The strident echo of 'Miss Hissy'

August 4, 2006

In the second of our series, June Purvis connects with suffragettes through her collection of sometimes saucy ephemera

As a child, I liked collecting things, especially miniature objects such as tea sets for dolls' houses. As I got older, my interests turned to things such as small Victorian china baskets or shoes encrusted with forget-me-nots. The collecting habit is still with me, only now it is concentrated on suffrage ephemera.

For about 15 years or so, my main research interest has been the Edwardian suffragette movement, specifically the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most notorious of the groupings campaigning for the parliamentary vote for women in Edwardian Britain.

I loved searching in the archives, chancing upon a document that changed the way I looked at the topic. In particular, the old Fawcett Library, now the Women's Library at London Metropolitan University, was a treasure trove. Here, I found not only letters written by and to the suffragettes, but also carefully preserved handmade banners. The Suffragette Fellowship Collection, housed at the Museum of London, was even more impressive. This collection, based on the papers and archive donated to the museum in 1950 by the Suffragette Fellowship, formed in 1926 to keep the "suffragette spirit" alive, included a wide range of ephemera that had once belonged to WSPU members - posters, leaflets advertising meetings, badges, sashes, medals awarded after hunger striking in prison, song sheets, handkerchiefs, hatpins, photographs, brooches, games, Christmas cards, tea sets, scarves and postcards. Just seeing the objects - and occasionally being allowed to touch them - brought a thrill of excitement. I was hooked. I began to collect suffrage material mainly because I wanted to feel connected to the women I was researching, to understand their world.

I collect from three main sources - dealers, donors and eBay. Dealers are usually more expensive to buy from than eBay but they often have something that is unusual, such as a ticket about the great Votes for Women demonstration held in June 1908. I recently acquired a pristine example, number 267743, printed in the colours of the WSPU - purple, white and green. "You MUST have this Ticket," it states on the back, "to remind you that next Sunday, June 21st, is Suffrage Sunday, and that you must join the Procession to Hyde Park, to be present at the great Demonstration at 3.30pm, to shout VOTES FOR WOMEN at 5 o'clock." I keep the ticket in a postcard album where I can glance at it and wonder: to whom did it belong? Was she one of the 40,000 women who marched in the brilliant sunshine that Sunday? Did she have children, family or friends in the crowd of nearly half a million onlookers? Who found the carefully kept ticket after all these years? I shall never know the answers to these questions. And that is the intriguing thing about so much ephemera.

This is not the case, however, with regard to another small object I acquired. A man heard me speaking on the radio, got in touch and asked if I would like a risque suffragette card he had found in his great-grandfather's wallet. Of course, I accepted the offer. The well-thumbed square of paper reads as follows:

"Extract from Speech by Miss PANKHURST.

"Ladies, we mean to have what the men have got. We intend to have it quietly, but if they want friction, they can have it. We shall not take it lying down, but with our backs to the wall. If we cannot get it through our organisations, we will get it through our combinations. (Cheers)."

This smutty message brought home to me, with incredible force, the opposition that the attractive, witty Christabel Pankhurst, a single woman who was the key strategist of the WSPU, faced when demanding equal enfranchisement for women. It attempts to put the astute Pankhurst, a clever woman with a first-class honours degree in law, in her place. Such scarce ephemera offer a useful insight into the gender war many thought the suffragettes were engaging in. For women activists to question male power, to demonstrate for their political rights in parks and in the streets was to court sexual innuendo: suffragettes were out of their proper sphere, as wives, mothers and daughters at home.

The fear that votes for women would upset the established gender order was one that commercial postcard publishers in Edwardian Britain latched onto, trying to sell their products to a public that was fascinated by the issue.

I frequently buy such suffrage postcards, usually now on eBay, where I have been a bidder for the past four years. My early attempts at bidding were nervous. Indeed, on one occasion when I wanted to place a £15.00 bid on a card, I accidentally typed in £1,500. I panicked, even e-mailing a fellow eBayer in the US for advice. Before he could reply, I had sorted out the error. But it taught me a lesson - type carefully.

In my early days as an eBayer, I would bid at least twice a week but now, as postcards have become more scarce and my collection has built up, I bid less frequently. There are common themes in these postcards that encapsulate aspects of the opposition to votes for women at the time. Thus, suffragettes are usually presented as ugly harridans with large feet who, unable to get a man, seek arrest in order to be in the arms of a burly policeman. Married suffragettes do not escape caricature either. They are sketched as very large fierce-looking women with puny hen-pecked husbands.

And, typically, Pankhurst is satirised as "Miss Ortobee Spankdfirst" or a silly goose, "Miss Hissy" addressing a meeting of the "Goose's Social and Political Union".

The advantage of eBay is that I bid from the computer at home in my study where, apart from my university teaching and committee work, I increasingly spend my time. It can be both a welcome and unwelcome distraction for an academic writer with a room of her own.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

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