During our twitter Q&A session with Janita Bagshawe last week, we were asked by @jennylhand, ‘What’s the biggest challenge for (women) leaders in the cultural sector currently?’ It was a reminder that the museum profession has changed enormously since the Museums Association conference of 1911. The MA currently has a female president, Vanessa Trevelyan, and the themes of this year’s conference have all been co-ordinated by women.
The delegates of the 1911 MA conference appear to have been almost entirely male, and it is likely that little discussion was given to the role of women in museums. Yet this conference took place in the midst of protests for women’s suffrage, which were becoming both more frequent and more radical in their action.
Like many towns and cities throughout Britain, Brighton’s newspapers frequently carried stories of suffragette action, particularly between 1907 and the outbreak of the First World War. The Royal Pavilion estate, which provided many of the venues for the conference, often provided a focal point for suffragette activity. Just the year before the conference, two activists had been ejected from the Dome for attempting to disrupt a speech by Prime Minister Asquith. In 1909, a rumoured talk at the Dome by Christabel Pankhurst inspired this sinister postcard by an opponent of the suffrage movement.
The delegates of the conference probably remained removed from this local activity, but it was not far away. During the month of the conference, in July 1911, the Brighton Advertiser warned that, ‘Suffragettes will invade the favourite holiday resorts’, and that ‘Brighton… and other holiday haunts will be reminded that votes for women is the question of the hour’.
Although neither the suffragettes nor the question of the hour appear to have troubled the 1911 conference, the results of their activism will be reflected in the delegates attending this year’s conference. Back in 1911 one local suffragette, Mary Hare, defaced her census return with the phrase ‘Women don’t count therefore they will not be counted!’. While the museum sector may still have a lot to do in the pursuit of equality, we can at least say that Mary Hare’s words will not be true for the 2011 conference.
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