A section of my latest book is about the suffragette movement Cecily is involved in. originally focused in Manchester, that was where Emeline Pankhurst and her family had lived. The general election of 1905 brought it to the attention of the wider nation when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenny interrupted Sir Edward’s speech with the cry: ‘Will the Liberal Government give votes to women?’ Many women were very much in favour of that, and some were charged with assault and arrested.
They further shocked the world by refusing to pay the shilling fine, and were consequently thrown in jail. Never before had English suffragists resorted to violence, but it was the start of a long campaign. Their headquarters were transferred from Manchester to London and by 1908, by then dubbed the suffragettes, they were marching through London, interrupting MP’s speeches, assaulting policemen who attempted to arrest them, chaining themselves to fences, even sending letter bombs and breaking the windows of department stores and shops in Bond Street. They went on hunger-strikes while incarcerated, brutalised in what became known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act.’ This ‘war’ did not end until 1928 when women were finally granted the vote in equal terms with men. They showed enormous courage and tenacity, were prepared to make any sacrifice to achieve their ends.
Fortunately, Cecily managed to avoid the risk of jail as she went off to France to entertain the soldiers in the war. But she believed very strongly in working for the suffragists and happily helped to organise a meeting before this idea came to her. Later she met one or two people who greatly intrigued her.
Extract from Girls of the Great War:
This afternoon, being a Saturday, they were attending a Suffrage meeting, which offered much satisfaction. Cecily had worked alongside this organisation from before the war, taking part in parades and demonstrations. She’d always felt a sore need to help, as she strongly believed in the rights of women. She’d spent every evening the previous week happily delivering notices to encourage people to come to this meeting.
‘The place is packed,’ Merryn, who was seated beside her on the front row, softly remarked, glancing around. ‘You did an excellent job encouraging so many to come.’
‘Thank goodness there are plenty of women here.’ This had been helped by the fact that Annie Kenney, a most special lady, was attending the meeting. As a working-class factory girl who started to follow the Pankhursts she was now almost as famous as them and she certainly gave excellent talks, being very down-to-earth. ‘Unfortunately, some working women are unable to attend these suffrage meetings because they have families to feed after they finish work, or else they fear to offend their bosses or family. Irritatingly, the occasional sour-faced father or husband would toss away the notice I delivered!’
‘Men can be very commanding,’ Merryn agreed.
‘I would never allow one to control me,’ Cecily sternly remarked.
‘I can understand that your sense of independence is partly the reason you enjoy working with the suffragist movement to help them seek the vote. Me too, although I am in favour of marriage and willing to be a fairly obedient wife to make my husband happy.’
Cecily chuckled. ‘Hang on to your rights, darling. I have no doubt that we will achieve the vote one day and find the love of our life.’
‘Exactly.’ Stifling their giggles they listened to Annie Kenney explain how Lloyd George, who had always been supportive, was now helping ladies achieve their goal, having finally replaced Asquith as Prime Minister last December. ‘We have every reason to believe that a vote will soon be granted, if only to women of a certain class who own property and are over thirty,’ she announced.
‘Why is that?’ Cecily quietly asked her sister, only to find herself hushed.
She firmly disagreed with her mother’s attitude against the working classes, particularly regarding her beloved Ewan. It seemed politicians were equally disapproving. How would she, Merryn, and most other women, ever achieve the right to vote unless they succeeded in improving their status and raised enough money to buy themselves a house? Deep in some secret part of her soul, there lurked the hope that by stimulating the new talent she’d discovered in herself during that one performance on stage, it might happen again one day and earn her an independent income. Shutting down these dreams she realised Annie Kenney was explaining the reason for this puzzle.
‘The government is wary of the fact that women are in the majority. Men have been in short supply for some years. Many went to work in the colonies before the war in order to find employment, a situation that could grow worse once this war is over, as so many young men have already been killed. Therefore, the number of surplus women will increase.’
‘Is this lack of a vote for all women, whatever their age or income, because the government has no wish to be taken over by us?’ Cecily asked, giving a wry smile. Others in the audience laughed and cheered at this remark.
‘I’d say that is the reason, yes,’ Annie replied with a cheerful nod. ‘As a young Yorkshire lass wishing to help women get the vote, I packed my little wicker basket, put two pounds safely in my purse - the only money I possessed - and started my journey to London to join the Pankhursts. Fortunately, Lloyd George and Asquith both now agree that the heroism of hard-working women doing men’s jobs during the war has made them reconsider our situation. This bill will make a start on improving our rights. Given time and more effort, we will hopefully succeed in widening its scope.’
As the meeting came to an end, Cecily joined the group of stewards to help collect donations from those women able to contribute. Some carefully ignored this appeal, not being well enough off, but she did manage to gather a fairly large sum.
Cecily Hanson longs to live life on her own terms—to leave the shadow of her overbearing mother and marry her childhood sweetheart once he returns from the Great War. But when her fiancé is lost at sea, this future is shattered. Looking for meaning again, she decides to perform for the troops in France.
Life on the front line is both rewarding and terrifying, and Cecily soon finds herself more involved—and more in danger—than she ever thought possible. And her family has followed her to France. Her sister, Merryn, has fallen for a young drummer whose charm hides a dark side, while their mother, Queenie—a faded star of the stage tormented by her own secret heartache—seems set on a path of self-destruction.
As the war draws to a close and their hopes turn once again to the future, Cecily and Merryn are more determined than ever to unravel the truth about their mother’s past: what has she been hiding from them—and why?