Newcastle University’s Insights Public Lecture programme welcomed Jane Robinson on Thursday 8 February, to talk about the real-life story behind her recent book, Hearts and Minds. Robinson is an author and social historian who specialises in women pioneers across various fields, and has written material on individuals, women’s institutions, and most recently, the story of the suffragists.
The talk began by highlighting the generalised view that most people have of the fight for female suffrage: “Votes for women: it’s all about the suffragettes.
As you may know, it’s slightly more complicated than that. Campaigners for the vote have suffered from generalisation, stereotyping.”
By researching and writing about the suffragists and the ‘Great Pilgrimage’ of 1913, Robinson hopes to shift the emphasis away from the more militant suffragettes and towards campaigns which were conducted peacefully and democratically.
The march of 1913 began in Land’s End and culminated in 50,000 people arriving at Hyde Park in London.
This mass demonstration included women from every walk of life, from peeresses to mill workers, showing solidarity between ordinary women who wanted the same democratic rights as men.
“Votes for women: it’s all about the suffragettes. As you may know, it’s slightly more complicated than that”
Jane Robinson Author of 'Hearts and Minds'
Taking the audience through the detailed narrative of the march, Robinson brought a personal touch to a highly politicised history. “It’s been so exciting and revealing to find untouched diaries, unseen letters, keepsakes and souvenirs of a personal and political revolution. It’s in forgotten notebooks like these that one learns the tricks of the suffrage trade.”
Robinson not only revels in the peculiarities and specifics of the women involved, but also brings in her own personal touches of humour.
This was particularly palpable when she described the opposition and reactions which the suffragists faced: the concept that “if women used their brains too much, their wombs would wither” and the report that “Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, no champion of women’s suffrage, replied, albeit rather doubtfully, that yes, he supposed women were people after all.” These moments of light relief were met with much laughter from the audience.
Robinson stressed that women’s campaigning for the vote was one very long narrative.
Tracing it back to the 1832 Great Reform Act, which excluded women but increased the male electorate, she argued that this began “a steady progression through the next few decades towards votes for women on the same terms as they were granted to men.”
In the Q&A session following the lecture, Robinson answered a variety of questions, ranging from the effect of the First World War and the position of women across the British Empire, to how current affairs and gender equality have been shaped by these events of the past.
One hundred years on from the Representation of the People Act, Robinson quoted one of the suffragist pilgrims in order to summarise the significance of the ‘Great Pilgrimage’: “We’re just representatives of every woman on the long walk.”