The Working-Class Suffragettes Must Not Be Forgotten

The women’s suffrage movement is too often remembered as exclusively middle-class and focused solely on votes for women. But socialist and working-class suffragettes played essential roles in the fight for equality.

Sylvia Pankhurst was a socialist and militant suffragette who campaigned for women’s right to vote. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)

The New York art world is funded by very rich people, and thus tends to reflect their politics, aesthetics, and preoccupations. That’s why it’s newsworthy and exciting that the Amant art space in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is right now highlighting an intriguing exploration of socialist feminism — for the second time this year.

Olivia Plender’s “Neither Strivers Nor Skivers, They Will Not Define Us,” is based on the artist’s research on Sylvia Pankhurst, an English socialist feminist. Pankhurst (1882–1960) is best-known as a suffragette, but she was also a trained artist, active in struggles against imperialism and racism, and helped found the Communist Party in the United Kingdom. The exhibition focuses mainly on Pankhurst’s work with the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, creative working-class organizing of the kind not usually described in histories of this period.

The exhibition displays and draws upon archival material, such as the manuscript for Pankhurst’s 1913 play Liberty or Death, which is based on her experiences organizing in East London. Pencil drawings of women getting arrested by police officers, eloquently straightforward and realistic, are displayed on the wall.

As part of the project, Plender conducted a series of meetings in working-class women’s centers and community centers, with activists from a diverse range of communities. Audio of these conversations plays during the exhibition, and as the women describe their experiences and their organizing, their voices complement and at times almost seem to continue the story and atmospherics of Pankhurst’s 1913 play and politics. In these audio excerpts, they describe experiences with the welfare bureaucracy, police harassment, and the pervasive lack of respect they face as women of the working class. Their voices bring the historical material into the present.

An artist book accompanying the exhibition features black-and-white ink drawings of scenes from the work of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes, Pankhurst’s organization, which organized working-class women in that neighborhood into voting but also offered them services, political education, and much more. The drawings, which are simple, almost like children’s book illustrations, draw us into the group’s intriguing work. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes established a cooperative toy factory, which offered design training to the women so they could design as well as make the products, and the cooperative structure allowed the women to pay themselves the same wages as skilled male workers.

They also offered strategies to relieve the women from household work. The East London Federation of the Suffragettes offered a free Montessori kindergarten, which beyond just providing the women with needed childcare, also focused on nurturing the creativity of the children. Intriguingly, the group’s Cost Price restaurant offered cheap, nutritious meals and raised the community’s consciousness about the unaffordability of good food for low-wage workers (similar to Alexandra Kollontai’s vision of restaurants and cafeterias for all, to socialize the work of cooking).

Another of the East London Federation of the Suffragettes’ projects was the People’s Army, a self-defense group formed in 1913, for both men and women wishing to protect themselves from police violence. They held shooting practices in Victoria Park. Like the class consciousness, this clearly runs counter to our received image of suffragettes as bourgeois women wearing white and demanding to share the privileges of their husbands.

“Hold, Hold Fire,” the video installation, takes off from this striking episode. The first half of the video shows a contemporary jiujitsu class, a bit boring, but perhaps a necessary setup for the beautiful and jarring unreality of its second half, which plays on the opposite wall of the room. Here the same contemporary women from the self-defense class engage in a shooting exercise in the park, just as the East London suffragettes did. The installation is provocative because, of course, police violence is still an overwhelming fact of urban, working-class life, and yet, the conditions of militarized repression that we now live under in cities make it hard to imagine people taking up shooting practice in the park to protect themselves from the cops. Even though there is no magic, this video sequence plays almost as magic realism because the idea seems so politically distant from us.

In recent years, our collective consciousness about police violence as a fact of working-class life, especially for black and brown people in the United States, has been raised. Here, however, the historical material on police repression of working-class suffragettes, carried into the present in this way, encourages us not only to consider police brutality as a historical fact in situations where it’s not commonly discussed, but also helps us to understand the larger political implications of police violence: as well as being a horrific assault on working-class lives, it also works to repress working-class politics, keeping people from protesting and organizing.

The Plender show is up until June 26, and is part of Amant’s “First Person, Third Person, Same Person” series, which includes cinematic installations that also use testimonials, archival material, and books to explore history that resonates with our contemporary world. Dora García’s “Revolution, Fulfill Your Promise!” which engaged with the life and work of Bolshevik thinker Alexandra Kollontai (which we visited and interviewed García about in February), was also part of this series, and in its depth of attention to socialist feminist history and ambition to connect that history to the present, has many echoes in Plender’s show. The next in the series, “Education By Night,” by Brazilian artist Clara Ianni, which will be up from July 2 to September 8, explores the relationship between the Cold War, military dictatorship, and global capitalism through mid-century US propagandistic educational materials about Latin America.

Amant is an inviting place, with a bookstore café stocked with socialist feminist titles and even a small outdoor garden. The exhibitions are almost densely intellectual, with source material to peruse at length. Every movement needs art, and the art of today’s socialist feminist movement hasn’t been that visible. Let’s hope Amant’s curators continue exploring this fruitful terrain.