In 1914, on the eve of world war, the Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst wrote in her autobiography, My Own Story: “The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and for these deeds of horror and destruction men have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness. Time alone will reveal what reward will be allotted to the women.”
Pankhurst lived long enough to see Parliament ‘reward’ a limited number of women with the vote. However, one hundred years on, women may have equal rights in law, but in practice there is little equality. As to the ‘monuments’ these are few and far between.
Few obituaries and histories are written about women and it’s the same with other memorials, whether blue plaques or statues. There are historic reasons for the absence of memorials to early female lives, but that does not explain why prominent women of the twentieth century are so neglected. Nor does it explain why contemporary women are so tentative in commemorating them.
To mark the centenary of women achieving the vote, local feminists are campaigning to have a blue plaque near the Clock Tower to mark the place where the office of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was based. This is a worthy initiative and I support it. However, it commemorates an organisation, rather than any of the leading suffragists who lived or worked in Brighton and Hove and whose names are all but forgotten. They should surely have memorials.
Brighton and Hove may have a statue each of Queen Victoria, but there are none of other women. There has been no objection to recognising men in this way. Over the past 35 years, the city has placed a statue of music hall star Max Miller in the Pavilion Gardens and another of athlete Steve Ovett on the seafront. Yet it has no statue nor any other permanent memorial to female reformers who changed history.
Probably the most obvious omission, is any kind of memorial to Dame Millicent Fawcett, who from 1897 led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), by far the largest suffrage organisation. She lived, worked and lectured in Brighton from 1865 to 1874 alongside her husband Henry Fawcett, who was MP for Brighton.
There is no permanent memorial to the pioneering early women doctors, all suffragists, such as Dr Louisa Martindale, who founded local clinics and hospitals and pioneered radium therapy for cancer. Nor for suffragist Margaret Bondfield, who worked here and later became Labour’s first woman MP and the first female Privy Counsellor. Nor for Minnie Turner, of the WSPU, who ran a boarding house in Victoria Road, where women came to recuperate from force-feeding in prison.
Perhaps most shameful of all, there is none for Mary Clarke, Emmeline Pankhurst’s sister, once the WSPU organiser for Brighton. She died in 2010, almost certainly as a result of force-feeding in prison. Her obituary called her the ‘first woman martyr who has gone to death for this cause’.
There are many others who deserve honour. Commemoration is long overdue.