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Society, Politics & Law
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  • Level 1: Introductory

Protest Banners: Women's Suffrage

Updated Friday 16th March 2018

Dr Sara Haslam looks deeper into a beautifully decorative suffrage banner naming Caroline Herschel. 

This film notes that the women’s suffrage campaign ‘advertised and energised itself visually from the start’. The first record of a suffrage banner being displayed dates to a demonstration in Colston Hall, Bristol, on 4 November, 1880. Elizabeth Crawford cites this occasion in her wonderful reference guide to the women’s suffrage movement, which is a great place to go if you want further information about any aspect of campaign history, strategy, or the key figures. Crawford writes that by 1884 ‘banners were in abundance’ and that an event at London’s St James’s Hall in June that year was festooned with banners from Leeds, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham, and Newcastle.

A further prominent and significant use of a banner, also described by Crawford, was at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in October 1905, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney carried one bearing what became the famous slogan, ‘Votes for Women’. Christabel was Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, and therefore closely allied to the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the militant wing of the suffrage campaign as explained in the film, in 1903. Annie Kenney was a ferociously hard-working and dedicated member of the WSPU, who undertook repeated hunger strikes and consciousness-raising activities against the establishment. Christabel and Annie received prison sentences after the event at the Free Trade Hall, at which Kenney asked a question of the Liberal politicians present – demanding to know whether women’s suffrage would be a priority for those elected – and both women were ejected and charged with disruption.

Mary Lowndes is the figure most associated with banners and banner making, and you can read her 1909 pamphlet, as well as see many more examples of suffrage designs and banners, online via the Women’s Library’s website. Demonstrating the modern fascination with this campaign’s heritage and advertising, Digital Drama commemorated the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, after which some women got the vote, in its Heritage Lottery funded ‘100 Banners’ project. The inspiration and influence of the early suffrage banners are captured in 100 modern re-workings and responses. You can watch a film about the project, ‘Satin, Silk and Suffrage’.

Let's close with a reminder of what Lowndes called ‘the new thing’, meaning that colour had a ‘fresh significance’ in 1909. The new thing was ‘political societies started by women, managed by women and sustained by women.’ These societies were started to campaign and fight for the vote. Their members were focused and hard-working, and they were also colourfully minded and inspired, looking both to the past and the future, as they held their banners high.

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