A catalyst for social change!
Written by Philip Battle
1: History in context
The story of pavement art and the suffragettes is largely an untold and forgotten one, overshadowed by some of the more ‘sensational’ tactics employed by the ladies of the suffrage movement.
“Suffragette” was a term coined by the Daily Mail newspaper as a derogatory label for members of the late 19th and early 20th century movement for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, in particular members of the Women’s Social and Political Union. However, after former and then active members of the movement began to reclaim the word, the term became a label without negative connotations. It derives from the term “suffragist,” which proponents of women’s “suffrage,” or right to vote, originally adopted. They wanted to be involved in the running of the country and they wanted to be treated as equals to men.
The members of the suffrage movement were mostly, but not exclusively women from middle class backgrounds, frustrated by their social and economic situation and seeking an outlet through which to initiate change. Their struggles for change within society, along with the work of such advocates for women’s rights as John Stuart Mill, were enough to spearhead a movement that would encompass mass groups of women fighting for suffrage. Mill had first introduced the idea of women’s suffrage on the platform he presented to the British electorate in 1865. He would later be joined by numerous men and women fighting for the same cause.
The Suffragists were members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which was founded in 1897, formed of a collection of local suffrage societies. This union was led by Millicent Fawcett, who believed in constitutional campaigning, like issuing leaflets, organising meetings and presenting petitions. However this campaigning did not have much effect. So in 1903 Emilie Pankhurst founded a new organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. Pankhurst thought that the movement would have to become radical and militant if it were going to work. The Daily Mail later gave them the name ‘Suffragettes’.
A few historians feel that some of the suffragettes’ actions actually damaged their cause. The argument was that the suffragettes should not get the vote because they were too emotional and could not think as logically as men; their violent and aggressive actions were used as evidence in support of this argument.
1912 was a turning point for the Suffragettes in the UK as they turned to using more militant tactics such as chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to mailbox contents, smashing windows and occasionally detonating bombs. This was because the current Prime Minister at the time, Asquith, nearly signed a document giving women (over 30 and either married to a property-owner or owning a property themselves) the right to vote. But he pulled out at the last minute, as he thought the women may vote against him in the next General Election, stopping his party (Liberals) from getting into Parliament.
Suffragette, Emily Davison, died after she tried to throw a suffragette banner over the King’s horse, Anmer at the Epsom Derby of June 5, 1913. Many of her fellow suffragettes were imprisoned and went on a hunger strike as a scare tactic against the government. The Liberal government of the day led by H. H. Asquith responded with the Cat and Mouse Act. When a Suffragette was sent to prison, it was assumed that she would go on hunger strike as this caused the authorities maximum discomfort. The Cat and Mouse Act allowed the Suffragettes to go on a hunger strike and let them get weaker and weaker. When the Suffragette was very weak, they were released from prison.
Suffragette Poster against The Cat & Mouse Act 1913
If they died out of prison, this was of no embarrassment to the government; however, some Suffragettes who were especially weak were force fed with tubes which went down their throats and into their stomach. This meant that none of those who were released died but they were so weak that they could take no part in violent Suffragette struggles. When those who had been arrested and released had regained their strength they were re-arrested for the most trivial of reasons and the whole process began again. This, from the government’s point of view, was a very simple but effective weapon against the Suffragettes. Nevertheless, protests continued on both sides of the Atlantic. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led a series of protests against the Wilson Administration in Washington that referred to “Kaiser Wilson” and compared the plight of the German people with that of American women.
2: Pavement Art as a tactic for social change:
The Suffragettes use to go on ‘chalking parties’ they had to be careful and were advised to go in twos or threes, never alone. Purple, white and green chalk was used.
The colour scheme of purple, white and green: purple symbolised dignity, white purity, and green hope. These three colours were used for banners, flags, rosettes and badges, and appeared in newspaper cartoons and postcards; the colour scheme was formally adopted by the WSPU in 1908.
Emma Sproson (left) and a friend chalking the pavement, LONDON 1907
The postcard above shows the suffragette Emma Sproson chalking a pavement. Pavement chalking was used by the Women’s Social and Political Union to announce meetings and demonstrations. This was produced & printed by the suffragettes to commemorate the only occasion of a summons being issued for pavement chalking:Emma Sproson was fined 5 shillings. She endured two periods of imprisonment for her suffragette militancy. From 1908 she worked across the country as part of the Women’s Freedom League and the Tax Resistance League. Continuing her lifelong campaign for social reform, Sproson, who was from Wolverhampton, left the WSPU following the departure of Charlotte Despard, Edith How-Martyn and Teresa Billington-Greig to form the Women’s Freedom League. She had twice been arrested, serving six weeks in Holloway Gaol and three months in Stafford Gaol, and had a reputation as a ‘mob orator’ where she was given the nickname of ‘RED EMMA’; she became the Labour Party Member of Parliament for Wolverhampton in 1921.
Suffragette: Emma Lloyd Sproson c.1895
Born Emma Lloyd in West Bromwich in 1867, she was one of seven children of a canal boat builder. The family moved to Daisy Bank, Bilston in 1875. A year later at the age of nine Emma went out to work as a home help. As a teenager Emma moved to Lancashire to become a Sunday school teacher. Emma developed an interest in socialism and feminism. It is said that her interest in politics stemmed from attending a political meeting at which she asked Lord Curzon a question. He refused to answer because the question had been asked by a woman!
This article & photograph appeared in a local Hexham newspaper: 1907
Writing on the pavement, the by-election policy of the Suffragettes. 1907
The caption underneath reads: Party feeling ran very high during the by-election at Hexham last week and the militant section of the women suffragists worked most actively in opposition to Mr. Holt, the government candidate. Our illustration shows two of their leaders, Miss Annie Kenney and Miss Mary Gawthorpe, writing on the pavement appeals to the electors to vote against Mr. Holt. It was the same two ladies who cornered Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman in the Cannes express a few days later, and gave him a very unpleasant quarter of an hour. Sir Henry did his gallant best to hide his feelings, but the ladies came away with the impression that “the by-election policy of the suffragists was especially embarrassing to the Liberal Government.”
Suffragette pavement artists, Kensington, LONDON. 7th March 1913
Although these anarchic screevings announcing meetings and political slogans on the pavement cannot be considered ‘art’ it was to open the floodgates for fellow suffragettes to claim pavement art as a vehicle for political and social change. It was the subversive nature of chalking on the pavement and the ‘martyrdom’ of arrest that appealed to the militant artists. The message of the Woman’s Social and Political Union, which had been gagged and twisted by the popular press, could now freely be expressed ‘word of mouth’ on the streets. Lady pavement artists would screeve messages imploring passers-by to “Votes for Women-Self Denial Week-Spare a Penny!” artists would take along examples of original artwork for sale to public sympathisers and this fast became an important fund-raising exercise by the WSPU. It was apparent that these ‘middle-class do gooders’ where gaining popular support outside the establishment. Individuals where showing their support by publishing postcards for sale featuring ‘Lady Pavement Artists’ well dressed women of refinement where photographed on their hands and knees, producing art on the street. Incredibly, it wasn’t all political, they would produce works simply to ‘entertain’ and enthral the public with technique and artistry.
It’s hard to imagine today the shocking effect of seeing ‘well-heeled’ middle class women engaging in pavement art. This was a very ordered and conservative society thrown into chaos by a sex war of extreme passions. Chalking on the street was designed to cause maximum embarrassment to the Liberal Government of the day and to undermine middle-class sensibilities, the art of the itinerant and ‘begging’ artist had become a catalyst for social change.
Suffragette pavement artists, LONDON. 12th August 1913
Political pavement art in Britain of course was not the ‘invention’ of the suffragettes; political ‘cartoons’ and ‘side-swipes’ at the politicians of the day was something that had been practiced by Screevers in England for well over 100 years. One reason perhaps why they were disliked by the establishment and treated as no better than beggars, little value was placed on their art and they were often beaten up and thrown into the gaols and then carted off to the workhouse for no other reason than vagrancy and ‘littering the streets’
The suffragette pavement artists were a force to be reckoned with and the WSPU published a number of ‘fund-raising’ suffrage postcards, sold on the street and at political meetings.
SUFFRAGETTE POSTCARD ‘History up to date and more so’ circ. 1908
The photo above shows an original postcard now held by The Museum of London, it shows a series of 9 drawings with captions giving the suffragette view of Parliament. Originally drawn by Marie Brackenbury this was reproduced as a pro-suffrage postcard between 1908 & 1912. Brackenbury studied at the prestigious Slade School of Art in London and became a talented landscape painter.
If you have anything to add to this blog; photos, news articles or ephemera relating to the suffragettes and pavement art then please get in touch….you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the suffragettes visit suffragettes.org
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Source material from; Wikipedia, the Museum of London & my own personal collection of postcards and ephemera.