Suffragette Fashion and the Lesbian Threat

The Suffragettes: the name given by the press to the women’s suffrage movement in the UK. Though intended to be derogatory, was claimed and used by the movement itself and organisations such as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The Suffragettes have, rightly, gone down in history – their actions and campaigns were instrumental to women gaining the right to vote in Britain, a process that started in 1918 for women over 30 who owned property. A certain image of the Suffragettes prevails in today’s cultural imagination because of the clever use of symbolism, imagery, and fashion used in their campaigns. We remember their signature colours of purple, green and white; purple stood for loyalty and dignity, green for hope and white for purity.1 Despite this, the reality of the Suffragettes in early 20th century Britain was much more complex and, from the perspective of this blog post, much more lesbian than is commonly believed. Some of this reality can be uncovered when we inspect their fashion history. 

The first step towards doing this is to look at the context of lesbianism and the Suffragettes. Why have relationships between women been so erased within the women’s suffrage movement, not just at the time but also in accepted histories? In Dr Kate Lister’s 2018 article ‘The debate around whether suffragettes had lesbian relationships with one another,’ she describes how, in 2002, there was a public debate around the existence of lesbian Suffragettes between Professors Martin Pugh and June Purvis. 

Pugh had just published a history of the Suffragettes focusing on the Pankhurst family, in which he suggested (through evidence such as the diary of Suffragette Mary Blathwayt) that many prominent Suffragettes had been lovers. Purvis, a supposed feminist, argued that Pugh’s suggestion of lesbian possibility was a “masculinist approach” to Suffragette history. In Lister’s article, she concluded that “It’s important to note that Purvis is not denying lesbian history, but reads the queering of the suffragettes as part of a continued misogynistic attack upon the women’s rights that uses ‘lesbian’ as an insult.”2

Fig. 1: Ethel Smyth speaks at a suffrage meeting, 1912. LSE Library, Women’s Library Collection.

Such as in the women’s movement in the 1970s, lesbianism was deemed a threat to feminism. This was and is, of course, far from the truth. Lesbians and queer women have always been at the forefront of the battle for women’s rights, and this was no different in the fight for votes for women. It could not be done with straight, white, upper-class women alone, even if white, upper-class women make up the majority of Suffragettes whose names and deeds have been recorded. In the words of Ella Braidwood in her article ‘The Queer, Disabled, and Women of Color Suffragettes History Forgot’: “Women’s Suffrage was far from a homogenous group of white women; it was a patchwork quilt made up of all kinds of activists, who campaigned side-by-side – sister-to-sister – to achieve a single aim.”3 Whenever there is lesbian evidence, I choose to believe it, simply because love between women has always existed. Some of the probable Suffragette relationships that we have evidence for, and that I believe are crucial to feminist history, include: 

  • Emmeline Pankurst, the leader of WSPU and public figurehead of the Suffragette movement, and composer Ethel Smyth.
  • Sylvia Pankhurst, designer for the WSPU and prominent communist, and American Suffragette Zelie Emerson.
  • Annie Kenney, famous working class Suffragette and socialist activist, and Emmeline’s daughter, Cristabel Pankhurst.
  • Annie Kenney and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, treasurer for the WSPU.4 
  • Christabel Pankhurst and Mary Blathwayt, whose diaries are laden with hints about lesbian affairs.5
  • Annie Kenney and Mary Blathwayt (Blathwayt was “infatuated” with Annie).6
  • Suffragette actress and producer Edith Craig, Suffragette playwright Christopher St John, and Suffragette painter Clare Atwood.7
  • Vera ‘Jack’ Holme, actress and chauffeur to the Pankhursts, and Lady Evelina Haverfield, Suffragette and aid worker.8 

Fig. 2: Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst hold a sign reading “VOTES FOR WOMEN,” c. 1908. Copyright Paul Fearn, the British Library. 

Despite the numerous queer women, such as those listed above, in the Suffragette movement, the image that was cultivated within it was one of the utmost respectability, allowing for lesbian-erasing narratives like Purvis’ to dominate. This was not done through the Suffragettes’ actions, with militant techniques like smashing shop windows and bombing property de rigeur, but through their clothing. Respectable, elegant, fashionable attire was encouraged for Suffragettes, and yet it was an expectation that only so many could achieve; the working class members of the movement were unlikely to have been seen in lace and feathers, or an all-over green, white and purple colour palette. Nevertheless, due to the efforts of upper-class activists like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the focus on their respectable, stylised image in the century since the movement, a particular Suffragette style has prevailed as truth. 

Fashion historian Cally Blackman narrates this idea in her 2018 article ‘How the suffragettes used fashion to further their cause,’ saying that “Dress is a powerful form of communication. No-one knew this better than the media-savvy leadership of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The suffragettes wanted to avoid accusations of eccentricity or spinsterish masculinity.”9 They were purposefully anti-subversive in their appearance, even though subversiveness was the primary feature of so many other parts of the movement – we only have to look as far as the bombs that WSPU activists, encouraged by Emmeline Pankhurst, left in postboxes, cottages and parliament for this to be clear.10 

Subversiveness, however, wouldn’t help the movement grow… at least, it wouldn’t draw in the respectable, middle and upper class women that the leaders of the movement were the most keen on appealing to. In an article about the fashion of the Suffragettes by Katarzyna Kociolek, she writes that “The WSPU’s colour scheme, badges and sashes […] served the purpose of establishing a visual code that helped female activists to forge their identities as liberated women.”11 On the surface, this seems to hold a universal appeal, but it was one most accessible to activists with income to spare. As Blackman describes in her article, the Suffragettes’ aesthetic was helped along by high-end stores like Selfridges, which would cater to the purple, white and green colour palette and advertise their corsets as suitable for “marching and speaking.”12

Fig. 3: WSPU Membership Card designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, c. 1906-1907. Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, UK. 

This aesthetic, so celebrated and documented, was not the whole truth of the women’s suffrage movement. One large reason for this is that the WSPU was not just made up of wealthy women, but relied upon the vast numbers of its working class members. These women may, perhaps, have incorporated the movement’s colours into their attire, but would not have owned fashionable green or purple dresses from stores such as Selfridges. As in the image above, which is an early WSPU membership card, the campaigning clothing for working class women was one and the same as their everyday clothing. The membership card was designed by Sylvia Pankhust, the one Pankhurst who wanted to prioritise working class women in the WSPU. When she was secretary for the union, in its early days, this was indeed the case – “So solidly working class was the WSPU’s audience that two upper-class ladies came in disguise [to a meeting] in their maid’s clothes so as to not stand out” writes Katherine Connelly in her biography of Sylvia.13 

The clothing of working class Suffragettes was erased – along with the significance of working class Suffragettes themselves – rather than mocked or rallied against. The same cannot be said for fashions that leaned towards the masculine or, in other words, connoted difference or queerness. This was particularly the case for unmarried women, which so many of the Suffragettes were. Political cartoons targeting the Suffragettes existed in large numbers, and masculine clothing would be used as shorthand with which to demean the Suffragettes and their goal of votes for women. These cartoons presented the Suffragettes as unnatural, aggressive, unfeminine, and at once a threat and an object of ridicule. 

Fig. 4: W.K. Haselden, ‘Effects of ‘votes for women’ – upon Women’s faces [on reverse]’ Daily Mirror, 15th December 1910. Via Katarzyna Kociolek, ‘London’s Suffragettes, Votes for Women, and Fashion,’ Angelica: An International Journal of English Studies 27.1 (2018), 85. Credit to Mirrorpix. 

A stark example of un-femininity being presented as synonymous with the Votes for Women campaign is in the cartoon above, published in the Daily Mirror in 1910. ‘Miss Fairface Lackvote’ goes from being 16, feminine and fashionable to 22, with a severe hairstyle, glasses, a tartan dress and flat shoes. Kociolek analyses this cartoon in her article, writing that “The tartan as well as men’s shoes connote aggressive masculinity that is devoid of feminine charm.”14 It harks back to the “spinsterish masculinity” that the Suffragette leaders were so eager to avoid in their public image. In my eyes, this is the epitome of a representation of the lesbian threat. “If you join the women’s movement you’ll also become a horrible, masculine lesbian”, it nearly screams. 

Cartoons like these and accusations against the Suffragettes are all too often seen as being unfair attacks on dedicated female activists. It is rare that the fault picked up on is the mocking of unmarried women and women who dressed in a more practical and masculine way than dictated by the fashions of the time. The Suffragettes weren’t all feminine, respectable women, married to a man or interested in marriage at all. Sometimes, they were in lesbian relationships, or even an all-female ménage à trois. Sometimes, they would wear tartan and flat shoes like in the above cartoon, or driving uniforms like Vera ‘Jack’ Holme, pictured below. Their contribution to the Suffragettes’ cause is just as important, and it is important in its difference. Lesbians helped win the vote for women, and their clothing was a player in the fight. 

Fig. 5: Vera ‘Jack’ Holme in her chauffeur uniform [n.d., possibly c.1908], official WSPU photograph. LSE library.

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Endnotes

1: Cally Blackman, ‘How the Suffragettes used fashion to further their cause,’ Stylist, 2018, stylist.co.uk

2: Kate Lister, ‘TBT: The debate around whether suffragettes had lesbian relationships with one another,’ The i, 1st Feb. 2018, inews.co.uk.

3: Ella Braidwood, ‘The Queer, Disabled, and Women of Color Suffragettes History Forgot,’ Vice, 5th Feb. 2018, vice.com 

4: Lister, ‘The debate around whether suffragettes had lesbian relationships with one another.’ (citation for first four bullet-pointed relationships.)

5: Vanessa Thorpe and Alec Marsh, ‘Diary reveals lesbian love trysts of suffragette leaders,’ The Observer, 11th June 2000, theguardian.com

6: Sophie Duncan and Rachael Lennon, Women and Power: The Struggle for Suffrage, (National Trust Guidebook, 2018) 32.

7: Sophie Duncan, ‘Who were Edith Craig and Christopher St John?’ National Trust, [n.d.] nationaltrust.org.uk

8: Braidwood, ‘The Queer, Disabled, and Women of Color Suffragettes History Forgot.’

9: Blackman, ‘How the suffragettes used fashion to further their cause.’

10: Duncan and Lennon, Women and Power, 42.

11: Katarzyna Kociolek, ‘London’s Suffragettes, Votes for Women, and Fashion,’ Angelica: An International journal of English Studies 27.1 (2018), 94.

12: Blackman, ‘How the suffragettes used fashion to further their cause.’

13: Katherine Connelly, Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire, (London: Pluto Press, 2013) 21.

14: Kociolek, ‘London’s Suffragettes, Votes for Women, and Fashion,’ 85.

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