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Remembering Women’s Activism


Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Vera Mackie


Remembering the Modern World Series

Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2019

Paperback. xv + 253 p. ISBN 978-1138794894. £34.99


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Birkbeck College, London



Women throughout the world have been active campaigners on very many issues for over a century and many of these campaigns continue. Some past activists are remembered and memorialised in diverse ways. Others are not. This book is an innovative exploration of this memorialisation, or lack of it, and what shapes it. It is potentially a vast subject and a short book can only open it up with examples of four very different forms of activism suffragism, nationalism, industrial relations and challenges to wartime sexual abuse in the English-speaking world (Australia where the authors are based, the UK, Ireland and the USA) and in parts of East Asia (China, Japan, S.Korea, Taiwan).

As the authors describe, the UK suffrage campaign was itself divided and divided others at the time, divisions revived at the centenary commemorations in 2018 of women partially gaining the vote mainly middle-class women aged over 30, not actually a ‘small section of British and Irish women’ as the authors state, but two-thirds of adult females, though of course not enough. Widely remembered was the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, known as the ‘suffragettes’. They aroused antagonism at the time and since for their ‘unwomanly’ noisy demonstrations and violence – against property, breaking windows, setting fire to buildings and post-boxes, but not against people, as commentators, including the authors, do not always point out. Rather they suffered physical violence from the police and prison authorities when punished for their militancy.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) established by Millicent Garrett Fawcett in 1897, initiated suffragism. It marched, boycotted the 1911 national census, lobbied politicians, campaigned in elections and opposed the war, but calmly, never violent. Both contributed indispensably to the campaign, attracting different supporters and opponents. WSPU supported the war, gave up campaigning and Pankhurst moved to the right. Fawcett revived the campaign in 1916 when the government prepared to extend the male franchise, then fought on after the war for the equal franchise (achieved 1928) while successfully encouraging women to use their votes and promote equality legislation, arguably doing more than WSPU to promote women’s rights. Yet the militants have long been more widely memorialised, positively and negatively, as the book describes, including in film, museums and statues. A statue to Pankhurst was erected near Parliament in 1930, two years after her death. Fawcett had to wait until 2018 for a statue, also near parliament, following a feminist campaign. Only from the 1980s have museums in London and Manchester displayed suffrage artefacts, mainly of the militants who left more dramatic objects behind a belt and padlock used to chain themselves to railings outside parliament, prison relics than the respectable constitutionalists. Pankhurst’s former home in Manchester in 1987 became the only museum solely dedicated to the women’s movement.

Fawcett founded a library in 1926, the Fawcett Library, to house the mass of documents produced by NUWSS and the many organisations it inspired after 1918 less vivid than the militant artefacts but invaluable for historians in what has become an indispensable library of women’s history now housed at the LSE, sadly without Fawcett’s name. But her name lives on in the Fawcett Society, adopted in the 1950s by a feminist organisation founded in the 1920s, still the premier UK organisation campaigning for gender equality. But she is less widely remembered than Pankhurst.

The British suffrage story suggests that noisy and dramatic activism is more often remembered negatively and positively than calm effectiveness. The book reinforces this perception by exploring Australian suffragism, which outpaced its colonial ruler, the UK, to join the first countries in the world to grant votes to women. In 1908 voting became universal among adult (white) women. Aboriginal men and women had to wait until 1962 to vote, ignored by suffragists as by others. New Zealand enfranchised all adult women, including Maori, in 1893 but is not discussed here. Australian suffragism was not militant and its story has been subsumed in museums and memorials in wider commemoration of Australia’s progress to independent, democratic nationhood. The suffragists’ part in this national story stresses their challenge to the colonial power, exemplified by memorabilia of the British militants who were inspired by the Australian example, which risk overshadowing more sedate memories of the more successful Australian movement as they overshadow Fawcett’s campaign.

American suffragism was, in some states, more militant than in Australia though less than in UK, with marches and demonstrations but only occasional damage. It varied in intensity and methods, achievements and memorialisation, from state to state. From 1869-1918 women gained the vote in 15 states and territories but not the federal vote until 1920. Initially suffragism was closely linked with anti-slavery activism women wanted to vote to abolish slavery but after 1920, especially in southern states, Afro-American women, like men, were excluded from voting by various means until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The women’s movement became exclusively white, while women of colour campaigned for racial and voting equality and kept their distance from commemorations of (white) women’s enfranchisement. Monuments and museums across states commemorate local suffragists, often stressing connections to anti-slavery but not the racially different outcomes or the activism of Afro-American women.

If women’s suffragism is not always fairly memorialised, their role in nationalist movements is even less so. The authors explore this in the contrasting contexts of early 20th-century Ireland and China. Nationalism has generally been male-dominated, with male activists mainly memorialised following independence. In Ireland they focus on Constance Markievicz, from an elite Anglo-Irish family, briefly married to a Polish count, an active socialist and flamboyant revolutionary nationalist. She was a leader of the violent 1916 Dublin Rising, for which she was imprisoned in London, spared execution because she was female, then stood for the UK parliament in 1918 and was the first woman to be elected. Like all Irish nationalists she refused to take her seat, but joined the first Irish parliament on her release in 1919 and became the first female minister in a European government. She was the first leader of the Dublin Rising to have a statue in Dublin, in 1932, when her political supporters were in government. Generally her reputation has been divided between critics, mainly but not exclusively male, of violent ‘mad Markiewicz’, and mainly female supporters who have created statues and commemoration of her achievements in museums, including her restored childhood home. Catholic-influenced nationalists had conventional perceptions of women’s roles as mothers above all and dismissed militant women even among their supporters. Many men in the divided Irish movement especially denigrated Markiewicz because she opposed the division of Ireland in 1922 between the independent South and the North which remained in the UK. This was remembered from 1968 when republican conflict erupted in the North, starting thirty years of ‘Troubles’, most vividly in the murals painted in the sectarian enclaves of Belfast and Derry, including images of Markiewicz, celebrated as an inspiration by republican women. Like other women activists her memory was reinterpreted by successive political regimes.

The Chinese revolutionary nationalist, Qiu Jin, campaigned for women’s freedom, including from foot-binding, and to overthrow the Qing dynasty, for which she was executed in 1907, age 31. She was memorialised as a revolutionary martyr after the overthrow of the Qing in 1911, including an elaborate monument built by Sun Yat-sen’s Republican government. Her memory was then sidelined by the Communist regime, as no part of their history, but sustained in Republican Taiwan and revived in China after Mao’s death in 1976, as part of China’s revolutionary heritage and for standing up for women as feminism emerged. Her home was renovated as a museum and a grand statue erected. Like Markiewicz her memory was appropriated as and when it suited the needs of regimes and campaigns.

Next the book recalls campaigners for improved conditions for women factory workers. In the US a terrible fire in The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village in 1911 killed 123 women and 23 men, who were locked into a building with inadequate fire escapes among other features of an appalling work environment. Images of workers leaping to their deaths from high windows galvanised an existing women’s campaign for unionisation and decent work conditions which, through the inter-war years, achieved legislation bringing real improvement. Prominent throughout was Frances Perkins-Gilman, motivated by the Triangle fire, the first woman in a US Cabinet as Secretary of Labour in 1933, remembered as the ‘Woman Behind the New Deal’. She and the Triangle fire have been memorialised by trade unionists and feminists, intermittently but increasingly over time, mainly locally to commemorate New York activism. The former Triangle Building was designated a National Historic landmark in 1991, as was Perkins-Gilman’s home in 2004, and memories of victims of the fire and activists who prevented more such tragedies have been sustained by plaques, exhibitions, and an annual ceremony in Washington Square memories revived by the bodies falling from high windows in downtown New York on September 11, 2001.

Internationally, textile manufacture had a key role in early industrialisation, sustained especially by low-paid women working in poor conditions. The first silk mill in Japan opened in 1872. By 1881 female silk-spinners were striking about conditions and wages, then in growing numbers and (incomplete) effectiveness throughout industry between the wars. This workers’ movement was suppressed by the militaristic nationalist regime of the 1930s and 40s but revived after the war. There has been growing though not universal recognition and commemoration, at least by historians, of the importance of women in the early development of industry and of the labour movement in Japan. Exploited female labour producing low-cost garments is now central to highly profitable global trading, based mainly in Asian countries such as Bangladesh. The book describes how this came to international notice in 2013 when the Rana Plaza Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh (formerly Dacca, Bengal), housing five garment factories with over 3000 workers in terrible conditions, collapsed killing up to 1400 workers. In New York and elsewhere the disaster awoke memories of the past and support, with some success, for improved trade union rights in Bangladesh which had previously struggled to emerge. And it created pressures in richer countries for firms and consumers to boycott cheap garments created by exploited women and often children.

Finally the authors discuss memories of sexual violence in wartime. This has a long history but publicity and protest about it emerged strongly only with the feminism of the 1970s, part of the wider challenge to sexual violence, aroused by the Vietnam war but looking back to previous wars. In Australia women protested at the annual ANZAC day war memorial services and there were similar movements in US and UK against the glorification of war and for remembering its shameful side. Then protests against war museums, such as the Imperial War Museum in London, which ignored this aspect of war. Museums have since, gradually, introduced documents and artefacts commemorating violence against women.

There has been a similar, gradual, opening up of issues of Japanese sexual violence in World War 2 in China, Korea and elsewhere, which included brothels housing hundreds of thousands of so-called ‘comfort women’. This was widely known after the war but victims often suffered hostility and discrimination when they returned home and they retreated into silence. Again it was only made public by feminists in the 1970s. Books began to describe it, though victims rarely spoke up until the 1990s, persuaded by feminist campaigns for redress. Regular demonstrations began in Korea, which still continue. A museum was opened in Seoul and a statue erected opposite the Japanese Embassy in 2011, followed by the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in 2012. The statue was later replicated in California, which has a substantial Asian community, despite objections by Japanese deniers, though similar denials successfully opposed similar commemorations in Australia and Germany. Gradually the Japanese government acknowledged responsibility, again driven by women activists, including initiators of a Women’s Museum opened in Tokyo in 2005. In 2015 the Japanese Prime Minister apologised to the Korean women, few of whom were grateful.

In China commemoration was slow, not a priority under Mao. In Nanjing (formerly Nanking), the site of an atrocious Japanese massacre in 1937, a memorial museum in a former military brothel, with a statue commemorating the women, opened in 2015. Also the museum of the massacre opened in Nanjing around the same time, including photographs of rape victims along with statues, including of Iris Chang who campaigned to keep the memory of the massacre alive. In 2016 the ‘Grandmothers’ Museum’ opened in Taipei, Taiwan (formerly Taipeh, Formosa), following a campaign by victims’ supporters, with the respectful name commonly given to survivors in East Asia, displaying photographs, documents and artefacts designed to remind visitors of the atrocities.

The final chapter is titled not ‘Conclusion’ but ‘Marching On’, since memorialisation of past activism continues, world-wide, often in the form of commemorative marches which also signal the concerns of contemporary activists, too little changed over the past century, including racism, workers’ rights, unequal pay, sexual violence, political marginalisation. The clearest examples are the huge annual marches against Donald Trump, which began internationally in 2017 modelled on a big feminist march in 1913. This book demonstrates above all how remembering past activists keeps contemporary activism alive and visible and how the memories, positive and negative, are shaped by contemporary preoccupations.



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