This is quite impressive, for me: my mother bought me a book that I read before it got dust on it! (Think I’m exaggerating? See this review and this one for how I am a bad daughter.)
Anyway, knowing that I am developing a keen interest in the history of women’s suffrage in Britain, Mum found me Burning to Get the Vote, a history of the suffrage campaign in Buckinghamshire.
There were two things that did not work for me in this book; one substantive, the other a niggle. The first is that I don’t know the area, and that definitely had an impact on my enjoyment. This is not really a reflection on the book itself, although a map would have gone some way to alleviating that issue and made it more accessible for non-Bucks readers, and especially non-UK readers. Instead it’s a reflection that probably, this history wasn’t imagined to have a general readership outside of the locality, and an academic one a bit more broadly. So I lived with that; I skimmed over the bits where Cartwright goes into detail about the actually location of various meetings – which is probably a delight to those people who know High Wycombe or Wendover or Aylesbury. The second, the niggle, is a style thing. There were a lot of commas that I felt were misused.
Those things aside, this volume has a lot going for it. Cartwright has clearly undertaken a monumental task in sifting through local newspapers to find references to suffrage (and anti-suffrage) activities in his area, as well as digging up minutes from meetings and some correspondence as well. This in itself I find fascinating: the suffragettes and suffragists (the terms, sometimes interchangeable, were often used to differentiate between militant and constitutional approaches) were often holding important enough meetings that they did feature in the media – despite not always getting big numbers to those meetings, and perhaps sometimes because of the opposition they met.
What this history does is set the national women’s suffrage campaign in a local context. So much of this story that gets popularly talked about is London, or perhaps Manchester, based – which is unsurprising because it’s where the Big Names (Pankhursts, Fawcett) were, and where a lot of the eye-catching activities (pilgrimages to Hyde Park, chaining to gates) occurred. But as I’m increasingly realising, this doesn’t cover the entire campaign. And how could it? Of course it is important to convince non-capital city residents of the righteousness of your cause! The leaders of the WSPU and other organisations all travelled around the country, drumming up support. They corresponded with the women (and men) organising local branches in small towns. Sometimes, they retreated to the countryside to recover from hunger strikes and force feeding. So this book should help Buckinghamshire people to understand their contribution to an important national movement, and it should make everyone else realise that history does occur in small towns, too. It should also be seen as a spur to people who are running similar campaigns at the moment. There is no doubt that many of the people (especially the women, I would suggest) who were involved in Buckinghamshire probably got quite disheartened over time; their numbers were never huge, the number of supporters was varied, there was active dislike and vitriol from the community… and it took a really long time. Cartwright believes that the first 20th century women’s suffrage meeting in the county was held in 1904 – although there was some action in the nineteenth century too; women got limited rights to vote in 1918 (over 30, married to a householder) and then voting rights on the same terms as men in 1928.
I liked that Cartwright went to some lengths to find out details about many of the women involved, which often involved finding their obituaries. I appreciated the extensive quotes – from newspapers largely – from the speeches made, and in debates with anti-suffrage campaigners. (The notion that the newspaper would quote so extensively from speakers is awesome.) And I also liked that he included a chapter on those anti-suffrage activities, to demonstrate the arguments that were being made and to show that the suffragists weren’t just battling indifference but serious opposition.
This book is not for the general reader – unless you’re from central Buckinghamshire, in which case definitely read it since you might be living in a house that was used for meetings! But it’s great if you want to see how local history can and should be interesting, or if you’re interested in suffrage history more generally. There is also a bonus for Australian readers: Muriel Matters, an Australian suffrage campaigner, worked quite a lot in the area and is mentioned several times.
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