It took more than half a century of campaigning before the right to vote in general elections was extended to some women. Lady Nancy Astor had been first woman to be elected and take her seat in parliament in 1919. I enjoyed learning more of the history about how this had come about. How was it, I wondered, that I had previously known so little of the detail of what had led up to these important milestones? Probably because the history of my schooldays – and university - was taught in the main by men - a fact I’ve only just realised.
Nan Sloane’s 2018 book The Women in the Room was a part of this journey back in time. Now she helps us reach back beyond these campaigns to see how some Uncontrollable Women deployed their voices and their actions to escape from the constraints of being literally owned by the men in their lives; to see women as independent, thinking human beings meriting equal rights.
I love this book! I love it because it reaches deep into original sources to find the voices of working-class women as well as those whose lives (albeit often, if married, still ‘owned’ by men) gave them at least some firmer base in education and access to books and ideas etc.to fight the cause of reform and better treatment for themselves and others. I love it because we can see big events like Peterloo, the work of the Chartists and the sale of revolutionary tracts in bookshops through the eyes and ears and lived experience of women, rather than the perspective of the men with which this history is more commonly associated. I love it because the author allows us to see in glorious technicolour the women who were the essential forerunners of the suffragists and the suffragettes. Without their fearless and fearsome acts of bravery in the face of often violent suppression the Acts of Parliament of 1918 and 1928, which extended the right to stand at general elections and to vote, might have been even longer coming. When Millicent Fawcett said that “Courage Calls to Courage everywhere” she might well have had in mind not only Emily Davidson but the women who were present at the very centre of the planning and execution of these earlier events as well as those who struggled to maintain their families when the men in their lives lost their jobs and ended up in prison. Susannah Wright, a lace embroiderer defending herself on a charge of blasphemy in the 1820’s, when repeatedly interrupted by the Lord Chief Justice, told him “You sir, are paid to hear me!” Can anyone fail to respond to the passages which Sloane quotes from the transcript of Susannah’s trial without throwing a virtual symbolic revolutionary red cap in the air and shouting “Bravo! Bravo! - More! More!”?