In developing the Spurlock Museum temporary exhibit “Debates, Decisions, Demands: Objects of Campaigns and Activism,” Curator Nathan Tye and museum educator Beth Watkins gathered many fascinating artifacts to share with our visitors.
The 87 objects come from Italy, South Africa, Panama, Tanzania, France and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States.
In addition to the familiar buttons and bobbleheads, political messaging can be found on canes, license-plate attachments, cookie cutters, snuffboxes, threadboxes, cigar boxes and porcelain tableware.
The exhibit is on display through May 23. This article highlights one of the smallest but most emotion-packed objects on display: the Women’s Social and Political Union’s Holloway Prison brooch.
The group was formed in Britain in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst, whose interest in women’s enfranchisement began at an early age.
Her mother took her to her first women’s suffrage meeting at the age of 14. At 21, she married Dr. Richard Pankhurst, a lawyer who supported the suffrage cause.
Over time, Emmeline Pankhurst’s three daughters also joined her in the fight for women’s rights.
What differentiated the group from other women’s organizations was the militancy of its tactics. It led to the group’s members being called “suffragettes,” differentiating them from the “suffragists” belonging to organizations using more peaceful methods.
Protesting under the slogan “Deeds, Not Words,” members of the group used “unladylike” behavior that shocked British society.
Tactics like holding rallies and confronting politicians expanded to smashing windows, assaulting police officers and burning and bombing property.
Official reaction was severe, resulting in arrests and torturous imprisonment. The group significantly reflected the structures of Britain’s global empire and stratified society, largely ignoring the inequalities of race and class.
The brooch, designed by Pankhurst’s daughter
Sylvia, was created as a medal for members who had been held in London’s Holloway Prison.
The details of the brooch’s form have particular importance. The background grid represents a portcullis, the heavy doorway grate that serves as the symbol of the House of Commons in the British Parliament.
In front of the grating is a wide arrow, a symbol of prisoners, in the group’s colors: green, white and purple.
The design was also used on other objects, like the teacup and saucer set also on display in the exhibit.
British suffrage activists achieved their first victory in 1918, when Parliament passed a law letting women over 30 years old who met certain property requirements vote.
This same law also gave all men over 21 the right to vote. In 1928, the law was extended to all women over 21, finally giving rights equal to those for men.
Unfortunately, Pankhurst had died just a few weeks before that law was passed.
“We were called militant, and we were quite willing to accept the name,” she said in 1913. “We were determined to press this question of the enfranchisement of women to the point where we were no longer to be ignored by the politicians.”
Kim Sheahan is Spurlock Museum’s assistant director of education and resident storyteller. She performs multicultural folktales and historical one-woman shows for audiences of all ages throughout central Illinois.