A new book from Te Papa features essays inspired by exhibits held in the national museum. Sue Bradford writes about a Medal for Valour awarded to suffragette Frances Parker – a heroine who blazed with “an exquisite madness”.
EXHIBIT: Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour, awarded to Frances Parker
PRODUCTION: Toye & Co., 1912
MATERIALS: Silver, enamel, silk
DIMENSIONS: 42 (width) x 85 (height) x 8 (depth) x 22 (diameter) mm
CREDIT: Purchased 2016
I’ve never been into medals. I grew up in a family where Dad’s medals from the war were buried away somewhere and I never saw them until after he died. He didn’t talk much about his years slogging through Italy, but when he did there was lots of swearing and sometimes he cried. He refused to join the RSA, and he and his medals were never on parade.
Partly as a result of this I grew up fascinated by war, and by peace, like so many of our post-World War II generation. For me medals seemed to be about the glorification of war, not any kind of genuine acknowledgement of suffering and courage, although I understood why others felt differently.
When I was offered Frances Parker’s medal as an object for this essay it felt quite alien. Suffrage medals? Yes, the achievement of women’s suffrage was certainly a struggle worth honouring, but in such warlike terms? What was that about?
Then, of course, I began to look at the story behind the medal.
Frances Parker was born in Waimate in the Canterbury district in 1875. She came from a well-to-do family and was the niece of Lord Kitchener, a senior British army officer famous, among other things, for his role in setting up what became known as the world’s first concentration camps during the Second Anglo-Boer War. When Frances was 22, Kitchener funded her to study at Cambridge University. After graduation she spent time working as a teacher in New Zealand and France before returning to the UK, where she became very active in the women’s suffrage movement. By 1908 she was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), established by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia in 1903. Later on, Frances worked as a key organiser for the WSPU in Scotland and received the WSPU Medal for Valour in 1912.
Frances was first arrested on a suffragette action at Parliament in London in 1908 and sentenced to six weeks in prison. She went on to be arrested another four times, for activities including window smashing, arson and attempted arson. In July 1914, Frances and her friend Ethel Moorhead were charged with trying to set fire to Burns Cottage in Alloway, the first home of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. As part of a WSPU campaign to use hunger strikes as a strategic tool, Frances endured two lengthy periods as a hunger striker when imprisoned in 1912 and 1914. She was subjected to force-feeding, and, like some other women, was assaulted physically and sexually by female prison guards using methods nothing short of state-sanctioned torture.
After the worst of these incidents in 1914, Frances was sent from prison to a nursing home, from which she escaped. When war broke out in August that year, the WSPU suspended its militant actions and a general amnesty was offered to suffragettes. Frances volunteered her services for the war effort, becoming deputy controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1917. She was awarded a military medal, the Order of the British Empire. Frances died in 1924 aged 49, four years before women in the UK were granted full equal suffrage to men in 1928.
Frances bequeathed her WSPU Medal for Valour to her friend and fellow militant Ethel Moorhead. Ethel talked of Frances as having “an exquisite madness — daring, joyous, vivid, strategic”.
Around a thousand women were imprisoned during the campaign for women’s suffrage in the UK. Besides the militant WSPU there were many other organisations using a variety of tactics to achieve the same goal New Zealand women had won a lot more peacefully some 35 years earlier.
I was shocked when I read a brief description, by Frances herself, of her ordeal in Perth Prison, Scotland. I don’t want to reproduce her words here as I know that some find such details titillating, and even after all this time I feel our sister deserves some cloak of dignity. But having discovered a little of her story, I believe she deserved that medal — she and all the other women who received this acknowledgement for putting their lives on the line in order to obtain the same rights of political participation as those enjoyed by men. And after all, the WSPU was operating within the perceptions and practices of the era, co-opting the notion of medals to its own purpose, culture-jamming 1914-style to offer its own honour, deeply meaningful within the current societal norms.
In Aotearoa New Zealand 2018, time and geography separate us enormously from the realities of women’s existence a hundred and more years ago. We can barely conceive how hard it was for women then to find even the slightest of freedoms in their everyday lives — in clothing, relationships, work and play as well as politics. For those who took part in the militant arm of the suffrage movement there must have been a sense of intense risk, commitment, solidarity and liberation. The extremity of some of their actions, including Emily Davison’s sacrifice in throwing herself fatally in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, must surely have been driven by an all-consuming desire for an emancipation that went far beyond women’s right to vote.
The WSPU was the radical outlier of the movement for women’s suffrage in Britain. Its members — most of whom were middle-class, comparatively well-off women — were criticised by some for their militant tactics, and by others for their focus on the vote rather than on much-needed social justice reforms. From August 1914, pacifist women left the organisation in disgust at the WSPU’s support for Britain’s entry into the war. Yet despite the splits and criticisms, the well-publicised activism of the union’s pre-war years undoubtedly helped propel an unwilling male public and Parliament towards finally enacting universal suffrage.
I have been part of what I’d call the militant radical left of New Zealand street politics since the age of 15. I joined Auckland’s Progressive Youth Movement in 1967 when still at school, terrified by the prospect of a nuclear holocaust destroying the planet and furious at New Zealand’s support for the American war in Vietnam. I took part in demonstrations and other activities where we were unafraid to block streets, confront police or occupy buildings. There were activists who went further, blowing up buildings and flagstaffs and spending time in jail as a consequence. There was a sense, too, driven by the global wave of radical youth politics in the late ’60s, that armed revolution could be just around the corner, and some were preparing for that as well.
Even as young people back then we knew we were continuing a tradition of militancy that didn’t start in our generation, but which went back through time: for instance, the ongoing Māori struggles against colonisation, occupation and dispossession (at times meaning all-out war); the battles of employed workers for even the most basic of rights, from Blackball and Waihi through to the 1951 waterfront lockout and later; and the struggles of unemployed workers in the 1930s, which led to major riots.
Some of us took the lessons of the late 1960s and early 70s into later struggles, perhaps most significantly the mobilisation against the 1981 Springbok tour. Prime Minister Rob Muldoon used the opportunity of an apartheid-era South African rugby tour to boost the election chances for his struggling National Party. He deliberately chose to plunge the country into a confrontation that for some of us on the front lines ended up feeling very close to civil war, and which also achieved the goal he was after: victory in the 1981 election.
I was a comparatively young footsoldier within the large anti-tour mobilisation group in Auckland. We met constantly to plan our next actions, with rugby matches and the concomitant protests taking place twice a week. One of the things that impressed me most was the group’s willingness to support different levels of activity: from holding a cross and praying on a street corner and quiet marches with children and older folk, through to cat-and-mouse quasi-military street demos and independent small-group actions aimed at major disruption in towns and cities across the country. All these levels of activity were encouraged within a kaupapa of non-violent direct action and the clear common goal of stopping the tour.
Like others, I was arrested many times; we used mass arrest as a deliberate tactic. We took over the Waiatarua transmitter station, temporarily stopping the match broadcast one Saturday, and on another sunny afternoon raced through Auckland airport security to occupy an aircraft. Once I found myself caught up in what was almost a fixed battle between police and the Patu Squad at Kowhai School in Kingsland. Marx Jones and Grant Cole dropped flour bombs from a light aircraft at the final match: the protest air force in action.
I allude to these experiences only because I have come to realise that even politically interested younger people are not necessarily aware of what transpired in 1981. It’s a long time ago now, and already unknown ancient history for some. Small wonder that many of us are oblivious to the experiences of the British suffragettes in 1908-14.
Tens of thousands of people had active involvement in the 1981 protests. And again, some of us took our experience forward into activism of the 80s and 90s: Māori organisations fighting against racism and for tino rangatiratanga; the development of the Pākehā treaty workers’ movement; women’s groups working on issues around pornography and sexism; trade unions; the campaign for a nuclear-free New Zealand; the continuing struggle for unemployed workers’ and beneficiaries’ rights.
Ordinary people, acting together, can make change. In the bravery, chaos and fear of collective direct action, we face down — even in what seems at times the feeblest of ways — the political and economic structures which hold all the power while we hold little or none. Over the years, I’ve seen for myself how militancy can play a key role: for example, around the Vietnam War, the 1981 rugby tour, the nuclear-free campaign, and the many actions in support of greater Māori sovereignty.
The one movement in which I’ve been intensely involved that has never achieved such post-facto eulogising has been the fight by unemployed workers and beneficiaries for “jobs, education and a living wage for all”. This, perhaps, is unsurprising, given that the economic struggle of the most dispossessed and despised in society directly confronts the capitalist system. Those without jobs often end up using militant tactics — because when you can’t even withdraw your labour as employed workers can, you’re left with no other option.
Some of us who have used militancy to effect change take care to ensure it is appropriate to the context; tactics that are excessive, or which are too far out of line with the opinion of those whose support we seek, can harm the cause. Frances Parker and her activist sisters engaged in a focused militancy that took their cause to the limits of what was sensible and possible in early twentieth-century Britain. In our groups, we analyse the situation and the political and economic forces at play. We consider the range of tactics possible, and whether there are other options better than militant action. And usually there are. But sometimes, when the time and situation call for it, we prepare — and act.
From Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage edited by Bronwyn Labrum (Te Papa Press, $35), available from Unity Books.
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