12–18 November 2018

Celebrating the Suffragettes

2 Dec 2013 – Caroline Nokes MP

I often struggle to reconcile the location of the suffragette display in Parliament with the impact those determined and inspirational women had 100 or so years ago.

Tucked away beside the admissions order office you can find a recently revamped and improved display, but in my view it has nowhere near enough prominence. I appreciate that most visitors to Parliament will pass it, and of course it has to be in a public part of the Palace, but a corridor? Really?

Mind you, Emily Wilding-Davison, had form for loitering in obscure parts of Parliament, so for cupboard residents maybe a corridor is not so bad.

Of course Ms Davison’s stay in the broom cupboard in St Mary Undercroft is also marked there, with a plaque put up by Tony Benn, which he himself described as having been put there “illegally”. On the night of the 1911 census she hid herself in the crypt in order to be able to legitimately give her place of residence as the House of Commons. But in many ways a pity that it took unilateral action from a Member of the House to mark the very spot.

Suffragette memorabilia is today in incredible demand, and given their significance to Parliament it is always disappointing when the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art is unsuccessful in acquiring new items for the collection.

That happened recently when a suffragette belt came up for auction, but eventually went for many times the guide price and for far more than the Committee could justify spending. But there have been some significant recent acquisitions, which have not just been interesting but also somewhat unusual and sought after. The belt would have been a coup, no doubt about it, but I suspect less so than the Women’s Social and Political Union Flag purchased earlier this year.

One of the most impressive items in the collection is the terracotta bust of Nancy Astor, by Zsigmund Strobl, which following the development of the crèche in Parliament Street needed to be relocated. Given Astor’s commitment to nursery education I am sure she would not have objected, but it did pose some interesting questions as to where the bust should go. Not only is the terracotta quite delicate, and of course, like so much in the collection, extremely valuable, but it was important to find somewhere it would be seen and be appropriate.

The first piece of private members legislation passed that had been introduced by a woman was the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons Under 18) Act of 1923. It was one of Astor’s significant achievements, and made the various bars and restaurants in the Palace entirely unsuitable as new locations for the Astor bust! So she has ended up in a corridor (for now) and whilst ultimately I think society must do better to recognise the achievements of those brave women who were prepared to fight for democracy, Parliament’s celebration of Women in Democracy last week was a step in the right direction. Free events around the country and online resources were created for Parliament Week, specifically to help to raise awareness of those individuals who paved the way for women like me not only to have a vote, but also to proudly represent the public in Parliament.

The contributions of the suffragettes and female campaigners should not just be confined to a corridor or celebrated just once a year, rather I hope that with more activities like Parliament Week, their sacrifices will one day become recognised as a central and vital part of our history.


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