The struggle for women to gain the right to vote was fought not only in the political arena but in literature. Although the suffrage movement can be dated to the mid-19th century, its literature as a distinct category is generally located between 1900 and 1919. Fiction concerned with the suffrage movement should be seen as a part of a wider discourse on the social and political role of women and as a manifestation of the belief that because polite requests for the vote had failed, demands were now in order. The literary importance to the campaign can be seen from the existence of the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, founded in 1908 by playwright and novelist Cecily Hamilton. Members were required to have earned payment for their writing, which ensured that they were seen as professional working women who could provide an active voice for the movement.
Suffragette was a term invented in 1906 to describe militant prosuffrage activists, and many suffragette stories focus on women who are storming Parliament or who have been to prison for similarly disruptive offences. Evelyn Sharp’s “The Black Spot of the Constituency” involves public speakers who create a bond with their impoverished listeners in part because they, too, have been to Holloway Prison. In many cases, suffragette literature was used as a vehicle for social change in which the message was of primary importance. These works were intended to be accessible to working-class women, so the requirements of telling a clear story surpassed the literary experimentation demanded by modernism.
Some participants in the suffrage movement felt that the restrictions on women as a gender were more important than class barriers, and the fiction demonstrates how women of the middle classes were made aware of the wrongs done not only to them but to working-class women who were unprotected when they worked outside the home. W. L. Courtney, in the title story of his collection The Soul of a Suffragette, offers his middle-class heroine a vision of “a great sisterhood, united in aims, fervent and unwearied in well-doing, always ready for sacrifice . . . towards a distant and shining goal.” These stories also show a breakdown of barriers between the sexes; both “The Soul of a Suffragette” and Sharp’s “The Women at the Gate” demonstrate how easy it becomes for suffragettes to converse with unknown men when they are thrown together, even as spectators, for the cause.
Suffragette stories were also used as an attempt to dispel the stereotypes of suffragettes as ridiculous, mannish women attempting to encroach on male privilege rather than use their influence within the home. Gertrude Colmore’s “Pluck” deliberately mocks the alleged differences between “true” women and unsexed suffragettes, establishing her protagonist as dainty, genteel, and stylish before a man in the room identifies her as a notorious suffragette. The Women Writers’ Suffrage League was particularly concerned that suffragette characters should be seen as positive role models, using such portrayals to change social attitudes toward the suffrage cause.
Courtney, W. L. The Soul of a Suffregette and Other Stories. London: Chapman and Hall, 1913.
Joannou, Maroula, and June Purvis, eds. The Women’s Suffrage Movement: New Feminist Perspectives. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Nelson, Carolyn Christensen, ed. Literature of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign in England. Peterborough, Ontario, and Orchard Park, New York: Broadview Press, 2004.
Norquay, Glenda. Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Claire Eustace, Joan Ryan, and Laura Ugolini, eds. A Suffrage Reader: Charting Directions in British Suffrage History. London and New York: Leicester University Press, 2000.