Interview with Beverley Cook, Curator of Social History at the Museum of London

Sophie Perry is the incoming Features Editor and regular contributor to Breaking the Glass Ceiling.

2018 is a very special year that marks the centenary of a major milestone for gender equality in Great Britain, as it was 100 years ago that women were first given the right to vote in parliamentary elections. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who held £5 worth of property, or whose husbands did, and all men over the age of 21 – a major step in the direction to full equality. The Act added 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men to the electorate, nearly tripling it and changing the face of British politics and democracy forever.

Winning the vote was a hard-fought battle and did not just happen overnight. Women and men from across Britain campaigned for many decades for the right to vote, with the movement shifting from relatively peaceful activities early on to militant suffrage as the need for equality became more earnest. These campaigners are remembered for their fearless, passionate bravery in the face of adversary where they often suffered at the hands of violence, abuse and arrest. To commemorate the 100 year anniversary of women being granted the right to vote the Museum of London has created a stunning exhibition on the topic, featuring numerous displays, events and a newly commissioned film. The displays feature a range of exciting material from the Museum’s own extensive suffragette collection, including one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s own hunger strike medals.

For Breaking the Glass Ceiling I was lucky enough to organise an interview with Beverley Cook, the Curator of Social History at the museum. Cook providing a great insight into the inner workings of the Museum of London and the long road to creating the exhibition, as well as discussing feminism and the relevance of suffrage today.

First thing first, I just want to say thank you for speaking to me.

That’s ok.

How did the initial idea for the exhibition come about? As in who discussed it – did it come from yourself or a team of people?

Ok, I look after the museum’s suffragette collections and the museum holds the world’s largest collection of material relating to the militant suffragette wing, so that’s primarily women who were members of the Social and Political Union and the Women’s Freedom League. So obviously when we knew that the centenary was coming of the Representation of the People Act, that gave some women the right to vote, it was very important that we marked the centenary. As curator of that collection I discussed that with our bigger events team and our programming team and normally things like that are discussed a few years in advanced. We discuss all the different options we could do: whether it’s a big exhibition, whether it’s a smaller display, whether we do something a bit more creative. Other practicalities come into play so we had to think about what else is happening at the museum at the time, what else is being programmed, you know, do we have the space to do a big exhibition, do we have the resources. We decided all together as a programming team and decided to focus our commemorative programme on highlighting the collection that we have but also creating something new and that was a film. We decided to create a newly commissioned film that would not just look at the past and the historic context of the suffragettes but also the legacy of the suffragette campaign, in particular its relevance to today’s society and women of today.

In regards to saying it took a few years to plan, how long did it take from the initial idea to the literal final product?

The museum works on a three year programme, that’s the idea as ideally exhibitions would be decided three years in advance. At the moment the museum is going through a big transition period because we will be moving from our site in the next five years to a brand-new museum in Smithfield, so the programming has got a little bit out of place as it were. One of the reasons we decided we would not be able to do a major exhibition is because you do need at least three to four years for a major exhibition. That includes research time, it also includes time to borrow in objects from other organisations because they might require a year’s notice. So although you’re not working on it full time you think of all these practicalities and the process of developing an exhibition can take three to four years. With this one although we thought about it three years ago we didn’t really act on it or make big decisions, that was partly because we weren’t sure what else was happening in the museum at that time. By the time a decision was made we realised the space we normally use for temporary exhibitions wasn’t going to be available in February this year. Obviously, February was quite a key date for the centenary because that was the month the Act was actually passed and became law, so we wanted to make sure that anything we did for the centenary was up and running for the public by February 6th. As we knew our temporary exhibition gallery wasn’t available we found another space in the museum which was a much smaller space, but still a good space.

I’m just going to slightly digress from my question list to pick up on a point you made. When doing the research for an exhibition, such as this one, how do you go about acquiring pieces for the exhibition?    

A majority of the objects that we have in our collection have been with us since 1950, so they’ve been in the museum for over 60 years. So we don’t have to look very far to find objects relating to the suffragette campaign! Since 1950 we have added to the collection, so that’s normally from donations from families who had a suffragette and would prefer their objects relating to their suffragette’s militancy to be in a public museum – rather than retained in private collections or family collections. But the bulk of what you see on display has been with the museum since 1950 and it was a very large donation that came to the museum from an organisation called the Suffragette Fellowship. The Fellowship was founded in 1928 by a group of ex-suffragette prisoners and they formed this fellowship as 1928 was quite a key year, the year Emmeline Pankhurst died, but it was also the year all women achieved the right to vote. The women were getting a little bit old and had dispersed all over the world really, so a group of them got together and tried to contact as many suffragette prisoners as they could find. They originally asked them to fill in a questionnaire to develop an archive in regards to people’s militancy but what they found when they got in contact with the women was a lot of them said ooh I have a hunger strike medal, I’ve got a banner, I’ve got a broach etc. So the fellowship decided to gather all of these items together with the aim of creating their own collection and their own display in a permanent place. By 1950 they realised they were getting even more elderly and they couldn’t really manage the collection anymore so that is why they offered it to what was then called The London Museum, so that’s how it came to us in 1950.         

The Shades of Militancy section of the exhibition has a lot about the militant actions of the suffragettes, such as arson and blowing up post-boxes. By today’s standards we would probably call that domestic terrorism, do you feel the suffragettes were terrorists or do you feel that is something we now appreciate had to happen?

I think the term terrorist; I mean it’s very much a modern interpretation of the campaign it wouldn’t have been regarded in the same way we regard terrorism today. I think the suffragette argument was that men had not achieved the right to vote without undertaking some form of militancy and so therefore they believed that women would only get the right to vote by doing the same as men had done. I think the reasoning behind their militancy was also very different to the reasoning that would be behind terrorism. Militancy from the suffragette viewpoint was justified by the fact they attacked property, the main reason they did that was because they knew influential men who owned property would put pressure on the government and say this is something we need to address.

The exhibition celebrates the 1918 Representation of the People Act do you think it is problematic we are celebrating that year rather than the year where it was universal suffrage, where everybody could vote?

I think that it was a major milestone and I think accepting the principle of women being given the right to vote was the big thing for me, and enshrining that in law. So, that was the biggest hurdle and once that hurdle had been achieved then obviously a lot of other things changed. The following year lead to the Sex Discrimination Removal Act which was a major Act for women and so I think it was a big marker, a massive milestone. As well, 43% got the right to vote then, it wasn’t a minuscule amount of women it was 43%. So there were a lot of reasons why they didn’t open it up to all women and the main reason was that women would have suddenly become the majority voters. There were lots of other reasons why that Act had that qualification, you know why they selected women to be over the age of 30, I don’t think we should get too hung up over that because as far as suffragettes were concerned it was a victory. A lot of the women who achieved the right to vote in 1918 had a real strong sense of responsibility, they felt they were voting for women who couldn’t vote.

So do you think in 100 years from now we will be holding exhibitions and events on the Representation of the People Act – in 100 years will it still be as relevant?

No, no I think it will always be a real seminal and pivotal moment in women’s history. I think it will always be something that will be commemorated because it was the first time women undertook action on a large scale to achieve something without them sitting back and relying on men. A lot of people today still take inspiration in their activism and their feminism from the women who undertook that in the suffragettes.

Visit the Museum of London’s Votes for Women display 2nd February 2018 – 6th January 2019           


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