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>> The battle for equality

The battle for equality
15/06/2018

The battle for equality


David Roberts' new book, Suffragette: The Battle for Equality (Macmillan), takes a fresh look at the suffragette movement, giving a glimpse into the lives of those behind the movement and how it shaped people's lives.

David Roberts, who both wrote and illustrated Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, says the project was a labour of love, driven by his passion for equality.

This beautifully presented book details the struggle for women's suffrage at the turn of the 20th century, charting the steps toward the achievement of women's suffrage in the UK in 1928, when women and men were given the right to vote on an equal basis.

It details the acts of the people who fought for change in a society that saw women barred from political life as well as the politicians and citizens who opposed them.

We asked David Roberts to tell us more about Suffragette: The Battle for Equality:


Q: You have described creating Suffragette: The Battle for Equality as a labour of love but what started your interest in women's suffrage?

A: When I was 14 we had to do a school project based around the theme of the Industrial Revolution which we had been studying. Our teacher said it had to be illustrated. Most of the books we could choose from to use as inspiration were gone by the time I got to her desk but of those that were left there was one that had women on it in prison uniform which caught my eye. The book was called The Suffragettes and I was completely captivated by their story.

I was a young teenage boy. Most of my friends were girls and I was coming to understand that I was gay, but you weren't able to discuss something like that in the '80s. So I latched on to this issue of inequality through the suffragettes. I understood that these people were not being treated as equal and it really spoke to me.

It stayed with me; I was fascinated by the suffragettes and I learned more about them over the years. So I've wanted to do this book for years but I'm not a writer. It wasn't until I saw William Grill's book, Shackleton's Journey - we were both shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal in the same year - that I thought perhaps I could also write a book myself, as well as illustrate it.

So this is the project that I have always wanted to do, and I have loved tapping into history in this way.


Q: How did you decide to format the book, given the complexities within the suffrage movement?

A: I wanted it to work as a timeline through the movement, starting in 1903, the year that the WSPU (The Women's Social and Political Union, headed up by Emmeline Pankhurst) was formed, up to 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act came into play, giving women the vote on equal terms with men - although not all men could vote at this time, either.

When I began the research, however, I realised that I needed to go back further to lay the groundwork and to discover what it was like for women in Edwardian Britain and before.

I wanted to show what the movement was about, what was important about it and why women wanted the vote. So the book encompasses key events and key people in the movement, but avoids the politics around other events at the time, such as Northern Ireland.

I have also written an introduction to the book because I wanted to outline why I felt the women's suffrage movement was so important to me personally. BBC presenter Lauren Laverne has also written a foreword - we asked her because I love her interviews and her very conversational and accessible style on her programme, so I thought she would be perfect for this project.


Q: Where there any issues that stood out for you while you were researching the suffragettes?

A: I think the biggest message that I discovered about the suffrage movement was around the growth of feminism in general. This was an all-embracing change and people were terrified by it. There was a fear that, if women won the vote, how would it change society itself? Would men become weaker as a result and would they all become pacifists?

Don't forget this was at a time when war was on the horizon, so the idea of pacifism was terrifying. Emmeline Pankhurst, who led the suffragette movement, responded to this idea by saying in effect "what would be the good of fighting for the vote if we don't have a country to fight for?".

What was really interesting is how many women were against women's suffrage. Sometimes people think it was a battle of the sexes, men versus women, but it very much wasn't. There were so many reasons why some women opposed it - they believed men were the decision-makers, that women were morally superior to men and therefore shouldn't sully their minds with politics and so on.

It was so interesting learning about things like that. Discovering these things brings home how women who were fighting for the vote also had to fight against the women around them; there was no sense of unity of women fighting against men.


Q: We're familiar with the main figures in these movements, but were there other, less well known individuals who stood out for you?

A: There were many men among the suffragettes but the one who really stood out for me was Hugh Franklin who came from a very rich family and who was studying to be an engineer. He left his studies after hearing Christabel Pankhurst speak and turned his attention to women's suffrage through the Men's League for Women's Suffrage and the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage. He was militant and was on the front line, was sent to prison and force-fed. I'm not sure if people realise that men were also punished in this way.

There were also people like William Ball, a working-class militant suffragist, who also went to prison and was force fed which drove him to the point of insanity. It's very hard to find out about people in the movement who weren't rich or in the public eye, though.

While it was interesting to find out about the men's roles, I didn't want to focus on those. Among the women who caught my attention was Sophia Duleep Singh. She was a daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh - the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire - so an Indian princess and Queen Victoria's god daughter. Queen Victoria was staunchly against the idea of women getting the vote - but Sophia stood outside Hampton Court selling newspapers for women's suffrage. She could do that because they were really reluctant to arrest her. At the time, she was a key figure but we hear very little about her today.


Q: How did politicians and the police respond to the women's suffrage movement?

A: I realised that, in today's terms, we would probably have called the suffragettes terrorists: they were blowing up post boxes, making bombs and even burning down buildings. There was also, in turn, a lot of extreme violence against these women and one incident, called Black Friday, that was particularly shocking and which I have tried to depict through illustrations in the book rather than through the text.

Black Friday took place in November 1910, when 300 women marched to the Houses of Parliament. Winston Churchill who was Home Secretary at the time, instructed the police to prevent the women from reaching Parliament, but to not to make any arrests. So they had about 5,000 police on duty and the women were treated very harshly. It was reported by the media at the time and people found it very shocking that the police would treat women like that.


Q: How did you approach illustrating your text, given that the images are such an important part of this book?

A: It was a real mix of me conjuring up things in my mind and bringing them to life through the illustrations, and basing illustrations on old photographs that I had found. There are already a lot of books that use photographs and posters from the time, so I tried to avoid doing that.

What I focused on was getting the expressions and emotions right; that determination that you see on women's faces, especially when they were being dragged away by the police!


Q: What would you like your readers to take away from Suffragette: The Battle for Equality?

A: I would just love it if there are some readers out there who don't know much about the suffragette movement but who read this book and think, 'wow, these people were doing these really extraordinary things, even back in Edwardian Britain'.

I would love it if they went out and found out more stories about this movement and also realised that we can't take for granted our liberty; it was hard fought for and hard won. These women's names really need remembering; we should never underestimate what they achieved.
 
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