Visiting the 'Votes for Women' exhibition at Killerton House this week, I was struck by how the battles fought by suffragettes a hundred years ago and more have helped to give us the freedom that many if not most of us experience today. In the late 19th and early 20th century, I could not vote for government, obtain a university degree or even, for a while, own property if I was married. That's unthinkable nowadays. So this piece, which I've included on my main website www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk, is a tribute to the movement and also to the National Trust for staging such a fine exhibition. It's on until Nov 4th 2018, so visit if you can.
Imagine a garden party being held on the lawns of a stately home, on July 26th 1910. The ladies are elegantly dressed in summer gowns or long skirts, topped with a smart hat, the men in summer boaters and suits. They stroll on the lawns, admire the roses, and chat sedately while balancing cups of tea. Surely this is the stuff of gracious living? Although a clothing stall set up near the front entrance suggests that it might be a fund-raiser too. And yes, so it is – the party is being held to raise funds for the Anti-Suffrage Movement. Put another way, to stop women getting the vote.
In which case, why are so many women present? The guest list shows plenty of Mrs and Misses. Well, the sad fact is that they too wanted to prevent women’s suffrage. It is the Anti-Suffrage Garden Party, attended by the upper ranks of Devon Society at Killerton House, including several Colonels, Drs, Revs, and a Sir and a Lady. The Acland family, who owned Killerton and were hosting the party, had a curious mix of opinions on in their ranks. A earlier member of the family, Thomas Dyke Acland, had already expressed his views on why he opposed admitting women to universities: ‘Girls are different from boys, their brains are too light, their foreheads too small, their reasoning powers too defective.’ And within the current family members, although the male side was against the idea of votes for women - you can see part of Sir Charles Thomas Acland's garden party speech in the photo below - the women were divided. While Aunt Gertrude was a staunch anti-suffrage supporter, her niece Eleanor was fiercely pro-suffrage.
Killerton House is today owned by the National Trust, and this split in the female side of the family has given an incentive for a great exhibition about the suffragette movement, and the campaign to give women the vote. You can wander round the house and see suffragette memorabilia. But what made more impact on me was the weight of anti-suffrage propaganda – board games mocking suffragettes, cruel jibes, denigration of women’s worth in society. Sometimes the pictures say it all: there’s a panel of pictures of suffragettes, which are in fact surveillance photos taken in 1914 by the security services of the day and included on the Criminal Register.
The final shocker is a map of the world, showing where and women have been given the vote. A surprising number of countries didn’t allow women to vote until the 1940s or 1960s – or even, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, until 2015. Some countries still remain blank, but maybe in many of them there is no chance to vote at all. So, fellow women, let’s be proud to use our vote if we have it, and be thankful we no longer have to fight that particular battle to take an equal place in society.