Imprisoned Suffragettes and their Visual Tools of Power

WSPU Procession 18 June 1910

Copyright: Speed, R / Source: UEA Archives

WSPU ‘From Prison to Citizenship’ procession, 18 June 1910

Unboxed blogger and UEA graduate, Nicholl Hardwick, explores the importance of the broad arrow symbol in suffragette protests.

This photograph captures one of the earliest mass marches organised by the suffrage movement.

As you focus in on the picture, it becomes clear that many of the women are carrying unique staffs. Yet not many of us may know what these visual tools symbolise.

Almost 15,000 women walked together from the Embankment to the Albert Hall in London, in order to hear Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragette leaders speak. These particular staffs represented the “broad arrow” symbol which was a triple line stitched or painted on prisoners’ uniforms at the time. The women carrying these staffs had all been imprisoned for their suffragette activities, hence their use of the symbol.

The staffs make a striking image, especially when considering how many women were holding them. They honoured the actions of those women who saw the crucial need to not just leave their families, but also to risk their freedom and health in their pursuit of gender equality. These staffs represented strength, solidarity, focus and togetherness, and demonstrated that this was a powerful movement whose aims and demands needed to be taken seriously and with empathy.

The scene appears chaotic and stifling, yet it represents bravery, progress and power. The suffragette movement was not without its exclusions and indications of deep-rooted racial prejudice, but it also contained elements of revolution, effective change and radical direct action that have influenced the ways in which many women participate in politics and protest today.

Source: The photograph is held within the papers of Suffragette, Annie Kenney, as part of the Kenney Papers at the University of East Anglia. Kenney was a suffragette pioneer who contributed considerably to the movement and its inclusion of working class women. The march ended at the Royal Albert Hall, where Kenney gave a speech. To visit the archive, email archives@uea.ac.uk

View a short clip from the demonstration (BFI): https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-demonstration-of-suffragettes-1910-online

 

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