As I've mentioned before, U.S. women's history was one of my concentrations in school. That's where I learned about the different campaigns for equal rights, particularly for the vote. I never learned much about the movement in other countries though. Then a few years ago I read an overview of the U.S. woman suffrage campaign that discussed what American activists learned from the British campaigns, and how it changed their tactics. I have been interested ever since in learning more, though I haven't found a good overview yet (and welcome suggestions). When I saw that Persephone had published two novels about women's suffrage, I thought they might be a place to start.
I learned a lot from No Surrender, published in 1911. Constance Maud tells her story through two main characters: Jenny Clegg, a mill-hand, who sees the economic dimension of the women's rights movement; and Mary O'Neil, a young woman of good family, already active in social causes, who is inspired to join the cause. Both have support from older women friends, equally committed. Both are soon working full-time for suffrage, Jenny as a paid worker for a suffrage organization. We follow them through different campaigns, which land them both in jail more than once. I had not known that British women were arrested and jailed (in the "second division," as criminals) simply for trying to present petitions to government officials. That is something that women in the U.S. never faced. I learned that the British movement was then divided between constitutional suffragists and militant suffragettes. I think the terms "suffragist" and "suffragette" are used interchangeably for the U.S. campaign, which (among other issues) was divided over whether to seek a federal amendment to the Constitution or work state-by-state to get women the vote. Both tactical approaches involved petitions and meetings with political leaders. I also learned about the British suffragettes' campaign to be treated as political prisoners, not as criminals, and the hunger strikes that became one of their major tactics. The forced feedings that they endured sound like torture, particularly the nasal tubes.
I expected to learn from this book. But it is also a great story that held my interest to the last page. Jenny and Mary are both engaging, sympathetic characters. I think they keep the story grounded and real. Constance Maud had points to make and issues to address through them, but they never felt like mere straw women for her arguments. She makes those arguments, but she doesn't beat them into the ground. And there are lighter moments in her story. One Sunday morning Jenny and two other members of the Union Sisterhood head off to a country church where three Cabinet ministers will be attending services, a "rare opportunity which offered for catching [them] off their guard, and presenting the eternal Petition - justice for women." The sight of three young women, "all with conspicuous badges of the Union colours, bearing the device, 'Votes for Women,'" so terrifies the ministers' church party that one of them never even makes it into church, and another flees before the sermon. They wouldn't have appreciated the sermon anyway, since the visiting priest uses the story of Jael to preach in favor of women's rights and their campaign.
I do have to take issue with Constance Maud on one point, however. She describes the "presence of mind and imperturbable good humour" of women speakers facing hostile crowds. She goes on, "Thus have Jane Austen's sweet, sensitive English maidens, who went into fits of hysterics at the sight of a mouse, been transformed by a process of rapid evolution and adjustment to new environment." As far as I know, not a single mouse appears in any of Jane Austen's stories, and the only young woman who could be described as hysterical is Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Austen's young women are much stronger than Maud credits, and Austen herself is now seen as a feminist.
I found the preface by Lydia Fellgett very interesting and informative as well. It gives background information and context to Jenny and Mary's stories. I learned from it that Mary may be modeled in part on a socially prominent suffragette, Lady Constance Lytton. Her memoir Prisons & Prisoners, The Stirring Testimony of a Suffragette is now on my reading list. I think Cicely Hamilton's novel William - an Englishman will soon be joining it on the TBR shelves. Captive Reader Claire and I were discussing elsewhere the lack of good suffrage novels or stories set in North America. If you know of one, please let me know!
N.B. I am pleased that this book adds another year to my Mid-Century of Books.