The Scottish referendum for independence in 2014 was a watershed, not only because 16 and 17 year olds were allowed to vote for the first time, but because there was an election turnout of 85%; a record for any election in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. In a few weeks Britain will face a General Election. I worry, I mean, I literally worry what the turn out will be – 5 years ago it was 63%. Meanwhile, in Nigeria this week some voters had to risk the barrel of a gun to exercise their franchise. I know Australians have a singular view on voting, but what is going on here people of Great Britain?
It’s hard to ignore this larger political question when reading Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, a graphic novel that explores the women’s suffrage movement against the backdrop of the early nineteenth century and the First World War. All good books are a work of art, but this is a visual feast as well as a fascinating read. The novel takes a period of history which is at times relegated to a dreary footnote and makes it really engaging: it has death, betrayal, romance, violence and a lot of really smart women. All of this is played out against a backdrop of illustrations that are fantastically intricate as well as compelling.
The story opens with Sally Heathcote lying in a nursing home in 1969 and then leaps back to weave a story around her involvement with the suffragettes. It makes the personal political; her earnestness, anger and dedication speak for a cadre of women and men militating against the status quo.
What struck me most was the violence circulating around the suffragettes. The women’s frustration with the political inertia grows in parallel with their destructiveness. We are presented with sessions of window smashing, a marginally successful attempt to bomb Mr Lloyd George’s house and of course the death of a woman under the King’s horse at Derby. However, the violence perpetrated by the state is far more extreme. Once incarcerated, it became commonplace for women to go on hunger strikes to protest being denied political prisoner status. Half way though the novel, Sally is in Holloway Prison and through small frames presented in quick succession the terror and the physical effects of her force-feeding are powerfully conveyed. One prisoner, it is noted, suffered permanent injury to her larynx during a forcible feeding session. It gives me goose bumps thinking about it.
It was a total revelation that Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel are not messianic heroines of the movement; by this account they were nothing less than duplicitous and scheming. When the war started, they switched allegiance from the female enfranchisement cause to become recruiting agents for the military. They betrayed their allies, the Pethwick-Lawrences and then cast off their daughter/ sister Slvyia for having a baby out of wedlock (Sylvia’s left-ish credentials appear above reproach and she seemed to be quite a nice person into the bargain, reminding me of erstwhile Sybil in Downtown Abbey).
As a chronic ‘reader of the last page before it is time’, I was really glad I’d heeded the warning not to; the last frame is brilliant. I would urge everyone to read this book. The fact that people choose not to vote has always dispirited me more than the way in which they choose to exercise that vote. Reading Sally Heathcote makes it all the more confounding.