The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Children’s Fiction: Social Class in the Struggle for the Vote

by | Sep 13, 2017 | IBBYLink Summer 2017

Ann Lazim

2018 will see the centenary of British women over 30 getting the vote after a long struggle. It was another ten years before all women in this country were allowed to vote. In anticipation of this anniversary, Sally Nicholls has a forthcoming young adult novel Things a Bright Girl Can Do (2017) and Linda Newbery has revisited this subject with Until We Win (2017).

The women’s suffrage movement has been the focus of several children’s novels published during the last 40 years. They include books by Marjorie Darke, Julie Hearn, Geraldine Symons, Geoffrey Trease and Jacqueline Wilson, and it’s interesting to see what picture they give of this significant period in British women’s history. Do writers focus only on the militant actions of the suffragettes or are readers also made aware of the less dramatic actions of the suffragists? Do any patterns emerge in the type of fictional characters developed, in particular friendships between women from privileged backgrounds and working-class women?

My first awareness of the women’s suffrage movement came from the sequence in the Disney film Mary Poppins (1964), which does not appear in P.L. Travers book, where Mrs Banks is introduced, returning exhilarated from suffragette action, and singing the song ‘Sister Suffragette’ sweepingly encompassing her cook, maid and outgoing nanny within the ‘sisterhood’. The gap between Mrs Banks, who has time to go out and take part in these activities, and her servants, who remain at home taking care of her house and children, is plain to see. The song lyrics suggest wider involvement; for example, ‘From Kensington to Billingsgate’ suggests that women from an upper class part of London and women who are market traders are involved in the movement.

The action in Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges (1971) by Geraldine Symons takes place in the years just before First World War when suffragette militancy was at its height. Some suspension of disbelief is required when reading the story of two-boarding school pupils let loose in London. Atalanta reveals her plan to Pansy of smashing the windows of 10 Downing Street in support of the suffragette cause. The two girls have a remarkable amount of freedom to wander around London. Having visited 10 Downing Street to ‘case the joint’, the girls dress as adult women and at Atalanta’s instigation, Pansy puts a brick through a window. They escape, Atalanta making a leap into the Thames fully clothed and surviving. Having confided their exploits to Atalanta’s actress mother, the next action of Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges is to leap up at one of her performances, with her knowledge, and shout ‘votes for women’. There is a mix-up as there are a couple of real suffragettes there planning to do the same thing due to Prime Minister Asquith’s presence and they are arrested.

Not wanting to get Atalanta’s mother into trouble, they are locked up in the police station until she comes to rescue them. Their meeting with the two real suffragettes leads to their actions being reported to Mrs Pankhurst who writes them a letter of thanks and sends them each a symbolic prison brooch. She acknowledges that their brief sojourn in a police cell would not usually merit this, but awards them ‘in recognition of your endurance and self-restraint during this trying ordeal’.

In this book, the two main protagonists are from broadly similar social backgrounds, evidenced by their attendance at the same school. However, their parents have differing work backgrounds. Atalanta’s are an actress and a writer. Pansy’s parents are in India and she lives with her aunts. There is no comment made about why her parents are there, the reader is left to understand that this is quite usual.

In Marjorie Darke’s A Question of Courage (1975) Emily Palmer is a seamstress from a working-class family in Birmingham (a recognition that the movement was not entirely London centric). Independent minded from the start, she has saved up for a bicycle. An accident on this leads to her entanglement with Louise and Peter Marshall, who initially make her feel awkward as they are ‘high-class, with those tea-and-cucumber voices’. They become friends after a fashion, despite Emily’s recognition that she is ‘Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Louise’ and ‘There was an awful lot to part them, for all that Louise might say. Leisure and work. Money and no money. Birth. Yes, it was a yawning gap all right.’

However, by the end of the book, a budding romance between Emily and Peter, who greatly admires her fighting spirit, is more than hinted at. In the intervening period, Emily and Louise have painted ‘Votes for Women’ on a golf course and been arrested, which leads to Emily being sacked and moving to London where she becomes more involved in the movement, is imprisoned and force-fed, having been a bodyguard for prominent suffragettes. The spectre of force-feeding hangs over all these novels, even when it is not actually inflicted on any of the characters.

In Bring out the Banners (1994) by Geoffrey Trease, the two main protagonists are from different social classes. Fiona Campbell works in an office in central London, demonstrating the relatively new independence for young women doing this kind of work at that time, just prior to the First World War. She becomes friends with Lady ‘Belle’ Isherwood. Guy Dangerfield, a journalist who is sympathetic to the suffragette cause, becomes friends with both women. It might be predicted that rivalry would ensue but this does not happen, and an afterword strongly suggests that Fiona and Guy will get together after the war. However, Belle uses her contacts and influence to ensure that Guy finds opportunities to have his book published, by getting him invited to the ‘at home’ of Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Polly’s March (2004) by Linda Newbery is part of a series The Historical House, each set in a different time period in the same house in Chelsea. Two women move into one of the flats in the house and fellow resident Polly gets to know them, discovering that both of them are involved with the women’s suffrage movement.

Edwina Rutherford is a suffragette who has been in Holloway Prison for attacking a policeman outside Buckingham Palace, been on hunger strike and forcibly fed, and at the beginning of the story has been released under the Cat and Mouse Act. Violet Cross is a suffragist, sympathetic to her friend but often exasperated with her. They explain the difference in tactics to Polly. This difference is something not much discussed in other books. Edwina and Violet are from divergent social backgrounds – it emerges that Edwina is a cousin of the Earl of Belmont. Violet is from East London, a fact which makes Polly’s mother and another neighbour Mrs Dalby recoil in horror: ‘the other one … is from the East End. From Bethnal Green, my dear! No doubt thinks herself a very clever little minx, wheedling herself into the favours of Her Ladyship up there’.

In general, people find it hard to reconcile the idea that the two women could be friends, rather than Violet being a secretary or some kind of employee of Edwina’s. Edwina and Violet employ a maid, Kitty, and while it could be said that a maid is unlikely to be seen as a social equal in this situation, she is certainly treated in a fairly informal way. Polly later discovers that Kitty is the niece of her family’s cook, Mrs Parks, and realises that ‘it had never occurred to her to think about Mrs Parks’ family life’. Violet eventually returns to the East End to work with Sylvia Pankhurst. Their political differences to some extent reflect the differences in the Pankhurst family, with Emmeline and Christabel supporting the war effort and Sylvia being anti-war.

The spectre of force-feeding hangs over all these novels, even when it is not actually inflicted on any of the characters
The friendship between the two women is very believably portrayed despite their social and political differences. The conflict between the suffragist NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) and the more militant WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) was not always as fierce as is sometimes thought, with many women belonging to both organisations, although many less militant women left the WSPU when their direct action escalated.

The central character in Julie Hearn’s novel Hazel (2007) attends Kensington School for the Daughters of Gentlemen and she is walked there every day by a servant or by her father who works in the City. He is In sugar, cane sugar from the Caribbean, which becomes significant later in the story. Other girls at the school have fathers who are In chemicals, mining, docks and harbours, and property. The only exception is Octavia de Willoughby. ‘Octavia’s father wasn’t In anything. Out of all the girls’ fathers he was the only one whose wealth and title went back over ten generations. “Old Money” Hazel’s father called it (somewhat enviously, Hazel always thought)’.

The novel opens very dramatically, with Hazel and her father seeing Emily Wilding Davison run under the King’s horse at the Derby at very close quarters. This leads to Hazel’s interest in and fascination with the women’s suffrage movement. Hazel takes an action, prompted by a brassy American girl whom she wants to impress, which leads to her being sent away to the Caribbean to stay with grandparents she has never previously met. During this stay she discovers hidden secrets about her family, related to race and class.

Opal’s family in Jacqueline Wilson’s Opal Plumstead (2014) falls on hard times when her father goes to jail for embezzlement. A keen scholar, she leaves school and goes to work in the Fairy Glen sweet factory. The factory is owned by widow Mrs Roberts who is a suffragette and has been imprisoned for her beliefs. She is sympathetic to Opal, takes an interest in her and gives her more satisfying work designing gift boxes for the sweets sold by the factory. She also encourages her to attend WSPU meetings. However, the divisions brought about by differences in their class status start to show as Mrs Roberts is not happy when a relationship develops between Opal and her son, Morgan.

Linda Newbery’s recent short novel Until We Win approaches the subject differently from Polly’s March. It’s told from the viewpoint of Lizzy, a girl from a working-class background who has a job in an insurance office and has a chance meeting with two suffragettes that proves life changing. Lizzy’s choice of life partner is referred to briefly at the end of the story.

The acknowledgement of lesbian relationships and passionate friendships between women is also encompassed within Sally Nicholls’ involving novel featuring the lives of three women from very different backgrounds, Things a Bright Girl Can Do. The difficulties faced by May, who is a Quaker, and working-class Nell are not connected only to social class but also their different perspectives on the war. Evelyn, who is from a middle-class family also finds her life changed by the war. Although her own significant relationship is a more conventional one, the way her life turns out is also affected by the war and social change.

My search for examples of how the women’s suffrage movement is represented in children’s and young adult fiction continues. I am aware of some American children’s books that focus on this theme. If readers of this article know of examples from other countries, please do get in touch:

Ann Lazim is Literature and Library Development Manager at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), London, and a member of the IBBY UK committee.
Reference works cited

Darke, Marjorie. A Question of Courage. London: Kestrel (1975); Barn Owl (2002).
Hearn, Julie. Hazel. Oxford University Press (2007).
Newbery, Linda. Polly’s March. London: Usborne (2004).
–– Until We Win. Edinburgh: Barrington Stoke (2017).
Nicholls, Sally. Things a Bright Girl Can Do. London: Andersen Press (forthcoming 2017).
Symons, Geraldine. Miss Rivers and Miss Bridges. London: Macmillan (1971); Puffin (1974).
Trease, Geoffrey. Bring out the Banners. London: Walker (1994); A&C Black (2013).
Wilson, Jacqueline (illus. Nick Sharratt). Opal Plumstead. London: Doubleday (2014).