Last week was definitely a little strange for someone who’s spent quite some time writing about the Suffragettes in relative isolation. On Wednesday evening I found myself in Westminster Hall, sitting four feet away across the aisle from Yvette Cooper while listening to Harriet Harman, Theresa May, Sandi Toksvig and Helen Pankhurst (among others) at the Emily Wilding Davison Commemoration. Then on the weekend I caught up (again) with Up The Women, the Suffragette sitcom on BBC 4. I sowant the show to be better than it is, as it’s a minor miracle that it exists at all. (I don’t see a future of re-runs on Dave.)
At the Westminster event there was a posse of women dressed up as Suffragettes, which I guess is a – what? I was about to write that it was a ‘nice’ thing to do for a memorial event, which is certainly something to do with why I felt a bit squeamish about it. It felt more like a game of dressings up. Which plonks the history straight back into the toy box.
The problem I have with it is the same problem I have with the Suffragette sitcom – it’s nice. The skirts are nice. It just becomes impossible – apparently – to see past them. We simply can’t imagine that women dressed like that could have undertaken anything physical, other than waltzing or fanning themselves – the upper class ones, anyway – which is also of course why they were compelled to wear them in the first place.
I’ve made mention previously of Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger, in which the viewer is immersed in the visceral realities of the Northern Ireland dirty protests. The film inspired in part my approach to The Invisible Riot, where I place the reader in the middle of the physical battle that was the Suffragette experience; the beatings they received, the buildings they blew up, the prison cells they were tortured in, with force-feeding and other barbaric punishments. I take the politics as a given, and that too I have borrowed from McQueen’s film.
If a comparison between Bobby Sands and the nice ladies in daft dresses seems a stretch too far, that is precisely why it is necessary to make – to divest the Suffragettes of those skirts that so impede our perception. To allow us to see the raw courage of those who fought - literally – to secure their rights.