11 May 2010

Suffragettes attack the post! Yet again my brilliance strikes at the core of patriarchy...

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the talk Fe:MAIL – a history of how the suffragettes attacked the post to really ‘get their message across’ (if you’ll excuse the pun). The talk, given by the Scot Dr Norman Watson at the Women’s Library, explored how our suffrage ancestoresses managed to destroy around 8,000 letters during their attacks on post-boxes during the years 1912 to 1918, when WW1 paused the movement and women finally set about running the country themselves for a change.

“But how?” I hear you ask. “Not – how did they run the country – but how did they attack the post-boxes?"

Well, that’s a very good question.

They used ink, pots of ink to be precise, whose corks had been craftily loosened so that when a young lady, incensed by social and political inequality, really had just ‘had enough’, she could throw the ink pot into the post box where the dark liquid would slowly trickle over its contents. Envelopes from the time show that they really did get quite, quite black. As a result people missed their mail and the campaign gained publicity, although it must be said that the postal campaign hardly endeared the public whose correspondence was destroyed; it was a risky move to encourage wider support for the women’s cause.

On a lighter note, postcards (again you must excuse all my witty puns) were also jolly useful to the suffragettes. They ‘postcarded’ comrades about upcoming meetings (sometimes using suffrage code) and sent postcards depicting recent events to raise support for the cause (clever Kodak produced photographic ‘postcard’ film which meant the campaigners could produce images of events within hours). Two suffragettes even travelled to Number 10 as ‘human letters’, i.e. wearing placards, but the patriarch prime minster Asquith described them as ‘dead letters’, or rather letters that were lost, and refused to read them. Oh and it is also probably worth mentioning that they smashed up quite a few post offices too, using stones and hammers- but no one was ‘hurt’.

Dr Watson, a journalist, doctor (in the academic sense that is) and all round renaissance man, has taken it upon himself to explore the history of the suffrage movement in Dundee, and to great effect. For instance did you know that Winston Churchill was the MP for Dundee (isn’t that queer?) and when he gave a speech to his constituency in 1908 the stealthy Pankhurst sisters decided to send him a message (again, another pun) by dropping a pile of slates onto the roof above the patriarch’s head, ruining his address. Hurrah women!

But what the talk really brought home to me was the importance of the suffrage movement at a regional, rather than simply at a national level. The attacks on the postal system really brought this home (unlike those poor inky letters). The attacks on mailboxes were carefully coordinated throughout the country and required the team work and in-depth planning of women’s organisations in all towns and counties, so that their ink pots went flying all the same time in order to create maximum publicity for their cause. Watson bemoaned the lack of research into the activities of WSPU across the country. Indeed he inspired me to research the herstoy of my own town to be entitled, The Feminists of Wo-Hampshire.


Below I have included a short guide for any of you thinking about ‘inking a letter box’ in protest, although one must remember that it is awfully hard nowadays what with those awful CCTVs everywhere.

(1) Ensure you are carrying a muff in order to disguise your ink.
(2) Ensure the cork in your ink pot is loosened but not totally removed (you want the ink to slowly trickle down the letters), and you should probably carrying a hammer for good measure, possibly some explosives.
(3) Make sure no one is about when you chuck it in, however be sure to choose your time carefully, usually just before the patriarch postman is scheduled to collect.

Run away, fast, after you’ve posted your little protests surprise

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