On our way to the moon? A snapshot of feminist marches which shook the world.

Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds tell the story of two demonstrations from the women's movement.

February 6, 2018
10 min read

Votes for women: Midsummer’s day, 1908

As the first fanfare of bugles sounded, the enormous crowd quietened for a moment.  Then they saw the small figure of Emmeline Pankhurst moving to the front of the platform, and a uniquely feminine cry of joy swept across Hyde Park.  

“Votes for Women”, and then again “Votes for Women” and a third time, even louder, “Votes for Women”.

There were nineteen other platforms and scores of other speakers but that elegant woman, with the extraordinary carrying voice, was the one they had all come to see and, if they could press close enough, to hear.   Half a million people looked up at the leader of the suffragettes, knowing that history was being made.

Thousands of suffragettes in white gowns, with sashes, favours and ribbons in the newly chosen colours of purple and green and white, the straw hats of the men and the prettily-trimmed hats of so many women.  Less like a crowd, Emmeline Pankhurst declared, and more like “a vast garden of flowers”.

All of Britain had been invited.  A quarter of a million tickets had been handed out.  Massive posters were put up.  Pavements were chalked with time and place.  “Come to Hyde Park on Midsummer’s day”.

The careful planning included a thread of humour. Flora Drummond, the “General” of the suffragettes, as she loved to be called, hired a launch to steam up the Thames.  She stopped opposite the Terrace of the Houses of Parliament where insiders say that “MPs entertained their lady friends to tea”. In her loud clear voice Flora Drummond invited them all.  

“Come to the Park on Sunday” she urged.  

And to reassure the faint-hearted who might be worried by the suffragettes’ reputation for militancy, she added,

“The police will protect you.  There will be no arrests!”

One MP was sufficiently alarmed to summon a police launch.  In a glimpse of things to come, the police arrived too late to stop the fun or capture the suffragette.

It is not known how many MPs (and how many of their ladies) accepted the “General’s” waspish invitation but the suffragettes had many well-known supporters in the crowd.  However on that day, Sylvia, Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, said it was not individuals but the size of the multitude that mattered.

“Self was forgotten; personality seemed minute, the movement so big, so splendid.”

The speeches set out the justice of the cause, exposed the hypocrisy of the Government and rejoiced in the feeling that the women’s suffrage campaign was unstoppable.  Conversions were made: onlookers became supporters and supporters became enthusiasts.  The belief spread through the Park that victory must be very close.  Before the end, the demonstration began to feel more like a celebration.

The crowd enjoyed themselves greatly but, at its heart, the Hyde Park demonstration was a statement of political strength.  It had been organised to meet a challenge from Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary.  In an ill-judged speech he had contrasted the feeble efforts of the women with the more robust efforts of the men who had demanded the vote in previous decades.  

“The men”, he said, “had assembled in their tens of thousands all over the country… Of course it is not to be expected that women can assemble in such masses, but power belongs to the masses…”

Emmeline Pankhurst picked up Gladstone’s shabby little gauntlet and the Hyde Park demonstration was organised.  It dwarfed any demonstration that had been held in support of votes for men.  The Times said that the suffragettes,

“had counted on an audience of 250,000.  That expectation was certainly fulfilled; probably it was doubled (or even) trebled.”  

Before the final bugle call was sounded, the great crowd passed a resolution.  It demanded that women be accorded the same voting rights as men.  Christabel, Emmeline Pankhurst’s oldest daughter, immediately arranged for the resolution to be sent by special messenger to the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Surely Asquith could not ignore the wishes of such a multitude.

But he did.  In a response which read like a studied insult, he said that he had no plans to introduce legislation to extend voting rights to women.

Nine days later a further demonstration in Parliament Square was broken up by over five thousand police, many of them mounted.  Disgusted by Asquith’s intransigence and the violence of the police, Mary Leigh and Edith New went to Downing Street and threw stones through the windows of No 10.  It was the first act of damage committed by the suffragettes.  

Mary Leigh and Edith New were each sentenced to two months in prison. Emmeline Pankhurst visited them in the cells.

After the peace, excitement and joy of Hyde Park, the Votes for Women campaign had entered a much darker phase.

Women’s Liberation Movement Demonstration: 6th March 1971

– A recollection by Eva Tutchell

“I don’t think anyone realised we were starting a movement”, said Sheila Rowbotham and neither did I, until I emerged from Hyde Park tube Station and heard thousands of women’s voices laughing, talking, singing, shouting slogans.

The noise hit me. Women were everywhere holding banners with a variety of demands and slogans.

“Women hold up half the sky”

“Equal pay NOW”

“Free abortion on demand – Who does your body belong to?”

“Equality: the time is NOW”

“Equal Pay is not enough – we want the MOON!”

A banner demanding equal pay was thrust into my hand and I found myself swept along, marching with no hesitation towards Trafalgar Square. What struck me and remains with me nearly half a century later, was the warmth of the women to one another (including me – instant comradeship was on offer), the humour and the determination on their faces. It was a practical lesson in political solidarity.

The journalist Jill Tweedie was there:

“Long and short and thin and fat, quiet, middle aged ladies in careful make up, bare- faced girls with voices loud as crows, Maoists, liberals, socialists, lesbians, students, professionals, manual workers, spinsters, wives, widows, mothers.

‘One two three four – we want a bloody sight more!’”.

On that snowy March day in 1971, knowing no-one, feeling nervous and still defining myself as a housewife (albeit politically active) at home with young children, I decided to join that Women’s Liberation march in London. All I knew was that it was about equal pay and abortion rights, and that I supported both.  I was intrigued to find out what a march of women would feel like.

Political activism for me (in the Labour Party) was still controlled by men. They were the main speakers at rallies and demonstrations.

I found myself walking with two women holding two large banners connected by a washing line with a stocking, bra, apron, suspenders, and a huge tailor’s dummy of a woman hanging from it. The two marching alongside me had met through a small local women’s group which was still finding its purpose but already becoming aware of the comfort of a new spirit of sisterhood.

It was freezing cold but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm and energy.

As we marched along, women bystanders were urged to join us.  Several did and told us their own stories on the way.  Some were concerned about their isolation as ‘housewives’ at home, others talked about their lack of promotion possibilities at work. One woman spoke vehemently about her demotion when she returned to her job after having children. These were all private conversations from and to complete strangers as we made our way to Trafalgar Square, but no doubt replicated along the long line of vociferous, demonstrating women.

Unlike the Hyde Park demonstration of 1908 where the marchers wore white with sashes and favours of purple, white and green, we were wearing a multi-coloured array of coats, boots and scarves. I was wearing an Afghan coat of the sort very popular at the time, bought cheaply at a market stall and which gave off a somewhat unpleasant whiff of unspecified dead animal when it got wet – which it certainly did as we trudged through the snowy sludge.

The purpose of the demonstration was to present a petition to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street with the four demands formulated the year before at the first Women’s Liberation Conference which had been held at Ruskin College.

  1. Equal Pay
  2. Equal Educational Opportunities
  3. 24 hour nurseries
  4. Abortion on demand.

The plinth in Trafalgar Square was occupied by women making impassioned, cogent speeches and it gave me a thrill to hear strong female voices ring out, one after the other – arguing for a more equal and liberated future.

I remember admiring their courage just to stand behind a microphone addressing such a large and varied audience.

There was impromptu street theatre, provoking much laughter as we recognised the universal stories and situations, mostly to do with domesticity, which were so familiar to us.

I went home uplifted and determined to play my part in this new and slightly scary but exciting movement.

At first I was not sure what to do but after describing my experience to a friend, Jo Delaney, like me a Labour Party member, we decided to set up and run a women’s section in our local Labour Party which would meet in the afternoons so that women with children could come, prams and all, and talk about politics, mainly but not only issues of relevance to women.

Twenty tentative women arrived at our first meeting, many with young children. We had no real agenda on that occasion and the discussions were rambling but uninhibited.

Were we on our way to the Moon?

This is an extract from The Stalled Revolution.The Stalled Revolution by Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds (Emerald Books)  

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