Float in the wind, flicker in the breeze

Hello! It’s Michelle here.

Today I’d like to share some words and images about suffrage spectacle and visual identity, a topic that recently came back to my mind through Kate’s writing in her Wheesht essay ‘Elevate’ on Ann Macbeth’s collaborative suffrage quilt.

Anne Macbeth’s suffrage quilt as a suffrage banner. © Museum of London

The centre of Macbeth’s quilt is formed from 80 pieces of linen, each depicting the signature of a suffragette imprisoned in Holloway Prison between 1908 and 1910. Almost all these women endured the hunger strike. Macbeth and her students painstakingly embroidered the signatures and joined the individual scraps into four columns, bordered with bands of the WSPU colours and headed by the name of the union and its leaders, rendered in ‘Glasgow Style’ lettering. In April 1910 it was sold to raise funds for the Women’s Social and Political Union. Emmeline Pethick Lawrence, one of the union’s leaders, bought it and with the addition of hooks it became a suffrage banner. Click the link text to see the banner in its full glory – you can slide the zoom controller to see at 100% magnification the incredibly detailed stitching on the signatures and heading.

The WSPU colours of purple, green and white have become synonymous with the suffrage movement in much the same way as, here in the UK in recent years, the blue and yellow of the EU flag has come to symbolise the Remain cause. Seeing Kate and Felix’s Balance for Better blanket for the first time, I knew at a glance that the square designed in purple, green and white must remember a woman associated with the cause.

At the time of the movement, the WSPU colours were one of several schemes that people would have recognised. The three main unions – the WSPU, the NUWSS and the WFL – each created a visual identity of their own.

The WSPU colours were chosen by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 1908. She outlined their significance in an article the following year: white for purity, green for hope and purple for dignity. In other interpretations, purple is seen as indicating loyalty or courage, and green youth or regeneration.

Banner for the Wimbledon branch of the WSPU, featuring the union’s famous Deeds Not Words slogan and worked in its colours. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

The oldest and largest suffrage union, the constitutional NUWSS, initially used red and white. In late 1909 they added green and, in response to the rise of the militant unions, urged members to use the colours prominently, including on badges, flags, ribbons, handbills and posters.

NUWSS processional banner. The use of green together with red and white indicates this banner was made after November 1909. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

The Women’s Freedom League adopted green, gold and white. Like the WSPU, the WFL were militant – their actions overstepped the law. But unlike the WSPU in the latter stages of the campaign, the WFL did not endorse property damage and was run democratically. They chose their colours through a referendum held in 1908, when a large majority voted for the colours selected.

A banner bearing the WFL colours and Dare To Be Free slogan. Image: © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Unions did not reserve the colours for processional banners. On the contrary, they were used in as many ways as could be thought up. All the unions used their colours to express their visual identities in a multitude of ways from the decoration of meeting halls to the design of posters and postcards. Wearables, particularly pin badges, became a popular and affordable option for members wishing to display their affiliations.

Enamel pin badges produced by the WFL, NUWSS and WSPU. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Knitted tie produced by the WSPU and an advert for their newspaper, designed in the colours and employing iconography by this time strongly associated with the suffragettes. Left © Women’s Library collection, LSE; Right © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

While the proliferation of ephemera such as badges and postcards attest to the popularity of the women’s cause, it was the plethora of elaborate suffrage banners and their use from 1908 to 1913 in a series of large carefully orchestrated processions that left a lasting imprint on the public consciousness.

Mary Lanchester’s coloured wood cut showing the June 1910 procession. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Many of the most creative suffrage banners were designed by Mary Lowndes (1857–1929), a stained-glass artist who had trained at the Slade School of Fine Art. Lowndes was one of the main instigators of the Artists’ Suffrage League (affiliated with the NUWSS), founded in 1907 when she was fifty years old.

A page from Mary Lowndes’ album, showing designs for four suffrage banners. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Barbara Forbes’ Joan of Arc design in Mary Lowndes’ album and the final banner. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Mary Lowndes’ Scrivener design for the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. When the banner was executed ‘scrivener’ was altered to ‘writers’. This banner was carried for the first time in June 1908, held by Cicely Hamilton, Evelyn Sharp, Sarah Grand and other writers. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Members of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League with the banner at one of the 1910 processions. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Having designed many of the banners for the processions in 1908 and 1909, Lowndes published a pamphlet entitled On Banners and Banner Making. In this she urged readers to start with the visual, to start with colour. Gather together the most gorgeous flowers you can find, she instructs. Try them in different arrangements, aiming for contrast and harmony. When you find the mixture that most pleases, you have found the palette for your banner. Whatever you do, she cautions, do not start with words. If you start with words you end up with a placard. If you start with visuals, the words become an adornment:

A banner is not a literary affair, it is not a placard: leave such to boards and sandwichmen. A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel: you do not want to read it, you want to worship it.

This is a point perhaps best illustrated through her banners honouring women such as astronomer Caroline Herschel, artist Mary Moser, and nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale – which was carried by nurses in all the major processions, to great applause.

Banner honouring Caroline Herschel (1750–1848), discoverer of several comets, first woman recognised by salary as a scientist and, with Mary Somerville, the first to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Designed by Mary Lowndes. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Banners honouring Mary Moser (1744–1819) and Florence Nightingale (1820–1910). Mary Moser was a portrait and flower painter, and one of two female founding members of the Royal Academy. Florence Nightingale was a pioneering nurse and the founder of modern nursing. The Florence Nightingale banner was designed by Lowndes, the Mary Moser banner is thought to have been. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

For the WSPU and WFL processions, the crucial aspect that separated them from the NUWSS processions was their focus on honouring imprisonment, reconfiguring it from a personal moral shame into a noble mark of distinction, courage and perseverance for a just cause. The demonstration on 18 June 1910, known as the From Prison to Citizenship procession, included a Prisoners Pageant formed of 617 women who had served prison sentences.

Beneath Laurence Housman’s famous From Prison to Citizenship banner and – for the first time – Ann Macbeth’s Hunger Strikers banner, the women marched in white dresses set off with purple, green and white sashes, prison brooches and hunger strike medals glinting on their chests. They carried white staffs, topped with broad arrows, the same arrows that appeared on their brooches. These signified Holloway Prison. Inside Holloway, arrows featured on prison clothing and linens. Imprisoned suffragettes wore, used and, during their allotted labour, mended textiles covered with these arrows. Outside prison they claimed the arrows for their own purposes. If the colours represented the cause, the arrows represented the struggle. The arrows’ stark simple lines bring to my mind the extinction symbol used today, most notably by Extinction Rebellion, in the movement for climate justice.

The Prisoners Pageant marching beneath Ann Macbeth’s banner for the first time, on 18 June 1910. (Also header image) © Museum of London

The banner depicted in this postcard, the ‘Flag of the Woman’s Franchise’, is Laurence Housman’s From Prison to Citizenship banner, first seen on procession in 1908. This postcard was produced as part of a pro-suffrage set. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Remarkably, a few minutes of film footage from 18 June 1910 has survived and can be viewed on the British Film Institute player. If you look closely you can see the WSPU Wimbledon banner from earlier in this post and, at the end, mounted on horseback, Evelina Haverfield and Vera Holme, whose names you may recall from my previous post Women who would not sit still.

There were two processions in the summer of 1910. This photo shows WSPU volunteers making banners for the second procession, held on 23 July 1910. Image: © Women’s Library collection, LSE

The Prisoners Pageant was repeated the following year, as part of the Women’s Coronation Procession in June 1911. This was arguably the most spectacular of the processions, as well as the largest and most representative, being the only one in which all suffrage societies – militant and non-militant alike – participated. Forty thousand women marched five abreast among the floats, carriages and marching bands that all played a role in suffrage spectacle, forming a procession seven miles long.

Aerial view of the Prisoners Pageant in the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Constance Lytton (1869–1923) in the Prisoners Pageant section of the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911. Lytton published an important memoir on her prison experiences, exposing the shocking class-based differences in treatment within the prison system. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

Charlotte Despard (1834–1939) heading the WFL section of the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911. © Women’s Library collection, LSE

The performative spectacle of women’s suffrage ended in the summer of 1913 with Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral, and the NUWSS’s Women’s Pilgrimage. But some campaign artefacts have enjoyed brief forays beyond the confines of archives. In 1950, Ann Macbeth’s banner was used in a tea party held in Westminster, with Lady Astor attending as guest of honour.

The centenary celebrations of partial enfranchisement in 2018, coinciding with greater access to campaign artefacts through digitisation and open access, has led to a resurgence of interest in the suffrage movement. Recent protest movements, most strikingly Extinction Rebellion, explicitly adopt suffragette methods, including their flare for visual spectacle. Beyond the realm of active rebellion, I wonder if we will see a flourishing of cultural works using our suffrage heritage to shine light on current social and political issues?

In the Name of the Suffragette. Poster by Brenda Goodchild created for Climate Rush, 2010. Donated by the artist, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This post draws on Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign 1907-14 (Chatto & Windus; 1987) now, sadly, out of print. For online viewing, I thoroughly recommend this excellent article on Ann Macbeth’s banner, written by Diane Atkinson and published in the London Library magazine, and two exhibitions: the LSE Library’s The Suffrage Banners of Mary Lowndes and the Museum of London’s Suffragette Spectacles.