Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes is a history project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Two groups of students from Kings Norton Girls’ School and Waverley School have looked at archive material about the different ways of campaigning and protesting by women who wanted to gain the vote. They then used that material as inspiration for a short film which focuses on the activities of the suffragettes and their more peaceful counterparts, the suffragists. While a few of the young people involved had some previous knowledge of the suffragettes, very little was known about activities that took place in Birmingham: Fight for the Right aims to change that. Although primarily a history project, these two diverse communities of young women have also explored voting, politics and women’s rights today.
The project began in November 2012 with a series of workshops held at the city archives, our project partner. Here we looked at examples of both peaceful and non-peaceful protest. One of the most notorious militant incidents occurred in 1909 when Prime Minister Asquith visited Birmingham’s Bingley Hall to address the Liberal meeting. Members of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) tried to gain entry but were prevented from doing so by a heavy police presence. Alternative tactics were then employed – two of the women climbed onto the roof of a nearby house and threw roof slates at Asquith’s car (the newspapers contain stories of “fragile” women climbing out of windows onto ladders!). 10 women were arrested in connection with the incident, one of whom, Hilda Evelyn Burkitt, a 26-year-old WSPU member from Sparkbrook, is one of the main characters in our film. Unfortunately, her actions resulted in a custodial sentence and she was sent to Winson Green prison, where she was the first suffragette to undergo forcible feeding. We were also very interested to learn more about Catherine Osler, president of the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. In contrast to the more militant actions of the suffragettes, the suffragists relied on ‘public discussion, the spread of education, and the ordinary constitutional methods of agitation’.
The film produced by the students will be celebrated at a screening in Birmingham over the summer. We are blogging and tweeting about our project as it develops so you can keep up-to-date here: www.birminghamsuffragettes.wordpress.com
Nicola Gauld, freelance project manager