Tag Archives: Suffragettes

How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) we also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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No Surrender by Constance Maud

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’.

189 no_surrender_pic

The Story

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.

189 Votes for wPublished 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.

The Writing

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’.

189 Force feedingWhile 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.

189 Do it coverThe 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!’

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

Endpaper from No Surrender published by Persephone Books

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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Stitching up our rights

I expected to be interested in the Magna Carta Exhibition at the British Library. You can’t take the history degree out of the girl. But I didn’t expect to be moved, to be so moved. This was my response to Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta embroidery currently on display alongside the main exhibition. Another crossover arts piece and like Woolf Works it begins with words.

The Magna Carta

If you didn’t know that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, 800 years ago, you must have been out of the country. The media loves a round-numbered anniversary and so do museums and governments. The original Magna Carta was signed by King John under duress from his barons who were objecting to his arbitrary justice and tyrannical rule. The document was basically a peace treaty and it represented John’s acquiescence to the demands of his barons. It was promptly annulled by the Pope. The settlement with the barons had lasted less than three months.

More important than John’s immediate struggle with his barons, the Magna Carta came to stand for the guarantee of rights for people all over the world. Initially, of course it was only men the barons who mattered. In subsequent struggles with the monarchy the clauses were revised and the document rewritten, so there are now many versions. The idea of a guarantee of rights was taken up by other British men (The Chartist movement), by women (The Suffragettes), by the French Revolutionaries and by those subjected to colonial rule, in C18th US and elsewhere. Nelson Mandela referred to it and to British justice in his famous and final speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964: ‘…I am prepared to die.’

Only three of the original clauses are still in force. The rights of the Church and of the City of London featured in the original Magna Carta as the first and ninth clauses respectively. Individual freedoms were placed much lower. But here is the essence of subsequent claims to individual legal rights:

Clause 29: NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right. (From Wikipedia entry accessed 10.6.15)

Note we are talking about free men – not about women at all. The number of freemen in the C13th was limited and women didn’t get a look in until much, much later (ie C20th).

181 Votes for W Magna C

Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

I have long enjoyed Cornelia Parker’s work, especially Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View aka the Exploding Shed (1991), and also the witty and alternative items she submitted to the Turner Prize in 1997.

I like how she makes us look at something in a different way, shows us the underbelly of her subjects, and involves others in the production: steamroller operators, Royal Artillery explosives experts and so on. She is inventive and inviting.

181 ContributorsThe finished Magna Carta embroidery is 13 meters long. In this form it recalls the Bayeux Tapestry, albeit is laid on a table and not displayed on a wall. Its creation was a joint enterprise of people involved with the legal and penal systems of our country – prisoners, judges, lawyers, civil liberties campaigners, MPs – as well as professional embroiderers.

It is not the document itself that is embroidered, but a wikipedia page. A nice touch to indicate the wikiness of the treatment of the Magna Carta over the centuries, constantly updated by users.

Here is why I was so moved:

  1. The aesthetic pleasure of the embroidery itself. The detail of the embroidered text and wiki images are a pleasure in themselves. Who can deny the skill of the embroiderers who have reproduced the postage stamp images from the webpage? They are objects of great beauty and skill. And even the underside gives great pleasure. The photographs in the British Library pack include many of the underside. 181 word
  2. The democratic nature of the enterprise, celebrating the combined efforts of many to secure the rights and freedoms of the people of the UK and beyond. Magna Carta is about our rights in law. Every conceivable person – nearly 200 people – associated with the law that you have heard of stitched a word or more. There are famous prisoners and many referred to only by their first names, mostly men. Julian Assange, Moazzam Begg (formerly held in Gitmo), judges, QCs (Michael Mansfield QC, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC), Gareth Pierce (solicitor), campaigners and other relevant stitchers: Jon Snow (broadcaster), Jimmy Wales (founder of Wikipedia), MPs, Alan Rusbridger (former editor of the Guardian) and Edward Snowden.
  3. The work was created by and realises the principles of freedom, collaboration, creativity and democracy.
  4. Our Human Rights Act is in danger. The new government threatens to repeal and replace the legislation. The outcomes are not likely to enhance our freedoms or further the principles of universal entitlement to rights.
  5. Needlework is a political act in Magna Carta (An Embroidery). Exploring how traditional and female crafts can be political acts has always interested and excited me. The Suffragettes used “An Army of Banners” to draw attention to its claims. (The blog Woman and her Sphere has an interesting post about the Artists’ Suffrage League: here.) And a large data base of banners and banner designs were collected by the Women’s Library and can be viewed here. Think of all those Trades Unions’ banners. There is a good tradition of subversive quilting as well. 181 huddersfield-banner
  6. Words have power. Ideas have power. Words, and embroidery (and ballet) carry ideas. Although the Suffragettes found words did not get attention fast enough!

181 WSPU banner

And a late and much admired addition to the Suffragette banners in this post is this one designed by Mary Lowndes:

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Used with permission: From LSE Library’s collections, TWL.1998.32

Thanks to Eileen (my co-author) for discussing the experience with me and giving shape to some of the blog. Mistakes are mine, of course.

I shall be at Eye of the Needle: Art, Stitch, Partnerships and Protest on Monday 13th July at the British Library. See you there?

MAGNA CARTA Law, Liberty, Legacy is on at the British Library until 1st September 2015.

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker can be seen (free) at the British Library until 24th July 2015

Magna Carta (An Embroidery) by Cornelia Parker. A pack including fold out reproduction of front and back, photographs, interviews and essays. Published by the British Library.

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