One hundred years on the fight continues. This weekend, tens of thousands of women will march for equality across the UK in a spectacular sea of green and violet.
Women and girls will come together for PROCESSIONS, a mass-participation artwork taking place in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London to celebrate the centenary of The Representation of the People Act, which secured the vote for (some) women in 1918.
One hundred artists were commissioned to create the 100 centenary banners through workshops across the country, allowing women still marginalised to get their message across. Together with around 40,000 others on June 10 they will march, wrapped in the colours of the suffrage movement – green, violet and white.
The banners they make and bring to their chosen procession will form part of a unique living portrait of women today.
“PROCESSIONS is an invitation to women and girls across the country to become part of a vast artwork that will celebrate what was achieved 100 years ago, and asks what that means to women today,” said Helen Marriage, CEO of Artichoke, behind the mass marches.
“The banners they make and bring to their chosen procession will form part of a unique living portrait of women today.”
The Big Issue met some of the country’s modern campaigners still fighting for equality and recognition.
The women of those Dagenham strikes, they started something, just like the suffragettes started something
PROCESSIONS coincides with the 50th anniversary of the strikes by women at the Ford factory in Dagenham, where 187 female machinists walked out for three weeks to protest at unfair pay. The action led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Artist Susannah Willis explains how their legacy lives on.
“The 1968 strike was surprising for a lot of people, they were shocked to see these working-class women being so bold. And 50 years on, that’s stayed in everybody’s minds – nobody in Dagenham could deny their influence.
“Alongside them on the banner sits Mo Obadina, an amazing entrepreneur from Dagenham. She’s representing the present. And for the future my own daughter Rachel. She’s 18.
“The women of the Dagenham strikes, they started something, just like the suffragettes started something. It takes an individual, supported by a collective and backed by a movement, to have that ripple effect.”
These women had such hard lives
Luminate Scotland is a creative charity, working on projects for older people, and has worked with artist Fiona Hermse.
“We started with a textile techniques workshop to gauge the abilities of the class. Some are a lot more dexterous and able than others. So we tried some different techniques; spray dye, mono print, using fabric paints and pen, all sticking to the colours of green, violet and white. After that first workshop we came up with the theme of representing the fishwives and the herring girls of Dunbar, up to Musselburgh and Newhaven. These women had such hard lives and a unique lifestyle.
“We took inspiration from the clothes that they wore and the pride they took in their work to develop an aesthetic that we’ve used various textile techniques to convey as well as lots of hand embroidery and hand stitching. We’d had lots of ideas for a quote to put on our banner. We found a quote from Frances Wright, a writer and abolitionist who said that ‘Equality is the soul of liberty’.”
It’s important to recognise how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go
Dibby, 66, attends Glasgow arts organisation Project Ability, which holds sessions for people with disabilities and experience of mental ill-health.
“I took early retirement due to ill health but my mental health spiralled. I was referred here and I don’t know what I’d do without it now.
“Project Ability run many groups for different people, some with learning disabilities, others with physical disabilities. We’re encouraged to make art through painting, pottery, textiles, loads of ways. This is just one of them.
“Usually I paint, but I’ve been enjoying branching out into textiles with this banner. There’s about 10 women in total working on it. We used the colours of the suffragettes and felt cut-outs of all the different arts you can do here. That’s all surrounded by words we thought up together as a group that we felt summed up our experience of being at Project Ability.
“It’s really important to recognise the work that the suffragettes did and how far we’ve come now. And how far we still have to go.”
Beneath their beautiful surfaces lies a story of courage
Bristol artist Dorcas Casey led workshops to produce this banner with Strode College art department and Somerset Art Works.
“Suffrage banners gave voice to the voiceless. They were objects of great pride and significance, employing motifs and devices which cleverly imbued their slogans with a sense of grandeur and importance. They were designed to be striking from afar and exquisite up close; full of vivid colours, opulent fabrics and metallic threads. The process of making them fostered a sense of collective, collaborative progress for the women who were fighting for equal rights. It’s hard to imagine how subversive and incendiary these embroidered banners were when they first appeared in public. Beneath their beautiful, meticulous surfaces, lies a story of strength, courage, and collaboration.
“We wanted the finished banner to represent all our voices and ideas. Using neon, metallic and glow-in-the-dark thread we used traditional hand-embroidery techniques to echo the processes used by the suffragettes. Embroidery feels like a good metaphor for the suffrage movement; where small individual contributions achieved a huge shift in opinion. The phrase ‘Make More Noise’ comes from a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst and it sums up the sentiment of the suffrage processions; to make a spectacle, to make their voices heard. It still feels relevant today.”
The dragon drives and empowers
Sew Swansea promotes the benefits of sewing to women for confidence, skills and friendships. Sewing tutor Tasha Middleton says their banner remembers the Greenham Common Peace Camp.
“Our banner was inspired by a design from Greenham Common activist and banner-maker Thalia Campbell. We used that design as a starting point for ours but my students were also keen to celebrate all the occasions where women of Wales have stood up, taken action and supported each other, such as the miners’ strikes and World Wars.
“We appliquéd 37 fabric hand prints around the outside of the women who attended the workshop to represent the 70,000 women who held hands around the fence surrounding Greenham Common, 37 hands because it’s 37 years since the first camp was set up. In the centre of the ring are the words ‘The red dragon inspires action’, a rough translation of Y Ddraig Goch Ddyry Cychwyn, the motto which appeared on the 1953 Royal Badge of Wales. The group felt this worked really well as a statement about how amazing, fierce and passionate the women of Wales are! The dragon drives and empowers; it doesn’t dictate.”
We are celebrating an unsung group
Claudia Mayer, artist on the Tara Arts banner, says it’s time to remember the women overlooked in the suffragette story.
“The title of our banner is SHAKTI – the principle of female energy in South Asian cultures. In making the banner our inspiration has been the rich textile heritage and hugely varied embroidery techniques for which the region is so well known.
“Asian women have fought for justice and gender equality over the past 100 years. These women have contributed to social, political and artistic change. So we have an astronaut, a groundbreaking fine artist, an active suffragette, a freedom fighter for [Indian] independence, a young woman who fought for her right to an education and a pioneering trade unionist.
“Together, these Asian women have inspired millions over the past 100 years to kick against the forces of repression and we are enormously proud to represent them.”
To find out more about PROCESSIONS and register for your nearest march, visit processions.co.uk
Main image: Artist Quilla Constance leading banner making workshops for women of Bedfordshire through Bedford Creative Arts. Photo by Cat Lane