An Unboxed blog from Laura Noon.
Annie Kenney was the first suffragette to perform militant action for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) when she asked Sir Edward Grey and Winston Churchill during a Liberal rally at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester:
‘If you are elected, will you do your best to make Women’s Suffrage a government measure?’
Ignored several times, Annie, together with Christabel Pankhurst, who had accompanied her, began to shout the question. When asked to leave, they did not. She was offered a fine, which she refused to pay. Kenney subsequently faced three days imprisonment for this protest, the first of thirteen jail sentences.
Annie Kenney’s committed fight for women’s voting equality was courageous and her devotion to justice lasted a lifetime. This was evident in 1944, thirty years after woman’s suffrage, when she stood in opposition to a film production about the suffragette movement, believing that it would bring ‘neither a tear, laugh or sigh to the cinemagoer’.
Jill Craigie, a feminist documentary film maker, had set out to produce a dramatisationof the movement. She wrote to Christabel Pankhurst and Kenney, asking for their co-operation. As a keen admirer of the suffragette movement, Craigie promised to use their correspondence to depict, to the best of her ability, historical accuracy.
Kenney responded with trepidation, questioning the sensitivity of the timing. She contended that a film about the suffragette movement would insensitively depict the brutality of the First World War in conjunction with the suffragettes, in the midst of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” that was the Second World War.
In her reply to Craigie, she wrote: “Mothers’ sons are giving their fresh young lives and shedding their clean blood so that mankind can breathe and live as free men in a free world.”
Kenney, having aided Lloyd George in 1914 and served her country in War as loyally as she served the movement, understood the current hardship that faced the nation. She strongly believed that, if the film were to be made, she and Pankhurst should not be included in it.
Kenney wrote: “…Until happier and more peaceful days return, we must do the duty that lies nearest to our hand and put on one side all retrospection of the past, keeping our eyes fixed on the present, looking forward to a brighter future, for in this way we serve the highest and the best.”
Kenney’s perception of the “very small and insignificant” women’s struggle embodied her altruistic nature, as she considered the welfare of those fighting the bigger battle to be of more significance than her personal fight for women’s voting equality.
Craigie didn’t produce a script about the suffragettes until 1951. Entitled “The Women’s Rebellion”, it was broadcast on the BBC Home Service radio station on 13 March 1951. Kenney and her family were upset with Craigie’s depiction of Annie, which they believed to be too focused on her attire and on her class than on her contribution to the fight for women’s suffrage. Jessie Kenney wrote to the BBC and a meeting was held to discuss the matter.
Craigie subsequently apologised to Annie for any distress caused and the play was never re-broadcast.
An Unboxed blog from Laura Noon, Graduate of the MA in Gender Studies, University of East Anglia
Correspondence between Craigie, Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst and other Kenney family members, relating to this episode, can be found within the Kenney Papers Archive at UEA. [Reference: AK/5/2 BBC Radio Play, ‘The Women’s Rebellion’, 1951]
Access a full listing of the Archive: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/library/archives/kenney
During 2018-19, the University of East Anglia is digitising 100 items from the archive, to celebrate the centenary of some women achieving the vote as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund project, in partnership with Norfolk County Council’s Library Service. The archive material is also being used in libraries and schools across Norfolk to prompt discussion about forgotten legacies and women’s equality. Find out more about the project here: https://suffragettestories.omeka.net/