Suffragette autograph album illuminates movement’s struggles
Personal collection with messages from leading figures of the Women’s Social and Political Union comes to auction next week
“Bravely and willingly we bear our share of the world’s burdens. Why then deny us the right to vote which would dignify our labour and increase our power of service?” writes suffragette and feminist icon Sylvia Pankhurst in a rare autograph album collecting the thoughts of dozens of her fellow suffragettes, which is set to go up for auction next week.
Pankhurst’s writing in the album is accompanied by a line from playwright and Pankhurst family friend George Bernard Shaw, who has signed the book and replied, “Ungrateful Sylvia! Did I ever deny it?” The album, which dates back to 1909, includes 50 autographs from suffragettes and sympathisers, many written from prison following Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union‘s second window-breaking campaign in 1912. Pankhurst had said that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics”.
Constance Bryer was one of the imprisoned suffragettes to sign the album. The 42-year-old violinist was serving four months in Winson Green prison in Birmingham for breaking windows on London’s Regent Street, and was on hunger strike. She wrote: “Suffragettes we sit and sew, / Sew and sit and sit and sew, / Twenty-five are we: / Making shirts and socks for men, / Cannot get away from them / Even here you see.” The artist Olive Wharry, held in the same place, quoted Richard Lovelace, writing: “Stone walls do not a prison make / Nor iron bars a cage.”
The album is being auctioned for private owners by Dominic Winter Auctioneers of South Cerney, Gloucestershire on 12 December. Auctioneer Chris Albury believes its compiler is likely to have been one of the Redfern sisters, Emily, Elizabeth or Adeline, all of whom signed the album.
Adeline, who set up the Stoke-on-Trent branch of the WSPU in 1908, wrote in the album on 18 March 1911: “The women’s movement is a revolution of the highest order; it is a moral revolution which marks a crisis in human evolution, and which will tend to arrest the physical and national decay which has set in.” In March 1912, Adeline was tried at Bow Street for “breaking windows value £20” on New Bond Street, and said –according to the journal Votes for Women – “It was one more blow for freedom.”
Other signatories to the album, which Albury expects to fetch £5,000, include Helen Archdale, Sarah Benett, Hilda Burkitt, Charlotte Despard and Kitty Marion, who wrote: “the greatest enemy to freedom is not the tyrant, but the contented slave”. VH Friedlaender wrote out one of her own poems, The Road, which ends: “And yet – the road is ours, as never theirs; / Is not one thing on us alone bestowed? / For us the master-joy, oh, pioneers – / We shall not travel, but we make the road!”
“This is a fantastic survival from a period when the militant arm of the women’s suffrage movement was most active. The album of names is like a roll call of well-known and now-forgotten suffragettes who so believed in votes for women that they were prepared to disrupt political meetings, break windows and burn post boxes to publicise their cause,” said Albury.
“Many of these women not only faced imprisonment but social contempt from family and friends as well as the public at large. The passion of conviction shines through these many quotations, many of which were written, like Bryer and Wharry’s, from Winson Green prison in Birmingham while on hunger strike. This prompted the brutal use of force-feeding and what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ where weakened hunger-strikers were released from prison only to be re-arrested to continue their sentence once they had recovered their health.”