Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present is a digital text, available on the web at orlando.cambridge.org. We like to call it a textbase, not a database, because it doesn’t do bean-counting, but connected historical-critical prose, written by an ever-expanding list of scholars and students. Orlando consists of entries on individual writers. It is centred on British women, but includes some selected male and non-British writers, because literature is a territory without frontiers – and contextual historical material. Orlando will be free to access for the whole of March, Women’s History Month.

If you’re interested in the Votes for Women campaign it’s a no-brainer to do a chronological search in Orlando on the word “suffrage”. Results are not limited to women or to Britain: female taxpayers got the vote in New Zealand (or in some provinces of New Zealand) in 1867; the last European country to accept women’s suffrage was Lichtenstein, in 1984. Some search results are much earlier than you might expect.

The first result we have for “suffrage” is from the year 1654, when a woman is recorded as voting in a parliamentary election at Bristol – the last time this is known to have happened before the twentieth century. Then in 1689-90 came a book arguing that women had no right to vote in parliamentary elections – which suggests they had been doing it before this. In 1739 a court debated whether a woman had the right to vote for, or stand for appointment as, sexton of her parish. And so on. Women were voting, or trying to vote, centuries ago.

Moving on through the 593 items in Orlando’s suffrage chronology, you find societies and committees proliferating; you find demonstrations staged and speeches given in London and Dundee and places in between; you find bodies like the Free Church and the Irish Conservative and Unionist Party, all setting up their own suffrage groups. You find women’s suffrage tangled with other political issues like a miners’ strike and the movement for Irish Home Rule. And ultimately the First World War.

In April 1911 you find the Lord Mayor of Dublin petitioning the Bar of the House in Westminster to allow women in Ireland to be elected as county and borough councillors, which duly happened later that year. But meanwhile, having found the Conciliation Bill, which would have given many women the vote, passing its second Commons reading on 5 May 1911 by a wide majority, you then find it in the end postponed till the next session of parliament. On 28 March 1912 you find it defeated on its third reading, by coincidence just a week after the National Assembly of China gave the vote to women – only literate women who owned property, but still.

So it’s no wonder you find British suffragettes moving on from setting pillar boxes on fire to breaking windows of public buildings. Asquith, the Prime Minister, had a hatchet thrown into his carriage. Force-feeding began for suffragists in prison when they went on hunger strike (demanding to be treated as political prisoners, not like criminals). In January 1913 a franchise bill was introduced but then withdrawn. Men’s clubs and golf-courses had “Votes for Women” written across their grass with acid. On 25 April 1913 the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act (Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Act) received royal assent, empowering authorities to release hunger-strikers when they were “at death’s door”, as Emmeline Pankhurst said, for long enough to regain their health, and then to re-arrest them.

Often the Orlando chronology offers colourful detail: how, for instance, suffrage activists made an official complaint about police violence, especially about something “variously described as twisting round, pinching, screwing, nipping, or wringing the breast. This was often done in the most public way so as to inflict the utmost humiliation. Not only was it an offence against decency; it caused in many cases intense pain . . . The language used by some of the police while performing this action proves that it was consciously sensual.” But the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, refused the call for a public enquiry. The Daily Sketch used the headline “Disgraceful scenes”, but meant it differently from what one might expect. It accused the demonstrators of “shameful recklessness”, and congratulated the police on showing “their usual tact” and keeping “their tempers admirably.” Under a photo captioned “An unpleasant incident: a woman lying in the mud,” the paper said “decent men” responded with “obvious disgust.”

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. On 17 June 1911, in the month of George V’s coronation, the ‘Women’s Coronation Procession’ marched through London to the strains of Ethel Smyth’s March of the Women. Attended by 40,000 women from at least twenty-eight suffrage organisations, it featured three symbolic parades: the Historical Pageant, the Pageant of Empire, and the Prisoners’ Pageant. A woman on horseback led the way, then another on foot as her colour-bearer, then the daughter of an actual Member of Parliament also on horseback, dressed in armour as Joan of Arc.

Mixed with the public events, Orlando gives you personal details of writers’ activities. Clicking on the writer’s name takes you to her entry, where you often find more details. For example, from the Ethel Smyth entry, Thomas Beecham reported seeing Ethel Smyth in Holloway prison, leaning out of her cell window, conducting her “March of the Women” with a toothbrush to a yard full of women singing below her. And at any time you can click on a name like Smyth, and go either to her own Orlando entry or to mentions or discussions of her in other people’s entries.


Access Orlando for free for the whole of March, Women’s History Month.

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