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Marking the Women’s Suffrage Centenary in Cambridge

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

6 February will mark one hundred years since the first women in Britain gained the right to vote in national elections. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised 40% of women in the UK and was the result of decades of campaigning by various organisations across the country. It was a key step towards women getting the vote on equal terms to men ten years later. To celebrate this milestone in women’s history, Cambridge University Library is displaying some of its collections on women’s suffrage for the first time.

As part of a programme of events commemorating the centenary in Cambridge, a recently rediscovered collection of women’s suffrage posters will be on display in the University Library’s entrance hall from 3 February. Hidden away in the library tower for more than a century, the collection of over fifteen posters includes works by the Suffrage Atelier and the Artists’ Suffrage League. These are some of the most important artworks of the women’s suffrage movement and give invaluable insight into both the national campaign and local suffrage activities in Cambridge.

I was lucky enough to explore more of the library’s women’s suffrage collections, curating a mini-exhibition with some fellow postgraduate historians to be displayed alongside the posters. Caroline Mary Ridding (1862-1941), the first female employee at the University Library, left a rich archive on the suffrage movement. A member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), she amassed an impressive collection of pamphlets, postcards and correspondence relating to the campaign.

The material on display from Ridding’s collection traces the growth of national suffrage demonstrations from the ‘Mud March’ of 1907 to the ‘Suffrage Pilgrimage’ of 1913, when 50,000 supporters descended on London for a mass meeting in Hyde Park. One of our favourite finds was a colourful map outlining the routes women were to take into London on their ‘pilgrimage’ and marking resting places for their long journey.

The collections also show suffrage activity in Cambridge. The display features items from Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, part of the NUWSS. Organisers specifically encouraged members of the women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, to take part in national suffrage demonstrations. As several pamphlets highlight, female graduates were asked to wear academic dress at the processions to demand the vote as educated members of society. However, as Cambridge University refused to grant women degrees at the time, members of the women’s colleges were not entitled to do so. Instead, university women marched behind the Cambridge University Women’s Suffrage Society banner. The collections are an important reminder of how the local and national suffrage campaigns interacted and how advocates of women’s higher education were often actively involved in promoting the cause.

Of course, Cambridge is not alone in marking the centenary. In March 2017, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a £5m fund to support the commemorations. Museums across the country are celebrating the anniversary with special exhibitions and events throughout 2018. The centenary has also been marked in less conventional ways. The soundtrack to the New Year’s fireworks display in London was dominated by female artists to open the centenary year. Even Channel 5’s Celebrity Big Brother jumped on the bandwagon, opening its series this month with an all-female house.

Later this year, a statue of suffragist Millicent Fawcett will be unveiled as the first of a woman in Parliament Square. This was much to the disappointment of a rival campaign which instead wanted to honour Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the militant – and arguably more well-known – suffragettes. A statue of Pankhurst will, however, be installed in her home town of Manchester in December.

The centenary has also prompted renewed calls to remove barriers to female political participation today. The Centenary Action Group, including nearly thirty organisations, MPs and activists, have argued the commemorations will be a “missed opportunity” unless steps are taken to increase the number of women in parliament. And as recent women’s marches have shown, protesters continue to invoke the powerful legacy of the suffrage movement in the ongoing fight for women’s rights. As ever, the public commemoration of historical events is a source of contemporary debate.

The exhibition of women’s suffrage posters and material will be on display in the Entrance Hall of Cambridge University Library from 3 February 2018.  
Image: NUWSS Market Stall for Suffrage Literature on Peas Hill, Cambridge, 21 November 1908 (LSE Library, no known copyright restrictions, https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/38207044862)

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