A Fragile Unity: The Women’s Coronation Procession, 1911.
by Tara Morton, Mapping Women's Suffrage
The Women’s Coronation Procession took place on Saturday the 17th of June 1911 on a gloriously sunny afternoon in London. At 5.30pm sharp, the Women’s Social & Political Union’s (WSPU) General Flora Drummond began to move forward on horseback. Slowly but surely too, did the more than forty thousand women from over forty-eight different suffrage societies that were assembled and waiting behind her including those from the largest, constitutional National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The mood was vibrant and celebratory. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. The public packed every available vantage point in the surrounding streets, and as the procession moved forward, five women abreast, with banners, musical accompaniment, historical costumes, and decorative floats, it snaked for almost seven miles through the city streets.
This was a spectacle like no other suffrage procession before it. It was meant to rival the official Coronation procession for the King, set to take place just one week later as a spectacle ‘of the manhood of the Empire’ and so to challenge the values that excluded women from it. The king’s impending coronation and an imperial conference being held in the city, meant London was swamped with visitors from home and overseas, presenting the procession’s organisers believed, the perfect opportunity to bring ‘before the eyes’ ‘women as one half of the people who are the King’s Loyal Subjects’.[i]
Women from all walks of life, towns and regions of the country, professions, and nations of the British Empire and beyond travelled to take part in the procession, including representatives in traditional costume from India, Ireland, Wales, and Australia: the program for the event claiming to bring together women from ‘all corners of the earth’.[ii] There was an Empire Car in which children sheltered under the Emperor kings tree and ‘at their feet symbolic presentments of the various dependents and colonies’ bound to the Crown.[iii] Historical pageantry was also used in the procession to celebrate women’s enduring contribution to British life with campaigners dressed in costumes depicting figures such as Joan of arc, Boadicea, Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, women whose visual presence and past deeds called into question their sex’s current exclusion from political life.
Historians have since reflected upon and rightly critiqued the procession’s representation of this global ‘sisterhood of unity’ in the context of class differences and of its celebration of the goodness of a colonialist British Empire which reinforced a white Western, imperialist point of view, and effectively erased ‘material and ideological power differences within and among groups of women’ especially as author Chandra Mohanty points out, between First and Third World women.[iv] An observer from The Times wrote that while ‘women of every class of society seemed to be united in the demonstration … the wives and daughters of the working class were comparatively few’ and as historian Sumita Mukherjee remarks, Indian women were not there to represent the campaign for votes in India, an issue which was not raised until after 1917 when democratic assemblies were slowly introduced by the imperial parliament.[v]
In popular terms, the Women’s Coronation Procession was an unparalleled success. Even the routinely hostile Anti Suffrage Review admired its ‘charming spectacle’.[vi] Yet, the procession over which so many suffrage societies cooperated, came at a time when tensions within the movement were running high. The NUWSS suffragists and other more moderate campaigners felt the recent ‘militant’ actions of suffragette members of the WSPU was damaging the votes for women cause in the eyes of the public and leaving supportive politicians with little room for manoeuvre. Thus, the proposal for the collaborative procession put forward by Mabel Tuke, joint Honorary Secretary of the WSPU, the organisers of the event, at first caused splits and dissensions between constitutionalists over whether to work with them and to take part. The NUWSS executive committee for example, voted to cooperate with the WSPU over the procession, but its London committee integral to the organisation of any procession through the city disagreed. Members were legitimately concerned that the procession might be hijacked by the WSPU as a platform for further militant activity, temporarily suspended, with which they had no desire to be associated. Nevertheless, after much wrangling and pressure from the executive, the London committee conceded. A fragile unity followed, and plans got underway.
Central to those plans was the visual spectacle of the procession. The sheer scale of it meant that it was immensely complex and difficult to organise not least from an artistic point of view and so the WSPU invited all participating societies ‘to bring variety and beauty into the procession by the introduction of your own scheme of decoration’ though the overall design was supervised from temporary rooms at 12 Smith Street, Chelsea, by WSPU artists Marion Wallace Dunlop and Edith Downing.[vii] For their part, the WSPU already possessed many decorative pieces created for two processions the preceding year that could be reused. The NUWSS and other constitutionalist societies, less so. There were in existence two suffrage societies dedicated to producing artistic devices for the campaign: the Artists Suffrage League formed in 1907, headed by artist Mary Lowndes and Barbara Forbes and closely aligned with the NUWSS, and the Suffrage Atelier formed in 1909, as well as a host of other artists who produced work independently. As head of the Artists Suffrage League, Lowndes wrote to the NUWSS that she and Forbes were ‘absolutely unable to give up the time required for organising such a thing at this moment’ and ventured the same was true for many of the League’s other artists. However, one of them, artist Emily Ford, independently offered to create several shield shaped banners representing the names of town councils supportive of a proposal to extend the franchise to women householders in a Conciliation Bill that was pending in parliament, visually illustrating the benefits of quiet, constitutional work, and as Ford put it, bearing ‘no possible relation to the WSPU’.[viii]
It was a herculean effort on Ford’s part, and together with contributions from other artists and creative societies like the Actresses Franchise League, the procession sections were beautifully designed and choreographed, the float themes and decorations artistically staged, and all moved with military precision from Westminster to the Albert Hall. The diverse sections that made up the procession were laid out in a ‘Great Demonstration’ map. The political symbolism it captures, with the NUWSS filtering into the main procession from a street diametrically opposed to the WSPU, is difficult to ignore.
The mass spectacle of the coronation procession sought not only to rival that of the king’s, but to challenge anti suffragist claims, espoused by the Prime Minister, that most women in Britain did not want the vote, that there was no popular demand for it, and all as suffragists were brimming with confidence that once parliament returned in September, the Conciliation Bill would grant votes for women, albeit in a limited form, upon which further progress could be made.
However, later that year in November, the Prime Minister dashed those hopes, announcing instead the government’s intention to introduce a new Reform Bill that would potentially enfranchise more men, and exclude women. This cynical move effectively torpedoed the Conciliation Bill and with it the prospect of women’s enfranchisement at least until the next election, then due in 1915. Leader of the constitutionalist NUWSS, Mrs Millicent Fawcett, prophetically commented that ‘If it had been his [the PM’s] object to enrage every women’s suffragist to the point of frenzy, he could not have acted with greater perspicacity’ and so it was that the torpedoing of the Bill catalysed a new and more destructive phase of WSPU militancy including mass window smashing and arson campaigns, increased suffragette imprisonments and hunger strikes (along with state sanctioned forcible feeding), as well as property bombings and destruction.
Inevitably, the Women’s Coronation procession was the last time in the campaign that the law abiding NUWSS and the WSPU would cooperate with one another. In its scope and ambition, the procession was and remains a remarkable, visually stunning, yet culturally complex historical spectacle, performed at a momentous time in the history of the Votes for Women campaign. On the one hand, it represents a display of Edwardian imperialist and nationalist notions of white western supremacy, an overt linking of patriotism and politics that erased the power differences between women at home and overseas. On the other, it symbolises women’s capacity to achieve the extraordinary, to overcome fractious differences between them, coming together in unity and peace for the common cause of political equity. Perhaps, in the violent aftermath to the procession that followed the government’s torpedoing of the Conciliation Bill, there is also an erudite lesson in the consequence of political betrayal.
Special thanks to The Museum of London and the Women's Library (LSE) for the use of images.
About the Author
Tara Morton is creator and Project Coordinator for Mapping Women’s Suffrage. She has authored several articles on the women’s suffrage movement including for Thomas & Garrett (Eds.) Suffrage and the Arts: Visual Culture, Politics and Enterprise (Bloomsbury, 2019) and has worked on suffrage and gender related education projects at Warwick University and for The Historical Association. Her interests include 19th and 20th century feminism; women and visual culture; spatiality and gender politics. She is currently working to complete her doctoral thesis which employs concepts of mapping to analyse feminist interventions made by suffrage artists across the gender power spectrum.
[i] Memento of Women’s Coronation Procession to demand Votes for Women, Saturday June 17, 1911, Order of March and Descriptive Programme (London: Woman’s Press, 1911), preface. [ii] Memento, preface. [iii] The Bystander, 21st June 1911, p. 593. [iv] Chandra Talpade Mohanty, ‘Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience’ in Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, ed. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) p. 83. [v] (The Times, 19 June 1911:33); Sumita Mukherjee, ‘Diversity and the British female Suffrage movement’, Fawcett Society (30 November 2015) https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/blog/diversity-british-female-suffrage-movement [vi] Quoted in Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-1914 (London: Chatto & Windus,1988) p. 130. [vii] See, Elizabeth Crawford, Art and Suffrage: A Biographical Dictionary of Suffrage Artists (London: Francis Boutle, 2018). [viii] See NUWSS Executive Committee Minutes & Emily Ford letters to Philippa Strachey (The Women’s Library, LSE) & Tickner, Spectacle, pp. 122-131.