During 2018, we haven’t been able to move for events marking the 100th anniversary of when (some) women received the vote. This interest in women’s history has gifted us a bursting calendar punctuated by processions, parades, panel discussions and book launches.
One woman who has been kept busy with her new book, endless speaking engagements and lots of media appearances is suffrage historian Elizabeth Crawford, whose book Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists was published earlier this year.
Elizabeth has been researching women’s history ever since the 1960s. While studying history and politics at Exeter University she noted: “Women were never mentioned in either the history or the politics courses. But what I was interested in was the lives of women.” So to fill in the gaps in her formal education, Elizabeth scoured the library for biographies of women who had had Victorian and Edwardian childhoods “because growing up in that period, that was what I was really interested in”.
These biographies fuelled a passion for women’s stories that would lead Elizabeth to research and write two authoritative guides to the UK suffrage movement: The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide, 1866-1928 (1998) and The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain and Ireland: A Regional Survey (2006).
Anyone who has ever wondered about the suffragists from their area of the UK will surely have come across one or both of these resources. But what is even more impressive than their biographies, statistics, dates and addresses is the fact that, with A Reference Guide in particular, they were researched in a pre-internet age. How on earth did Elizabeth find all of the information? Put simply, she says: “I love researching; it’s detective work!”
Elizabeth, who had worked for a publishing house in London before having three children and going freelance, had been selling items of women’s historical ephemera via catalogues and fairs for a few years, and many suffrage postcards passed through her hands. But knowing the worth of each item, and details of the women they had been linked to, was hard to assess. “I was looking out of a train window while going to a postcard fair in York and thought that what I really needed was a book where I could look up all these people, and I thought perhaps I should do it myself,” she explains. “I wrote to every library and archive in the country and they were very helpful, and I then methodically went and visited them all. I’m amazed now that I did it.”
The Reference Guide was an enormous undertaking, not just in terms of the research involved but also for the time and cost involved… all of which Elizabeth paid for herself. “I was so naive,” she says. “I never even thought of applying for any grant. I just funded it all out of my savings.”
As a dealer of suffrage ephemera for several decades, many wonderful items have passed through Elizabeth’s hands. Her current catalogue lists items ranging from a WSPU Fellowship badge (£1,500); a postcard of WSPU stalwart Flora Drummond (£95); and an 1888 Richard Staunton Cahill painting of a woman speaking at a meeting (£3,300). But perhaps the most interesting items to come into her possession were the diaries of suffrage footsoldier Kate Parry Frye.
But these treasures could so easily have been lost, just as thousands of other pieces of history have unintentionally been skipped. It was mere chance that Kate’s diaries, in a terrible waterlogged condition, came to Elizabeth… but thank goodness they did. The diaries had initially been rejected by the Women’s Library who didn’t have the resources to conserve them. However, an archivist alerted Elizabeth to the diaries’ existence and she headed off to investigate.
“They were in a cellar in north London which was extremely damp, they were dripping wet,” Elizabeth recalls. “I couldn’t exactly find out what happened but it was a couple in their 40s who had this house. The diaries had come from the husband’s mother and she’d been an antiques dealer and didn’t know what to do with them. Kate had left all her worldly goods to the son of one of her cousins and he hadn’t married or had children. So when he died, this woman had probably cleared the house and acquired the diaries.”
The notebooks are an absolute treasure trove: “When I looked at those diaries, not only were there so many of them but when I looked in the suffrage years there was all this suffrage ephemera between the pages. I’ve since got two books out of them, and they got picked up for a programme by ITV [in which Kate was played by Romola Garai].” Those books are: Campaigning for the Vote: Kate Parry Frye’s Suffrage Diary (2013), and Kate Parry Frye: The Long Life of an Edwardian Actress and Suffragette (2014, a TV tie-in).
Given that nobody has dusty attics and basements anymore – as every spare corner of our homes has been converted into living space – it seems unlikely that many more finds such as Kate’s diaries can come to light. There’s literally nowhere left for this stuff to hide. “Somebody did get in touch with me a year or so ago,” Elizabeth begins. “They’d moved into a house and in the attic was a pile of suffrage pamphlets with multiple copies of the same thing. And other suffrage bits as well, including one of those lovely illuminated addresses designed by Sylvia Pankhurst. It looked as though it had belonged to a suffragette who had been living there but just hadn’t delivered all the pamphlets. They were pristine! So occasionally these things do turn up.”
And these sorts of beautiful items form the basis for Elizabeth’s most recent book, Art and Suffrage. The book is a beautiful collection of suffrage artists, and while lots of the images and photos and banners included are familiar, the backstories are largely unfamiliar. “When I do talks, I say how in museum shops now there are all these tea towels, fridge magnets, coasters and everything using these images, but nobody stops to think who created them or why,” explains Elizabeth.
This year will continue to be a busy one for Elizabeth, with talks booked in months and months in advance. But given the ‘real’ centenary of Votes for Women isn’t until 2028, this year is just a warm-up for everything still to come.