The Women’s Exhibition
of 1909

By Anne Sebba, STELLA - The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, April 26th 2009

Beware women in hats! One hundred years ago next month thousands of them converged in London at one of the most extraordinary and groundbreaking exhibitions ever. For what seemed superficially to be a traditional village fete selling cakes and meringues, embroidered blouses and tea gowns, was in fact used to raise funds for the militant feminist wing of the suffragette movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose members were already being sent to prison for their radical tactics trying to win votes for women.

The Women’s Exhibition of 1909, all but forgotten today, was a tipping point in women’s struggle for equal rights. The event was open to both sexes and cleverly calculated to show men that suffragettes were not the dangerous ‘shrieking sisterhood’ they were painted but were in fact the wives, mothers and sisters they knew, women safely interested in the same female pursuits they always had been, women dedicated to creating beautiful things not destroying them.

Yet although there was a brief lull in suffragette activities in the immediate aftermath of the two-week exhibition, the women soon stepped up their militant tactics when faced with intransigence from male politicians who had promised but failed to pass any legislation giving women even a limited franchise. It was not long before violent attacks on shops, arson and brick-throwing intensified. Some of the women politely serving behind stalls in May were sent to prison later in the year, went on hunger strike and had to endure force feeding, a brutal procedure which permanently damaged their physical and emotional health. Others, such as Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the June 1913 Derby, were to die as martyrs for the cause.

As Emmeline Pankhurst, WSPU leader, wrote in the strident introductory brochure to the exhibition, it was always women who were expected to raise the funds which made it possible for a wide variety of political or philanthropic work to be carried on, ‘although it usually happens that the women who have worked to raise the money are not in any way consulted as to how the money raised shall be spent.’

But she understood only too well the need for money in all political warfare, even when the convictions and courage of her army of women supporters were ramrod strong. ‘This Exhibition,’ she wrote, ‘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.’

By refusing votes to women taxpayers it was, Pankhurst maintained, Prime Minister HH Asquith himself who was acting in disobedience to the constitution. By imprisoning women who demand enfranchisement, he was meeting a reasonable demand by a forcible measure, she argued.

As suffragette historian Elizabeth Crawford, author of the definitive Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland, explains: ‘The nineteenth century idea of the bazaar as a manifestation of women’s moral power was still prevalent. The suffrage societies capitalized on the idea that a woman’s natural place in a campaign of reform was gathering and making goods for a bazaar – and then buying them.’

The exhibition – admission 2/6d on opening day, 1/5d thereafter – was held in the now defunct Prince’s Ice Skating Rink in London’s fashionable Knightsbridge, a vast and cavernous space measuring 250-foot long and 150-foot wide. From May 13 to 26, the entire building was festooned in purple white and green, the three colours of the WSPU, with banners flying bravely ‘so that no one could mistake who was in possession of the building’. Visitors were lulled into an odd sense of familiarity as they toured the exhibition partly by the music of the various quartets as well as the Aeolian Women’s Orchestra who played a selection of Victorian and Edwardian favourites throughout the two weeks.

Among the 50 or so stalls there were many which would have been familiar to Edwardian women such as those selling farm produce, beautifully decorated confectionary or exquisite millinery. There was also 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 such as Yorkshire Parkin. There were four stalls supplying badges, ribbons and scarves in suffragette colours and a special parcels area where gifts could be wrapped with ribbons in ‘The Colours,’ which were, as the official programme explained, full of significance for every member of the WSPU – white for purity, purple for dignity and green for hope.

But although deeply conventional at one level, the event was also groundbreaking for a number of reasons. On entering the hall visitors were met by three elegant ladies manning a stall selling Votes for Women, the suffrage newspaper. Then everyone was handed a ballot sheet and asked to cast their vote on a particular issue of the day in a mock polling booth designed for both men and women. Each day, the proceedings were formally opened by a different woman, eminent in her field yet denied the right to vote, who gave a short speech. 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.

And, most shocking of all, was the exact replica prison cell, with regular guided tours from a former prisoner, designed to show the public the difference between male political offenders given ‘first division’ treatment and relatively luxurious cells even if convicted of treason, and the tiny, unpleasant ‘second division’ cells allocated to suffragettes treated as common criminals. The women had to endure a daily routine of scrubbing floors, scouring pans and making mailbags or pillows stuffed with cocoanut fibre. By May 1909, more than 400 suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, had been imprisoned for their political activism.

Some of those sent to prison after 1909 were the same women who had worked so hard for the success of the exhibition. Now faced with a much harsher regime behind bars, several embarked on hunger strikes. To prevent death from starvation, the Home Office ordered that they be forcibly fed, if necessary using a rubber tube and metal gag. In the process the women often had teeth knocked out and faces disfigured. If food went down the wrong way it could lead to serious complications, including pneumonia.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Christabel’s younger sister and a trained artist, had the daunting task of designing and making canvas banners, each 20-foot high, to cover the walls in just 12 weeks. She had great difficulty finding rooms lofty enough to work on the giant canvases. Eventually she discovered studios in Fulham where she worked night and day on tall ladder towers in order to finish in time. She roped in some fellow women graduates from the Royal College of Art including Amy Browning, a farmer’s daughter, whose work now hangs in the permanent exhibition of the Royal Academy and whose involvement in the WSPU illustrates a typical story. Not a militant, she became radicalised when forced to leave the RCA to spend time at home to help her mother. She applied for external scholarships to continue her studies but was appalled at the unfair and disproportionately small number of scholarships awarded to females.

Sylvia’s original designs were full of symbolism and effectively used the suffragette colours wherever possible. Based on the words of a psalm – ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’ – they featured a female figure either flanked with angels or with wings herself and the imagery was an important part of the success of the exhibition. The woman was sowing grain with a flight of doves above her; at her feet were various wildflowers, including thistles symbolising adversity.

The winged angel logo was repeated on almost all promotional material. It was especially striking on the elegant white tea service, specially commissioned from a pottery in Staffordshire, used in the traditional tea and refreshment room during the exhibition and for sale after the event. Commemorative china was a relatively new idea and this early understanding of branding as a way of advertising was a key element of the exhibition’s success making the WSPU one of the first campaign groups to understand the significance of logos.

Another means of promotion, was a women’s marching band, especially created and trained for the event and said to be ‘the first Amazon Drum and Fife band which has ever existed.’ The band marched on London’s streets advertising the exhibition and was used for other suffragette events over the next few years and so became one of its permanent legacies.

And the whole exhibition was recorded in unusual detail by a self taught woman photographer, Christina Broom, arguably Britain’s first female press photographer. Her graphic glass negative images are now part of the WSPU archive housed in the Museum of London.

The exhibition raised about £5,000, generated enormous publicity and brought in hundreds of new members. But even before 1909 the WSPU did not enjoy the universal support of all women and there were other suffragette groups, such as Mrs (Millicent Garrett) Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which believed in continuing more conventional tactics such as demonstrations and petitions hoping to change public opinion peacefully. After May 1909, as militancy increased, some sympathisers became alienated from the WSPU.

On 14 December 2008, Britain celebrated the 90th anniversary of the first election in which women were able to vote and stand as candidates. World War One may have been the final catalyst which proved women deserved a vote but the Women’s Exhibition was a critical stage along the way.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother (John Murray £8.99)