Jane Robinson BOOKtalk


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Jane Robinson

Mark D'Arcy in discussion with Jane Robinson about her book Heart and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote.


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you would be considered as bold as

brass.

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Think of the movement which first

won women the vote a hundred years

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ago and the images which come to

mind are Emily Weldon Davidson under

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the Kings horse at the Derby or

green and purple ribbons to persuade

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politicians and smashed windows and

went on hunger strike. What of the

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great pilgrimage, the mass march by

peaceful protesters in 1913 which

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impressed the then Prime Minister?

Those were the sub adjusts rather

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than the suffragettes, the peaceful

constitutional wing of the movement

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and my guess today suggests their

contribution to the ultimate victory

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has been rather eclipsed by their

more militant protesters. Let's

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start with context, by the time of

the great pilgrimage the movement

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had been building for the part of 50

years.

The great prog which was in

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19 13. The first serious petition

asking for votes was 1866 presented

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by John Stewart mill so half a

century of campaigning behind the

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scenes and in the background. What

is the arguments which are being

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made? That women could influence the

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society bringing up the children and

keeping the house going. But they

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could bring that economy, the moral

influence to Parliament and quite

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simply make the world a better

place.

Of course, every action

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produces a counter action and there

was a counter campaign very quickly,

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there is the fabulous figure of

doctor Amroth right who writes, I

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have to quote the phrase, it is

marvellous, he discourses about the

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reverberations of women's

physiological emergencies, that is

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his counterblast against the

suffragist.

Yes the medical

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fraternity were very loud in their

arguments against women having the

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vote or going to university. As

everyone knows, for one week out of

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four they are an emotional mess,

hysterical, don't know what is up in

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what is down, so how can they

possibly be trusted with the

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responsibility of having a voice in

Parliament? He produced lots of

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pamphlets, he was quite a well-known

figure actually. His main argument

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was that women have not got the

intellectual power because they need

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all the energy to go to their

physiological emergencies and they

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cannot spare any of it to go to

their brains and think about casting

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a vote.

And there are people who

made slightly more serious arguments

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from positions of eminence, Queen

Victoria was against the idea of fun

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and having the vote. The Prime

Minister a few years on from those

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moments was seen as a liberal line

in many context but not in terms of

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women and the vote.

Queen Victoria

was not the only woman who was

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against women having the vote.

Gertrude Belle the great politician

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thought it was a terrible idea, she

thought women could not be trusted

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and one of the main reason is

because they cannot defend the

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country so if they are making

decisions in Parliament which would

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need to be defended they have no

right to do so because they cannot

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defend them, they cannot be

soldiers, so what right do they have

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to make these decisions?

And if

women start having a vote then they

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will want to be MPs and judges and

who knows?

Whatever next? That is an

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argument which was put forward right

at the beginning and the apogee of

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ridiculousness was that there would

be a female Prime Minister.

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Suffragist societies were springing

up all over the country in various

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sizes, they were coming up

everywhere almost spontaneously.

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From 1866 win this petition was

presented to Parliament, from then

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on the constitutional wing of the

campaign set up as you say little

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societies all around the UK and in

Scotland and these groups until

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there were about 900 branches at the

height of the constitutional wing,

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the suffragist, rather than the

suffragettes. There was a lot of

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campaigning going on but at this

stage it was about and frustration

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and persuasion and trying to keep

your head below the parapet so you

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would not be told by people like

doctor right that you were a

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complete no hopers.

The thought

being that of the campaigning group

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to intense Dr Wright would find

himself vindicated so you had to

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behave in a certain way.

Yes

otherwise people would turn around

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and say we told you so, they are

freaks. That is why it took so long

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and by 1903 Emily Pankhurst got fed

up and said we need to put our head

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above the parapet, people are too

happy to accept the status quo at

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the minute. That is when the

suffragettes come onto the scene.

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They regarded the constitutional

wing, the old guard when as a cosy,

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let's have tea parties and signed

petitions and write articles and

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send letters to the newspaper 's

effort, they wanted more?

There was

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a respect for the leader of the

constitutional wing and she was very

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astute woman, great politician,

great strategist but I think Emily

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Pankhurst got everything needed

ginger ring up.

Deeds not words?

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Exactly. Whereas the suffragists

believed in deeds and words but they

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needed the impetus to realise that

actually meetings were not enough,

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they needed to do something

physical, some grand gesture and

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that is what the pilgrimage was.

The

pilgrimage was in some senses an

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answer to the more radical anthers

of the suffragettes?

It was fighting

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on two runs if fighting is the right

word. The suffragists had to prove

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they were responsible enough to have

the vote which is not what the

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suffragettes were doing, but they

had to counter the bad publicity

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that the suffragettes were bringing

him. The pilgrimage was at the

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height of the militant suffragette

campaign so for example when the

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Pilgrims set out and perhaps he will

talk about the journey later, but

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they were often greeted as

suffragettes, everyone thought they

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were the ones throwing bombs and who

set fire to letter boxes. So they

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were stoned and assaulted.

There is

a lot of memoir and journalism which

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covers this occasion, what was it

like to be on that march?

I managed

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to unearth about eight diaries of

women on the march. Men were on the

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march as well because men could

belong to the suffragists but not

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suffragettes. These diaries are

glorious because not only are they

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travel diaries of being on the road

for perhaps six weeks on a rickety

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caravan on a bicycle, perhaps just

walking, but also at the risk of

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sounding a little corny they were

about self-discovery and the

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discovery of sisterhood. This was

the first time ordinary women have

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come together in a mass

demonstration rather than a protest,

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and felt they were making a

difference.

What was quite

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interesting about this was that it

worked. The political establishment

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was genuinely impressed that

thousands and thousands of women

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could march peacefully around the

country and converge on Westminster

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in an orderly way. Without throwing

stones and breaking windows or

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pelting politicians with fruit. Have

a peaceful protest and make a case.

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It had a useful result, they got

invited to see Asquith.

Yes, yes he

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had challenged poster wings of the

campaign to improve the "Ordinary

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women" of England wanted the vote

and the pilgrimage was taken to

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answer that. Meetings were held

along the way, resolutions passed,

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petitions collected. These were

presented as you say to Asquith who

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invited a deputation and it's at the

end of the meeting that he admitted

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her the very first time, albeit

slightly doubtfully, that perhaps

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women could be counted as people in

a political sense. Perhaps they have

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Propper on the pilgrimage and if

they were people they would come

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under the coverage of the

representation of the people act.

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And then other events intervene,

1914 rolls along, the start of the

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Great War and a whole load of

things, vote for women, sorting out

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Ireland, our whole lot of issues are

put on hold by the government

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Asquith was heading. But it was not

irrelevant to the struggle here,

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quite the reverse. It furnished more

proof. Eugh it dead. It is received

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wisdom to a

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the pilgrimage and other things the

suffragettes and the suffragists did

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prove that it was all part of a

narrative which started in 1866 and

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started with women's campaigns. It

is tempting to say we when we talk

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about when and at this time, I feel

as though I identify with them, but

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we only got the vote after the war

because of the work we have done

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during the war and we only did the

work we had done during the war

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because we were so seasoned in

campaigning and in committee work

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and practical work and making a

difference.

I get the impression you

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have been touched by reading about

this and you identify no very

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strongly with the women who did this

march, what was it like you

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emotionally if you like reading

those accounts?

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It was a revelation for me because I

admire the suffragettes but I always

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felt as though they were a race

apart and when I started reading

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about the women who ran the

pilgrimage, I realised that

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aristocrats were marching with mill

workers and intellectuals were

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marching with housewives. It was

people with whom I could identify

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and imagine as my great grandmother,

my eccentric great aunt, my

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grandfather perhaps. People who

belonged to us, who felt that every

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step on the pilgrimage would count

towards something. They were very

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hopeful. I don't know how, after 50

years of being rebuffed but it was a

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hopeful event and I find that really

inspiring.

When you describe the

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moment women finally get the vote

and Millicent Fawcett, the matriarch

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of the entire movement pretty much,

goes to vote for the first time and

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various leaders of the suffragist

movement are sitting in the Commons

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gallery when votes for women finally

goes through, that must have been a

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huge moment, a culmination of a

life's work.

A huge moment and it

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fills me with admiration that

Millicent Fawcett and the

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suffragists were not resentful even

though it had taken 50 years, they

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were just... Not grateful as much,

but just content that at last their

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voices would be heard.

And why do

you think it is the word suffragette

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endures but the suffragists has --

have been buried underneath. Do

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people just remember the violent

stuff?

Is because the suffragettes

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were good at their job, to shock and

grab public attention and be

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sensational, and that Rangers, --

and that endures, but meanwhile the

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vast majority behind the scenes were

doing the stuff that really

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mattered, not that the suffragette

activism didn't matter, but we would

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not have got the vote without either

wing of the campaign and it really

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is time that the majority, that the

suffragists, got their voice heard

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again.

While it was, in one sense, a

victory when votes for women finally

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came along after the First World

War, it was, as you point out in the

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book, half. They were still property

qualifications that came into it and

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men were getting the vote younger.

Was it a wrench to accept half a

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loaf?

I think it was. One of the

individuals I focus on called

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Marjorie Lees, she worked for years

and years before the pilgrimage for

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women's suffrage but she lived with

her mother, she hadn't been to

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university, she didn't own property,

she was over 30, but she didn't get

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the vote in 1918 after all that and

it just seems such a shame.

So it is

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still implicitly second-class

citizenship for a while to come.

DS,

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until 1928.

Was the struggle to

continue or was it accepted?

It

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continued, on widening fronts. Why

it took ten years, I have no idea.

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But it did.

What happens next to

some of the organisers in this?

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You've got all sorts of incredibly

skilled people and probably have the

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political bug. To be going to other

movements?

They did. Several of them

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went into Parliament and carried on

the political bug. Several went into

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academia and were teaching at

university level. Quite a lot of

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them leading to local Government and

develop their citizenship in that

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way, in social welfare, writing,

then in 1919 the act was passed that

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allowed women into traditional

professions, so women started going

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into law and medicine, and into

other professions as well. But with

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that heritage of seasoned campaign

work behind them.

a fascinating

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account of a forgotten campaign.

Thanks rejoining us. We'll be back

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again very soon. Join us then.

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