An exclusive interview with Diane Atkinson
We were lucky enough to have Diane visit the Elvie office to tell the team all about the Suffragettes and answer our questions.
What initially sparked your interest in the Suffragettes and women’s history?
I was fascinated by the photographs that were taken of them. I wanted to find out who they were and why they took that extraordinary step to 'come out' as a Suffragette and engage in the most dangerous political campaign of the 20th century.
What do you love most about your work?
The chance to be a detective. I love finding Suffragettes and getting as many pieces of the jigsaw as I can in one place.
Who is your favourite Suffragette?
This is really hard! There are so many to choose from. My book has at least 200 and they are all special in different ways. I'll have to say Edith Rigby from Preston. She was such a good woman who cared about working women. A doctor's daughter, she married a doctor called Charlie who was fantastically supportive. She made her own eccentric clothes, all loose and arty-looking, when everyone else wore corsets, she made her own chunky bead jewellery, chain-smoked Turkish cigarettes in public (!!) and wore sandals all year round. Edith recruited many local working women as Suffragettes and paid for them to come to London to protest, she was very good to her servants. Edith helped with the household chores which drove her very middle class neighbours mad - they even tried to force the Rigbys to leave their home. She went to prison several times, went on hunger-strike and was force-fed on many occasions, and for much of 1914 she was on the run from the police in Galway (she had been caught trying to blow up the Liverpool Cotton Exchange.) Even her husband Charlie had no idea where she was.
What would the Suffragettes think of the progress we've made and the distance we have left to go?
They would be proud at women's achievements but disappointed that there is still so much to do. They would be astonished that women still do not have equal pay and that sexual harassment had not been dealt with by legislation. Remember the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970!!
What would the Suffragettes think of the #metoo campaign?
They would be right behind it. A number of their members, often music hall performers, joined the WSPU because they had been sexually harassed.
Many of the Suffragettes had bold, supportive, activist husbands - we don't often hear of them; can you tell us more about them?
There were dozens of good husbands, fathers and brothers who made it possible for many Suffragettes to go about their political campaigning. Let me tell you about Charlie Rigby who was a great support to Edith, letting her get on with her activism and never trying to stop her. As a doctor, he knew the risks and was distressed every time she was force-fed. When a family friend criticised Edith's behaviour in 1914 he wrote:
“It is a difficult business… but for me there is only one course and that is to back Edith. I know her perfect sincerity and love of justice; she feels it to be the only course her conscience allowed her to follow. She is willing to suffer blows, loss of friends… starvation… she is almost a shadow, scarcely able to stand, with the smile of an angel and the courage of a lion. I do not have the moral courage to do what she has done… It makes me so ashamed and I feel so unworthy of her.”
The Suffragettes have been portrayed as a movement of only upper-middle class women - is this a fair representation?
Not at all, this is a myth that was peddled at the time, and rehashed by male historians since the 1970s who were keen to undermine their extraordinary campaign. In 1905 working-class women joined in large numbers and a high number became paid organisers. The first WSPU branch to be started outside Manchester (where the suffragette movement was founded) was in Canning Town by Minnie Baldock, a shirt machinist.
What is the most important lesson for modern women to take from the Suffragettes?
Their persistence and determination never to give up. Also, their utter courage and generosity. The Suffragettes' motto “Deeds Not Words” should be revived!
You've spent four years writing the book and getting to know these women - how has this process impacted you personally?
It was a pleasure and an honour to 'meet' them in this way. I loved every minute, finding more about their backstories, their prehistory. Their stories make me feel humble in their presence and I often wonder how far I would have gone if I had been alive at the time. Yes, I would have been a militant, but I'm not sure I could have accepted force-feeding, which was torture. I think about them every day and salute them. Writing this book made me feel very angry at times. I wish every woman would use her vote: to me, not to vote, is an insult to the women who sacrificed so much so that we can vote.
What are your plans for the book and the future?
I will be promoting the book for the rest of the year and planning my next one.