Votes for Women: A recently acquired example of Suffragette Jewellery
The issue of women’s suffrage was one of the major unresolved questions in the western democracies in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many women overseas looked to Australia as the exemplar of progressive democratic leadership, since Australian women had won both the vote and the right to stand for parliament at a national level in 1902 – the latter a world first. And many Australians were active in suffrage campaigns overseas, especially in Great Britain. The museum has been collecting in this area for some time and has acquired a number of interesting items. Among them is this intriguing piece of jewellery, bought online from a British vendor.
The militant Votes for Women campaign which began in Britain in October 1905, when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney disrupted Sir Edward Grey’s Liberal Party campaign meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and were arrested and later jailed, marked a significant break from the more restrained politics of persuasion in earlier years. It would lead to a long-term split among advocates of votes for women, between militants prepared to defy the law and others committed to working for change within the law. The museum’s Art Nouveau pendant, set with red, white and green stones and engraved E to D / 1905 / V.F.W., we believe refers to this political watershed of 1905.
Similar jewellery was worn by many women to indicate their open support for the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. This pendant may also be evidence of adherence to one particular suffrage society – but it also raises intriguing questions. The inscription suggests the giver of the pendant, the unknown E, was a supporter of the militant Votes For Women campaign (V.F.W.). But given that the women’s suffrage movement in Britain paid close attention to symbols of support in the form of banners, clothing, everyday articles and jewellery, often encoding such items with the colours adopted by specific suffrage societies, there is a discrepancy between the colours used here and the inscription. The colours of the stones in this item are those of the constitutional suffragists, adherents of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who used red and white from as early as 1906, and added green in 1909. Common Cause, the journal of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, “urged its readers to make the colours known as part of the struggle to forge a constitutionalist identity in the face of militant notoriety” arguing that “every member can help to ensure that 20,000 red, white, and green badges and ribbons all over the country are being stared at, are being talked of, are bringing more and more supporters every day … Let us put forth our greatest endeavours to have the colours known everywhere before the general election; not only as Suffrage colours, but as the colours of the greatest society – the law-abiding, non-party society…”(Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women, p. 265, citing Common Cause, 25 November 1909.)
The militant suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), on the other hand, used purple, white and green from 1908 on – the colours that many today think of as symbolising the whole of the women’s suffrage movement.
It is possible that the pendant pre-dates the choice of colours by either group, simply making use of a common item of jewellery of the time to memorialize the launch of the militant campaign in 1905. In this case it probably pre-dates the choice of red, white and green by the NUWSS in 1909. Alternatively, if, as the colours of the stones possibly suggests, the pendant dates from later than 1905 and was worn to display support for the NUWSS, the choice of the majority of suffragists, its inscription with the militant reference (V.F.W.) could also be read as indicating a more complex adherence to the overall cause of women’s suffrage — implying perhaps that the lines of division described by historians were less severe than is usually argued. There was, moreover, a brief period of unity between militants and constitutionalists in 1910, when for a brief moment the possibility of winning votes through parliamentary reform emerged. The work might possibly date from that period. Ultimately, the vote was not secured by women in Britain until 1918 (if they were over 30 and were householders, were married to a householder, or had a university degree) and universally in 1928 (all adults over the age of 21.)
Although examples of so-called “Suffragette Jewellery” are relatively common on the antique market, pieces with concrete information to verify this description are rare. In the absence of provenance to a known activist, many such pieces simply incorporate the colours and stones common in most jewellery of the period and are likely to have no real connection with the campaign for women’s votes. In this case, the inscription suggests the attribution of the pendant to the cause of votes for women is correct, although hard to prove beyond all doubt.
- Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide. London, 2001.
- Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14. London, 1987.