobello 292 pp
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