Taken from an article by Anne Sebba – see here for the full article
In 1909 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) held ‘The Women’s Exhibition’. An event open to both sexes, calculated to show men that suffragettes were not the dangerous ‘shrieking sisterhood’ but their wives, mothers and sisters, safely interested in the same pursuits they always had been. Women dedicated to creating beautiful things not destroying them. The exhibition raised about £5,000, generated enormous publicity and brought in hundreds of new members.
The exhibition was held in the now defunct Prince’s Ice Skating Rink in Knightsbridge, London. From May 13 to 26, the entire building was decorated in purple white and green and banners ‘so that no one could mistake who was in possession of the building’. Among the 50 or so stalls there were those selling farm produce, beautifully decorated confectionary or exquisite millinery. There was an art stall where female artists could be commissioned to paint or sketch portraits, a book stall with autographed books, a palmistry tent and several regional stalls specialising in local delicacies. There were four stalls supplying badges, ribbons and scarves in suffragette colours – white for purity, purple for dignity and green for hope.
Although deeply conventional at one level, the event was also groundbreaking. Visitors were offered a ballot sheet and asked to cast their vote on a particular issue of the day in a mock polling booth. Each day, the proceedings were formally opened by a different woman, eminent in her field yet denied the right to vote. On the first day, this was Garrett Anderson, Mayor of Aldeburgh and the first female mayor in the country. Another day it was Hertha Ayrton, the only woman member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Most shocking of all, was the exact replica prison cell, designed to show the public the difference between male political offenders given ‘first division’ treatment and relatively luxurious cells, and the tiny, unpleasant ‘second division’ cells allocated to suffragettes treated as common criminals.
As Emmeline Pankhurst, WSPU leader, wrote, ‘This Exhibition is intended to help the most wonderful movement the world has ever seen. A movement to set free that half of the human race that has always been in bondage, to give women the power to work out their own salvation – political, social and industrial.’
Our first Swindon Suffragette Festival event honours this 1909 Women’s Exhibition in spirit. We have invited local artists and crafters, small businesses and independent traders, to sell their beautiful products in a celebration of women’s achievements. The event is on a much smaller scale, with free entry to all, and we will be sharing information on our stall about Edith New and her work as an organiser for the WSPU.
We hope you will come along to support our sellers and to remember the women in whose footsteps they follow. The women who paved the way for the start for equality, by campaigning for votes for women. We’ll hope to see you on the 10th June at Christ Church Community Centre.