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?