Deeds and words: the literature that stirred women to join the suffrage campaign

Deeds and words: the literature that stirred women to join the suffrage campaign

Womens suffrage society
Members of Liverpool Women’s Suffrage Society campaigning in Smithdown Road for Knowsley by-election. Eleanor Rathbone is standing in the lighter coloured dress.

Although Emmeline Pankhurst’s famous motto was ‘Deeds not words’, the words of the suffragettes proved vital to the campaign. English Professor Glenda Norquay explains how suffrage literature was used politically and it wasn't purely about propaganda:

“Women used literature in a range of ways in their campaign for the vote. At times they sought immediate propaganda appeal – marching songs, vibrant poetry, engaging short stories that could be published in their newspapers or circulated in pamphlet form. But they also produced longer pieces of fiction or wrote memoirs which gave them space to explore the complex contexts in which the vote was fought for, thinking about the effect political struggle might have on families and partners, writing about female friendships and what they might mean, evaluating the different positions on the use of violence, or addressing broader issues around gender inequality, sexual double standard, the poverty of women.”

Suffrage creativity also gave women the chance to come together and claim their place in literary and artistic worlds. Suffrage writers, artists and actresses formed leagues during the campaign which served to give women a broader platform, group support and a stronger voice in their chosen field. As the recent debates over women’s place in music prizes, in fiction shortlists and in the film industry suggest, this kind of solidarity is important in advancing women in their careers.

Voices and Votes coverWho were the key figures in suffrage literature?

“The most interesting figures in suffrage literature range from those who had already entered the challenging world of publishing and were relatively well-known – such as Evelyn Sharp, fiction-writer, journalist and, editor of the suffrage paper Votes for Women or Elizabeth Robins, actress, playwright and novelist – and women whose activism led them into literature but whose lives are otherwise obscure: arrested campaigner Madeleine Caron Rock or Margaret E. Thompson, imprisoned for window-breaking. Gertrude Colmore, pacifist and suffrage activist, author of one of the most powerful novels of the campaign, Suffragette Sally and biographer of Emily Wilding Davison, is a particular favourite, writing in the heat and at the height of the campaign, just before the First World War.”

Was this means of expression a level playing field? Were women of different classes able to tell their stories?

“While many of the women who took up the pen during the campaign were relatively well-off, women activists from different class backgrounds, often coming into the struggle through previous political engagement with working conditions and labouring rights, also found a voice. Another favourite here is Ada Nield Chew, a radical campaigner who first came to attention when publishing in her local paper as ‘A Crewe Factory Girl’, in the demand for a living wage, and who went on to publish in all the important radical and suffrage papers of the time. A formative figure in the emergence of the Labour Party, she also became a highly successful businesswoman in her own right. This formidable figure produced some of the funniest, most incisive pieces of short fiction on the suffrage cause.”

Are your students able to relate to suffrage material? Is it applicable to women’s issues today?

“When students are first exposed to suffrage writing they initially see it as propaganda in a cause that has been won – and therefore perhaps less relevant today. But as they engage with it more deeply they realise that this is literature that speaks very directly to its readers: that indeed it ‘calls’ on them to take positions. And it calls them to take positions not just on whether women should have the vote but also the ways in which women might be judged according to appearance or might have to face double standards around sexuality; women might have address competing demands between their own self-realisation and the demands of family. The right to vote is also related to the right to equal pay or equal living conditions and it challenges the idea that physical prowess or military might define the right to citizenship or nationhood. Students realise, I think, what is for me the most striking aspect of the suffrage campaign: the fight for women to have the vote is related to a whole range of issues around equality and social justice – and these issues are still relevant today.”

Meet Glenda Norquay

Glenda NorquayGlenda Norquay is a Professor in the English department at LJMU. When Glenda found it difficult to give her students access to some of the fascinating writing produced by women during the suffrage campaign, she put together her own anthology, Voices and Votes: A Literary Anthology of the Women’s Suffrage Campaign. The book contains poetry, fiction and memoir written by those who supported the campaign and some of the opposing voices, it focuses on four key areas: conversion; militancy and militarism; the prison experience; and questions of identity. Glenda subsequently collaborated to produce a six-volume set Women’s Suffrage Literature, which includes whole novels and a range of plays. She is currently contributing to a scholarly edition of The Call, a novel by Edith Ayrton Zangwill, which explores the conflicting demands on women created by allegiance to the campaign and the challenges of entering masculine spheres of knowledge, such as science.

In 1918 the Representation of the People Act abolished property qualifications that kept some men from being able to vote and enfranchised women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. However, women were not politically equal to men until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed in 1928.

If you’re inspired by the women who fought for the right to vote and have an interest in literature, why not take a look at the English courses available to study at LJMU? You can find out more about staff in English at LJMU English or follow them on Twitter @jmuEnglish and you can follow Glenda on @peedieg.


‘Think interculturally and internationally’ African theatre figure tells students


MA Short Film Festival 2023 on now


Get in touch

Have feedback or have an idea for a feature? Email us at