This year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to women aged over 30 who owned property, following over 50 years of petitioning and protesting by suffragists and a bombing and arson campaign orchestrated by members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, dubbed ‘suffragettes’ by the Daily Mail.

History has certainly not forgotten the suffragettes, but Dr Fern Riddell, the historian behind Death in Ten Minutes, argues that we have forgotten the radically violent nature of the movement, which explicitly set out to terrorise the British public to secure the electoral equality we now take for granted. Death in Ten Minutes is an incredible account of the life of Kitty Marion, a little-known suffragette and birth control advocate, based on autobiographical writing by Marion preserved in the Museum of London archive.

What first attracted your attention to Kitty Marion?

I was working in the Museum of London archive on my PhD. There’s an incredible curator there called Beverley Cook. She knew I was looking for stories about women who were on the stage and a way into the music hall culture of Victorian England. She said she had this unpublished biography in the archive. No-one had ever really looked at it before, it was by a woman who was in the music halls, and I would really like it. Oh, and by the way, she also happened to be a suffragette.

I got about five pages in and I realised that there was this phenomenal voice just sitting in front of me, a life that I had no comprehension of, and that I had no knowledge and no understanding of the suffragette movement. That everything that I thought, everything we’d been taught in school by that point, everything we were taught by our culture was completely wrong, and that the true story of what these women were actually doing was so much more incredible, so much more exciting, so unbelievable that I had to then know everything. Kitty became my obsession from that point onward.

Why is there this sort of collective amnesia about the radical and violent nature of the suffragette movement?

There are two moments in history when this has happened. One is in the 1930s, when some of the people who were conserving the suffragettes’ memory for the first time made very clear decisions that the bombing and arson campaign was not something that they wanted to draw attention to. So [for] biographies of Emily Wilding Davison, it was suggested that the bombs should be left out completely, even though she was very heavily involved in the campaign.

In the 1930s, there was also a fear that if you started exposing who had been leaving these bombs in public places, and conducting this hugely damaging criminal campaign, that would then leave those people – who were now in their 50s, 60s and 70s – open to criminal prosecution. So it’s very understandable why there was a desire to protect [them].

There was also an ‘anti’ movement within feminist history that absolutely did not want to acknowledge, discuss or have any understanding of the fact that this was a terrorist campaign. It’s something I’ve experienced throughout the last six years of being told that I should be ashamed of what I was writing, and constant campaigns to try and get it removed from public debate. That’s nuts, and for someone like me, it just makes you more determined, because our history is so exciting, and should never be something that you view as a comfort blanket.

Having to rewrite our collective memories is uncomfortable for people, because they have to reframe a lot of their values.

They do, and that’s a very difficult thing. I’ve certainly experienced that. I grew up with a very idolised view of the suffragettes. When you’re sitting in an archive and you’re reading a description of bombs that are filled with shrapnel and nails and left on public transport, it is intensely jarring, but you have to remember what life was like for women at this time and why they were making these choices. They were making choices because they believed, absolutely, that they were soldiers in a war, and they were conducting themselves in a war-like campaign.

I will never tell anyone how they are supposed to feel. I know how I feel, I know where I struggled with it, I know how uncomfortable it could make me at the time, but we need to know. That is what matters – knowing, rather than being lied to – because otherwise history becomes a tool to be manipulated by.

Am I right in thinking Marion went on to be a birth control advocate in the US?

Yeah. You sit there going, ‘I cannot believe this is someone whose name is not top of our list of famous historical women.’ This is someone who’s life spanned two of the most important feminist movements in our history, both in the US and the UK. She was the only person selling the Birth Control Review on the streets of New York, which went on to become [US reproductive healthcare non-profit] Planned Parenthood. This is an exceptional life.

We paint suffrage as ‘women just wanted the vote’. They didn’t. Kitty’s motivation was that she was an actress in the music hall industry, and she was constantly facing sexual harassment and sexual abuse for 20 years, campaigning against that and getting nowhere. And then the suffragettes appeared. She’s exhausted, she’s angry, she’s had enough. The government is dismissing everyone and everything, and not protecting women. In desperation, this is what she turns to.

I think when you look at the rage that’s surrounding #MeToo and surrounding where we are in our culture today, understanding why women felt pushed to an absolute limit perhaps becomes something we are more easily able to connect to.

The correlations between then and now show us that history rarely changes, and it’s only by paying attention to the past that we can finally push for change. It has taken us 100 years to get to a point where actresses in their industry are finally being heard. That’s ridiculous.

The big question is: would the women’s suffrage movement have had a tangible political effect if it had carried on only in the vein of peaceful persuasion and protest? And I suppose we’ll never know the answer to that.

I get asked this question a lot, and you’re right, we will never know the answer to that. But what we can look at is that from the 1860s, when the campaign for suffrage really took off, through to 1918, there were 16,000 petitions to parliament. For those 50 years, no-one got anywhere. And in the two years before the outbreak of World War One, when the suffragettes conduct the bombing and arson campaign, suddenly we get the vote.

So for me – and this is not saying that it was in any way a thing that should be supported – what it does show us is that the government was so worried and so desperate to put an end to the violence after World War One that they looked at enfranchising the women who had been conducting it [with the 1918 Representation of the People Act], and no-one else.

Not all the other women, who had been peaceful and had been arguing and fighting and campaigning for decades. They enfranchised specifically those people most likely to be found within the rank and file of the suffragettes, and that’s fascinating to me.

Dr Fern Riddell will talk at Theatre Deli on Friday 12 October as part of Off The Shelf Festival of Words.

offtheshelf.org.uk

Sam Walby