I haven’t written a blog post for over two months, and I’m not sure… why not? I’ve just been very busy and tired, and I’ve been reading, but not at my usual volume, and when I’ve thought about writing a post, it’s just felt like too much and I’d rather watch something on Netflix. But now I want to talk about some of the things I’ve been reading! Which means it’s time to be back!
My husband gave me Sally Heathcote, Suffragette, by Mary Talbot, for Valentine’s Day. It’s an excellent piece of graphic history about the suffragist movement in England, told from the perspective of a working-class woman named Sally Heathcote. The whole thing is told as a kind of flashback, as Sally lies in bed as a very old woman, roving back in her mind over her life as a suffragette. At first, she doesn’t know anything about the movement, except on the fringes of the society she lives and works in. (She is a domestic servant.) But bit by bit, she’s drawn in by the rallies and promises these bold women make, and when she resists the sexual advances of another servant in her household and is fired for her trouble, she turns to the women’s movement for help and shelter. After that, she commits herself to the cause, going as far as sabotage, arson, violence, and assault — and imprisonment for some of those things.
In this history, we get to see the main leaders of the movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia. We get to see the way class barriers were at play in the movement, and how many questions were at stake. These women were thinking of far more than the vote; they were fighting for rights for workers, equal pay, healthcare, an end to poverty and war, and much more. There were men and women on both sides.
Kate Charlesworth’s art is superb. The drawings are mostly in black and white, with dashes of color — Sally’s red hair makes her easy to spot and follow in each drawing. The art is creative, too. There’s one scene, when the suffragettes have finally won a meeting with representatives from Parliament, when Charlesworth represents the women as mice before snarling cats, who say suave phrases but grow large and terrifying.
I think the thing that shocked me about this book was the violence of the activism. In the United States, people of my age have grown up with stories of the nonviolent protest of the Civil Rights movement, of Gandhi, and others. It’s as if this has become naturalized as the only, and certainly the only morally right, way to protest. But nonviolent protest rests heavily on the other side’s acknowledging the essential humanity of the protestors. There are centuries of other kinds of protest, including in the US. These women broke the windows of governments and bureaucracies, burned houses, sabotaged material goods, assaulted police officers, endured force-feeding and other kinds of retaliation, shouted and insisted and died in the cause. It was deeply violent. Sally, in this book, wrestles with this question: is she doing right? Is she betraying her principles if she commits violence, or her sisters if she doesn’t? It’s a complex question.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would absolutely recommend it! Have any of you read it?
I haven’t read this book but it sounds very well-researched, and an edifying read! you bring up a good point, sometimes we glorify protests after the fact and put them on a pedestal, but we forget all the fighting that had to occur to reach the final destination. Even for the civil rights movement in the US, the blank panther party was making an appearance with not-so-peaceful protesting at the same time that MLK was leading marches. It’s crazy sad what you said about the suffragettes. I’m so thankful though to have the respect I need in the workplace, and I hope with time it continues to get better.
You’re absolutely right to point out that our own histories of nonviolence are more complex than we like to make them out to be. Not to mention that that nonviolence was frequently met with violence! This kind of disobedience to unjust laws merits a lot of consideration.
I haven’t read this, but I read Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoir a few years ago, and I too was struck by the violence, both inflicted on and enacted by the suffragettes. Pankhurst goes into some detail to explain why they chose to become violent and the boundaries they set for their destructive acts. And I’ve been thinking lately about when acts of civil disobedience are warranted, and what acts are appropriate. As you say, it’s complex. And it’s hard to sort out, even in hindsight, which destructive acts are effective.
It’s interesting to me that today, if there is any type of militant protesting (antifa, etc) it is met with shock — shock! — that such a thing could occur. But it was the norm, if you can call violent protest a “norm,” for a very long time. Your question about which acts are effective is a good one — who gets to decide that? The people who destroy, or the people whose material goods are destroyed? The people who achieve more power, or the people who share power?
I’ve read this book! I felt conflicted about inserting a fictional character into a book with real people, but I found it pretty educational about the British suffragette movement, which I knew nothing about. I, too, was struck by the violence and the force feedings, but I acknowledge that it can be necessary. Peaceful protests are easier to ignore.
I work in a public library and last year one of my coworkers did a great display on protests, riots, and revolutions, which I think would make for a fascinating area of study. The way we learn about such things is always tangential to a particular issue, you know? But I think it would be so interesting to learn about the actions themselves, the different ways to try and make change happen, and what has been most and least effective in various periods in history.
It’s interesting to me that you felt odd about inserting a fictional character into history. In the past (and actually right now) I’ve felt odd about inserting real people into a fictional narrative, as in The Alienist or certain mystery series. This particular thing didn’t strike me as nearly so strange.
I love the idea of doing history on the riots and protests themselves. With so much criticism attached to how people protest — are they doing it “right”? — it would be wise to be educated about how it has looked in the past.