Posts Tagged 1918 election

Suffrage Stories: Christabel, The Ballot Box And That Hat

Christabel ballot 1909

Pretend you are taking a GCSE paper. One of questions states that this picture shows Christabel Pankhurst casting her first parliamentary vote. You have to decide whether this statement is true or false.

What clues might you find to point you in the right direction?

Actually there is one so glaring that I am amazed that it can be overlooked. Have a look at her attire.

Q.When were women of Christabel’s age able to vote for the first time?

A. December 1918.

Q. Does that dress and hat look like an outfit suitable for going to the ballot in December of any year?

A. Hardly.

Q. Are the hat and dress of a style worn in 1918?

A. Most definitely not.

Q. So – if not 1918 when might that flowing gown and flower-bedecked bonnet have been in the mainstream of fashion?

A. Spring 1909.

Yes, that is the correct answer.

In fact the photograph shows Christabel casting a vote in a ballot box that was one of the main features of the WSPU Fair at the Prince’s Skating Rink, Knightsbridge, that ran between 13-26 May 1909. As Votes for Women, 23 April 1909, stated ‘A unique feature of the Exhibition.. will be the polling booth which will occupy one of the corners of the great hall. At this booth women as well as men will cast their votes upon many of the most interesting questions of the day.’ And that is what we see Christabel doing.

And as for that hat? It does strike one as a little incongruous. She isn’t usually seen in anything so maidenly frivolous. And so it is interesting to know that the hat was a gift to her from Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. Moreover when, in the late 1950s, after Christabel’s death, he came to prepare her autobiographical manuscript for publication (Unshackled:the story of how we won the vote)  it was a photograph of her wearing his hat that he used for the frontispiece.

I have been amazed how this photograph, described as Christabel casting her first parliamentary vote, has been tweeted and retweeted. It was even used in Amanda Vickery’s ‘Suffragettes Forever’ BBC 2 programme to accompany the voice over telling us that women first voted in December 1918. How this thoughtless use of an incorrect image (by no means the only one) jarred.

Click here to see what Christabel looked like as she campaigned in Smethwick in late 1918 – for she was, of course, both a candidate and a voter. She is centre left in the photo – and you’ll be relieved to see that she is sensibly dressed – complete with muff – to combat the winter chill.


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