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Celebrating 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, 1918-2018

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(c) Alex Lake

Do You Vote? Their Fight Our Future

On the 6 February 1918, eight million women, out of an electorate of twenty one, were given the opportunity to vote. Only women over the age of 30 with educational & property qualifications were allowed to do so.

100 years later, on Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 2018, pop into Brighton Museum for Their Fight Our Future from 2pm to find out more about local Suffragette and Social Reformer, Minnie Turner, who was arrested three times for her suffrage activities!

Also explore how changing women’s fashions throughout the 20th Century reflected social change, from a bodice skirt and bloomers from the 1890s to a Mary Quant mini-skirt. Even try on a replica corset! Share your views about voting today with our Learning Assistant, Karen Antoni, in character as Minnie Turner or through our secret ballot box…

Minnie Turner 1867-1948

In the early years of the last century number 13 & 14 Victoria Road, Brighton, known as “Sea View” were first leased and then purchased by Minnie Sara Turner, a local resident well known for her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage movement. She ran her home as a guest house which attracted mainly professional women visitors. For twelve years she was the honourable secretary of the Hove ward of the Brighton & Hove Women’s Liberal association, but left the Liberal Party because of its lack of support for women’s suffrage. In 1908 she joined The Women’s Social & Political Union (W.S.P.U) and turned to militarism.

By 1913, 13 Victoria Road had quite a reputation locally as a militant suffragette boarding house. Her guests included, Mrs Pankhurst and several of her family, Lady Constance Lytton, Lady Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence , Emily Wilding Davison, Annie Kenney, Mrs Drummond and many others. The guest house was often full, and extra accommodation was arranged in the form of a wooden hut in the garden of No 13 and even a potting shed-type annexe to the back of No 12, next door. Minnie kept a small library of books on the social position of women for her guests to enjoy.

Minnie believed passionately in suffrage and social justice. She was hard working and had a strong sense of responsibility to the community.

Minnie Turner outside Sea View boarding house

Minnie Turner outside Sea View boarding house

She was a member of the Clifton Road Congregational Church and was elected to the Brighton Board of Guardians soon after the First World War. For seven years she committed to improving the conditions in the Brighton workhouse on Elm Grove. She valued education, peace and fellowship. When she died in 1948 many of the organisations sent representatives to her funeral at the Downs Crematorium. There were representatives from the Suffragette Fellowship, the Women’s Freedom League, and the Women’s International League. Many of her possessions are in the Museum of London.

On the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, 1918 we will be displaying The Holloway Brooch worn with the sash awarded to Minnie and other ex-prisoners to honour their sacrifice. In 2015 a relative of Minnie Turner donated them to the Royal Pavilion and Museums.

The Suffrage Movement and the First World War

Some historians say that the highly skilled and dangerous work done by women during the war is why they were awarded the vote, as a token of gratitude for their war work. Others have argued that the emphasis placed on women’s economic contribution to the war does not take into account the groundwork done by the pre-war suffrage campaign. Some have even said that the war actually postponed the vote for women. It has been suggested that the vote was about to be granted just before the war broke out. The hard work of both the Suffragists & Suffragettes during the war ended the militant methods that had been used. It conferred respectability on the suffrage cause. It was thought that the women involved in the suffrage movement had shown themselves to be responsible and mature beings who were more than capable of taking part in a democracy which they defended.

WSPU (Women Social & Political Union) Suffragettes

The WSPU lead the way in patriotism. When war was declared in 1914 the WSPU suspended suffrage activities. Both Mrs E Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst adopted an extremely nationalistic position. The outbreak of the war enabled the WSPU and its members to abandon their violent methods, and demonstrate their patriotic loyalty and ultimately their deservedness of the vote. Within a few days of the war being declared, the party threw itself into a vigorous campaign, in which the defeat of Germany took priority over women’s suffrage. The WSPU placed its organisation and its funds at the disposal of the Government, who by 1915 needed labour.

2 million men had joined the armed forces at a time of increased demand for munition production. To encourage women to join the workforce, Lloyd George, now Minister of Munitions liaised with the WSPU. The Suffragettes’ renamed their paper, “Britannia” to express their commitment to the British Empire, and in 1917 the name of the WSPU was changed to the Women’s Party. Emmaline & Christabel Pankhurst were great assets in promoting the war effort world-wide. They launched a campaign to urge Russian women to encourage their men to keep fighting. They toured America & Canada to speak to women about war service. At home they called for military conscription for men, industrial conscription for women, and the abolition of Trade Unions. Any young man in civilian clothes, who was unfortunate to encounter Mrs Pankhurst and her supporters would have been handed a white feather as a symbol of cowardice. The WSPU demanded that conscientious objectors, alongside those of the enemy race living in Britain, to be interned. Not all members agreed with Emmaline Pankhurst and her use of the party’s funds to promote the war effort.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWWSS) Suffragists

The NUWSS were bitterly divided over the war. Some members wholly supported the war effort; there were some who were ambivalent and still others who were unwilling to support it at all. Millicent Fawcett was against the white feathers! She had signed an appeal for peace at the beginning of the war, she changed her mind a few days later and said “women your country needs you”. She believed war was the gravest crisis facing Britain, for if Germany won, it would destroy the democratic institution of Parliament. Whatever their attitude was towards the war, almost all suffragists were active in wartime relief work. They established a registry of voluntary workers who would in turn find the unemployed work. Lots of industries such as dressmaking, which employed lots of women, collapsed as richer women cut back on luxury goods. In response to high female unemployment, members of the NUWSS set to work organising the unemployed and soon became the main focus of relief work. Workrooms opened where garments were made for war relief dining rooms, for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as establishing women’s patrol to “protect the honour of young girls” and guard against prostitution. One of the most important things that the NUWSS did was to set up and finance Scottish Women’s Hospital Units. These units employed all-female teams of doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers to work on the front lines of the war in some of the worst fighting zones.

Unlike the WSPU the NUWSS remained committed to Women’s Suffrage and left its organisational structure in place, enabling it to recommence suffrage activities when the time was right.

Karen Antoni, Learning Assistant

‘Behind the Scenes’, MuseumLab, 2-5pm, Tuesday 6 and Wednesday 7 February 2018.

Part of our 1918-2018: 100 years Remembrance Season