World News

100 Years On, Posters Offer Window Into Struggles of U.K. Suffragists

Posted February 4, 2018 4:14 p.m. EST

LONDON — They were wrapped in plain brown paper and addressed to “the librarian” at the University of Cambridge.

The delivery took place circa 1910. Sent by a major figure of the suffragist movement in Britain, Marion Phillips, the parcel contained posters illustrating the struggles of women in the country to get the right to vote.

It took decades for the 100-year-old posters on fading paper to be rediscovered and dusted off. But on Saturday, the images illustrating women’s fight for voting rights went on display for the first time at the university to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which gave women older than 30 the right to vote.

The institution bills the posters as “one of the largest surviving collections of suffrage posters from the early 20th century.”

“These posters are fantastic examples of the suffrage publicity machine of the early 20th century,” Chris Burgess, the exhibitions officer at the university’s library, says on the exhibition’s website. “They were created to be plastered on walls, torn down by weather or political opponents, so it is highly unusual for this material to be safely stored for over a hundred years.”

Women such as Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned for the right to vote for all. The movement was split into labels: suffragists and suffragettes, whose members took a harder stance, engaging in protests, window-smashing and the like.

Fawcett considered herself a suffragist, a moderate opposed to the sometimes violent protests of campaigners like Pankhurst, known as a suffragette.

History so far seems to have rewarded the moderate. Last year, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that Fawcett would be the first woman to be honored by a statue in Parliament Square in London, where there are 11 statues of men — giants like Churchill, Lincoln and Mandela.

A blue plaque commemorating Fawcett is also due to be unveiled at the Cambridge Guildhall on Feb. 6, according to the City Council.

As for Pankhurst, who helped found the Women’s Social and Political Union, was arrested several times and even went on a hunger strike, The New York Times wrote in 1913:

“The hysterical women in England who have been followers of Mrs. Pankhurst in her defiance of law and decency are now threatening to institute a reign of terror. Mrs. Pankhurst has been convicted as an accessory to the crime of arson and has been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment — a mild sentence.

“The behavior of the trial Judge and the latitude accorded to the prisoner, who was permitted to conduct her own defense, seemed unaccountable on this side of the Atlantic, where we are inclined to boast of our liberty. The court seemed to be afraid of the prisoner, as, indeed, the Home Office seems to be afraid of the whole gang of female mischief-makers.

“We have all been saying that if woman suffrage is to survive in Great Britain, these militants, who represent but a small part of the suffrage movement, would surely delay the hour of triumph.”

But triumph they did.