Suffragettes Unseen

Christina Broom,
Museum of London Collection

Listening to Meryl Streep’s interview this week, about women in film, films made by women and about women, following the release of Suffragette!, we are reminded of how much unseen history of women there is, not necessarily undocumented but certainly undervalued in its potential, particularly that recorded, made by and about women.

A visit to Museum of London last week to see the Christina Broom exhibition ‘Soldiers and Suffragettes’ was an eye opening experience for me in many ways. Museum of London Docklands is a lovely space, situated along the Thames at the evocatively named West India Quay, giving you a sense of the river’s trading history, a very different feel to it’s sister site in the heart of the City.

The photography exhibition of Christina Broom fitted perfectly into this unexpected space, revealing to it’s audience previously unseen photographs of a hundred years or more ago, documenting in a personal and moving way the lives of soldiers prior to the first world war and beyond and the activism of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in London.

Through working on the Fight for the Right project, I have done a bit of research on Suffragettes and seen many photographs in newspapers of the time documenting the more militant actions taken by well known activists like Emily and Sylvia Pankhurst, Emily Wilding Davison and Bertha Ryland. What was eye opening for me in this exhibition was the capture by Christina Broom of women of all walks of life coming together to petition their right to vote in a myriad of ways.

Broom, through her photography of the Women’s Sunday Hyde Park rally of 1908, the Pageant of Women’s Trades and Professions in 1909 and the Great Pilgrimage of Suffragists which culminated in London in 1913, visually represented the strength of feeling of women from all trades and professions, classes and backgrounds. To see a woman carrying a stick with pottery plates stuck to it to show her work and her worth next to a photograph of a woman with a banner for Journalists, set next to women holding placards with the names of great women of the past is inspiring and telling. Broom also photographed the Women’s Exhibition, something I had never heard of, a two week fund-raising exhibition that raised £5,644 equivalent to £600,000 and as well as stalls and memorabilia featured a prison re-enactment stand detailing the treatment of suffragette prisoners.

The history of women’s fight for the right to vote is still very hidden, told on the whole from the narrow view point that just a few notable characters took some militant action and once they stopped and women proved their worth in the first world war, the vote was won. This exhibition goes some way to challenge this perception and not through the lens of a militant suffragette or even a particularly self defining suffragist, but through the lens of a female photographer who spotted something important was happening and wanted to photograph it, certainly for financial gain through postcard sales, as she was her family’s bread winner, but perhaps also to document it as a moment in history that had importance.

It is only by the uncovering of these stories and images and their public display and recognition that we can challenge the single narrative of women’s history and take inspiration from women of the past who came together to demand their equal share of the light, whether as activists or recorders.

Soldiers and Suffragettes 
The Photography of Christina Broom
Friday 19 June – Sunday 1 November 2015 – See more at: