Suffragette City: “Votes for Women” at the Museum of London

Finding something to do that doesn’t leave either me or my baby (or both!) mind-numbingly bored is getting to be more and more challenging as my maternity leave dwindles to a close. Museums are a life-saver, because there is usually something in any museum interesting for both of us to look at, and at the very least older kids running around to amuse Theo and a nice book or toy to be purchased in the museum shop.


This week we went to the Museum of London. We frequent the Docklands museum as it’s near our home but it was my first time visiting the main museum in more years that I can count. I wanted to see the”Votes for Women” exhibit so we headed there first, then wandered backwards in time through 20th century London. Very enlivening stuff, much different from the stuffy Roman mannequins I seem to recall from my study abroad days when the Museum was home to our “History of London” class.

The “Votes for Women” exhibit was a bit disappointing, however. I did enjoy the video, which addressed the fine line between civil disobedience and violence, and recognised the oft-forgotten fact that in 1918 not *all* women were granted the vote. The objects chosen for the display were poignant and powerful.

Missing, however, was a discussion of the Suffragists, and their objection to the Suffragettes use of force, which they felt damaged rather than aided their cause. A baffling omission as it would have aided and illustrated the debate about civil disobedience.

IMG_4383 2
Emmeline Pankhurst’s hunger strike medal. In many ways the colours, parades, and awards of the suffrage campaign echoed the military culture of the time. 

And of course, the First World War was mentioned, but not the fact that some suffragists and suffragettes alike refused to aid the war effort, either motivated pacifist beliefs or because they refused to be distracted from their main aim of women’s suffrage. Instead, the museum presented the usual narrative that women’s contributions helped them to be seen as worthy of the vote (indeed, this was the motivation for many suffrage-minded women to join the war effort) and therefore was the reason for extension of suffrage (despite the fact that the women who won the vote in 1918 were not the smiling on the film, nor indeed were they the vast majority of women who put their lives on hold for their war work). It was a short exhibit, but given they’d already found room and capacity for nuance, I felt there could have been more of it.

We are spoilt for choice on suffrage-related exhibitions in London at the moment, so stay tuned for more.

The “Votes for Women” display is on in the Museum of London until 6 January, 2019 (free).





The world has no place in our bed

*Warning: this post contains a spoiler for Hamilton. If you haven’t heard it or seen it yet and want to go in fresh, like me, you should skip it.

There’s a moment in the musical Hamilton where the character Eliza seemed to be speaking to me directly. In “Burn,” after Alexander published the details of his affair in the Reynolds pamphlet, Eliza is burning her letters from her husband (oh how I cringed at this destruction of the historical record!) and sings, “Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.”

In a way, this song breaks the fourth wall. I was suddenly aware that the musical was just that: the wonderings of a historian (can we call Lin-Manuel Miranda a historian? Why not). It was not real representation of the past, though it felt real. But then, it might have happened that way…

I read somewhere, I can’t remember where, that Hamilton was not history but history fanfiction. I liked that, when I read it, and now I’ve seen the musical I like it even more. Somehow by calling it fanfiction, rather than historical fiction, gives Lin Manuel the license to take as many liberties with the actual history as he likes, in the name of a better story. And it’s a damn good story. But if someone were to write the equivalent story and publish it as a historical novel, they would likely be pilloried for inaccuracy. Why? Why our authors so self-aware about historical accuracy in a work of fiction? And why are readers so demanding of it? Or am I just making too much of the preferences of a portion of the market? After all, I do not mind when stories play fast and loose with facts, and though I appreciate when such intentional inaccuracies are acknowledged in an author’s note or similar, it’s not as though any novel is ever pretending to be a work of nonfiction.

Back to Eliza, burning her letters (sitting in the stalls, I could smell the smoke):

The world has no right to my heart

The world has no place in our bed

They don’t get to know what I said

Ouch. I squirmed in my seat. I’ve never been so aware that what I’m doing as a historian is invading the privacy of people in the past. Commiserating in their misfortune, ogling over their romances, reading between the lines of diaries and letters that may or may not have been intended for public consumption when they were written, or circulated, or donated to a museum. Digging through documents looking for clues, speculating on sex lives of strangers from a hundred years ago.

Should I feel guilty? I do now. Am I going to stop? Well, no. I’m not. The world may have no right to the juicy details, but the world is still pretty curious.

The long and the short of it

I have a visceral memory of the tub in my bathroom at my mother’s house. It was mauve pink; very sixties, and when she remodeled the house shortly after buying it in 2001, there wasn’t enough money to replace it, so we made it work with maroon linens and a Hollywood style mirrored cabinet she’d found on clearance at Home Base. I remember getting ready for my high school graduation in front of that mirror.


It was my bathroom, and remained so even after I moved back in with my mother after I graduated from college, even after she died and I was the only one living there. I remember very clearly, the morning after I graduated with my master’s degree: I stepped over the edge of that mauve bathtub and I thought: I must cut my hair.


My hair was long then, and I’d spent a lot of time and effort growing it out, so no one was more surprised by this impulse than me. But, my mind focused on escaping the personal tragedy of my mother’s death, not for the last time I took my inspiration from WWI heroines perhaps a little bit too literally.  I’d written about the significance and symbolism of women cutting their hair during WWI in my master’s thesis, and I loved the stories:


While they were waiting to disembark at Salonika,Dr Isabel Emslie wrote that she “cut the hair of nearly all the unit.” No one seemed to mind, including “Edith Harley, whose beautiful long hair I was loathe to sacrifice,” except for one nurse who had “only twopenny-worth of Nature’s crowning glory, but as I was half through she called out in her lovely highland voice: ‘Oh, my good hair, my good hair, please don’t cut it off!'” (Hutton,With a Woman’s Unit, 37, 43)


This included Olive “ Jo” King, who loved her short hair and the freedom it provided (“As soon as it was done I couldn’t imagine why I’d never done it before. There are about half a dozen of us with short hair, & we fairly gloat over the others.”), but upon learning of her father’s disapproval decided to grow it out (“You’ll be glad to hear I haven’t had my hair cut for four months”), only to lapse in the heat of summer. (King, One Woman at War, 32, 43, 51.)


The importance of short hair was practical as well as symbolic. Women with short hair were prepared to “rough it” and work hard. Their shorn locks were a badge of honour — an reminder that their effort and dedication were to be taken seriously. A flagrant rejection of social norms. And, crucially, a visual representation of a break from their pre-war lives and selves.


I wanted to be windswept and interesting rather than trapped and tragic. So I exchanged my LAX-LON ticket for an earlier date, and I chopped off my hair.


I grow my hair, and then I get tired of it, and I cut it off. Nothing so unusual about that, but when I look back on the haircuts of my adulthood, there’s a clear demarkation. A dramatic life event demands its equivalent in coiffure. A bad breakup on the eve of a stateside trip, and I dragged myself to the same hairdresser who’d done the original chop. It wasn’t drastic enough: several groupon hair cuts later I was shorn, then gradually settled, then growing my hair out for my wedding. Happily married, I cut it all off again.

My hair is long again now, sustained by years of optimistic prenatal vitamins and nine months of pregnancy hormones; I’m feeling that itch. It’s not that I’m tired of my hair (though I am tired of cleaning it out of the bathroom drain). But what is a major life event if not accompanied by a haircut?

Writing for the sake of words 

On April 21, 1915 Craigie Lorimer interrupted her diary description of the old town in Salonika:

“What awful rot this sounds, I wonder if anyone will understand and not think I’m writing for the sake of words.”

Craigie’s words struck with me, and have stayed with me every since I first read them (more years ago now than I like to count). She intended her diary to have an audience, even while she was constructing her words (and interestingly for a historian, that means her awareness of her potential audience likely had an effect on what as well as how she wrote). Obviously all of the diaries I read in my research ended up having an audience, but many of them, unlike the letters or memoirs, were intended as private aide-memoirs. I believe that Craigie intended to share her diary with her family on her return from Serbia, and likely that is what she did. The version in the IWM documents collection is an undated typescript, transcribed (and likely edited) by her husband. The typescript is undated but I suspect it was done at some later date, to form a family heirloom, before being passed onto the museum. But that is a story for another time.

I think about the above quote, which marks a usually private form of writing as intended to be public, when considering the private value of a usually public form of writing: the novel.  

I’ve been writing, seriously, for over three years but it feels strange to be to discuss it so openly because I’ve always been a bit secretive; I didn’t want to jinx my success. But recently I’ve come to realise that success (or however I’d previously defined success) is not the point. The point is: words.

Words. 50,000 words. This somewhat arbitrary number is what, by definition makes up a novel during the month of November (NaNoWriMo). 50,000 over 30 days works out to 1667 words per day, and would-be novelists are obsessed by this number. We are obsessed by word counts. “What’s yours?”

Words. By the end of the month, many of us are just writing for the sake of words, any old nonsense, adjectives galore, just to get to that magical, mythical number.

I’ve done “Nano” for ten years but this year is my real anniversary, because it was ten years ago that I became a London Nano-er. I was new to the city but had been here long enough to realise how hard it was to make friends and how easy it was to feel homesick, even when you no longer have a home. I didn’t want to stay in on Halloween, and I saw it was the kick off party at a pub in West London, so I went and, on the back of that, decided to write a novel. I can honestly say that decision changed my life: the people I met during Nano, and the people I met through them, form the foundations of my career, my romantic life, and most of my important friendships. The novels are almost beside the point.

Last year I calculated that I’d written my 500,000 Nano word. Half a million words. That’s not including any words written outside of Nano, but with one notable exception there aren’t very many of them.

For years I was a November novelist. Like fair-weather cyclists, some of them accept and own this about themselves. Others have more ambitious intentions. They take December off, but their new year’s resolution is to edit their novel. They form writing groups with their Nano friends, in their favourite Nano cafes. But before they know it, it’s November again, their red pen is still full of ink and a new idea is beckoning.

For years I sat in judgement of those people, despite the fact that I was one of them. You’ll never get anywhere in your writing unless you work on it year round, I’d think. I had a good excuse — I could justify taking one month off PhD work to dash out a 50k draft of a novel, but the rest of the year I had to be dedicated to my research and writing. Someday, once I finished my PhD — then I would edit that novel.

Actually, I learned a lot about writing from Nanowrimo that helped me in my PhD. The year I decided to write 50k even though I was going on holiday for the last two weeks of November was when I discovered I could get up early and write for an hour or two, which is how I finished my thesis while working full time. The classic Nanowrimo strategy of turning off your internal editor and bashing through a rough first draft so at least you have something to edit applies just as well to non-fiction writing, I’ve since discovered.

The irony is, if I’d worked as hard at my thesis as I did at my novels and spent less time organising my spice rack, I could have written and edited six novels in the additional time it took my to finish my PhD. 

Never mind. You can’t change the past. In June 2014 I finally did Phinish. I got married in July and in August I picked up my notebooks. November novelist no more! 

Lucky for me, I loved (almost) every minute of writing and editing my novels, but when I decided to pursue publication writing stopped being fun for me. Then Nanowrimo reminded me how to seperate the words from the process. November 2016 came at the end of a long, hard year plagued misfortune and marked by a period of such misery that I had to ditch the perfume I’d been wearing because the scent of it made me sick. My American friends and I have a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving day in the American bar at the Savoy. I remembered the previous year’s glass of champagne: my beloved cat had terminal cancer, I wasn’t pregnant despite years of effort, the best thing I’d written was getting rejections everyday, and quite frankly Paris in 1919 was a more appealing time and place to be, mentally. A year later I was sipping an overpriced mocktail because I’d just finished a round of IVF and dared either to hope nor to take any chances. Writing was, once again, a chance to escape.

I wrote the last words of my novel the day before I had my first ever positive pregnancy test. I hurried to finish early because I knew I wouldn’t feel like writing if it was a thin blue line.

I haven’t even opened those two notebooks since that day. Nine other novels are in a similar state but in a scrivener file on my laptop. Maybe one day, in a different form, they’ll see the light of day. Or maybe not. In a way I don’t really mind, because they’ve served their purpose.

So I’m a “serious” writer now, but I’m also still a November novelist. As disheartening as the publishing rat race is, writing is still fun and it still makes me happy, and I’m going to keep doing it even if no one sees the words but me. How liberating, to write with only the goal of indulging yourself. Writing, not just for the sake of words, but for the pleasure those words bring.

“I’m the men who can”: Wonder Woman as a First World War heroine

I’m almost 8 months pregnant and running out of time and energy, but I knew I had to see Wonder Woman. I dragged myself off the tube one stop early, visions of the icy-cool movie theatres and unlimited buttery popcorn of my youth dancing through my head, only to discover that my local cinema’s version of air-con was “we’ve turned off all the heating.” £7 bought me a box of popcorn that was empty before the ads stopped and a Fanta that made me have to pee in the middle of the film. Never mind. (I went halfway through the boat scene. Other than double-speak about sexual norms of the early twentieth century, what did I miss?)

What a delightful film! How refreshing to see such a kick-ass female character on screen! I was there as a historian but I wasn’t there for historical accuracy and I suspect anyone who was isn’t in the target audience. With a film so blatantly fantastical, who needs historical accuracy? I thought it was wonderful to see the FWW setting used in such a creative way — something I hope we’ll see more of, hopefully if Wonder Women inspires.

We get WWII films all the time. WWII is easy. Nazis are evil — everyone can agree to that. It makes the story straightforward. But WWI is more complicated. No wonder the futility narrative has taken hold of the public imagination so unflinchingly. What’s a story without, as Captain Steve Trevor calls them, “the bad guys”? But are the Germans the bad guys — doesn’t that play into an overly simplistic nationalistic viewpoint which downplays or outright rejects the other nations’ complicity in warmongering? Are the warmongers the bad guys, with the average citizen a helpless pawn as evil  or incompetent generals lead them to their deaths? One is what most people believed at the time (I’m generalising here, I know) and the other is what most believe now. The problem with the futility narrative is that is robs the war of its meaning, and it was full of so much meaning, everyday, for the people who fought and lived it. This was something I thought the film showed well — a moment of levity, smiles and laughter amongst friends on the docks, which quickly turned to shocked silence as the wounded appeared and Diana realised the horrible results of the war. All the more powerful because of the context. But meaningless? I don’t think so.

I watched the “bad guy” idea ping back and forth throughout the film, wondering how it would be resolved. There was a moment where I thought it might land on “it’s complicated” which is where I end up most of the time, but narratively unsatisfying. And there’s the rub. How do you have a blockbuster film without a climatic battle where good triumphs over evil? You don’t. After the decidedly good Diana defeated the decided evil (SPOILER ALERT who, in a stereotype busting twist, at least wasn’t German) Ares, the conclusion of the film settled on “it’s complicated” again. Some people are good, some people are evil, but most people are somewhere in between and capable of both. It felt a bit incongruous, but there are worse (and less accurate) conclusions.

Diana wanted to free people of their obsession with war, a noble if naive ambition. She rejected the “Germans are the bad guys” narrative but clung tightly to the “Ares is to blame for all of this” idea, which allowed her to maintain her faith in humanity. She is fearless, full of empathy, willing to risk her life to save others and unwilling to let a man (handsome, flirtatious and forward-thinking though he may be) tell her to stay behind when there’s work to be done. She reminds me of someone — a FWW heroine. She is not dissimilar from the thousands of dedicated, brave, unconventional and naive women who left their homes for the frontline to serve, work, and yes — to fight. How wonderful to see her portrayed on the big screen.

“Is there anything more cheering than a new hat?”

I have a hero — or a heroine, since we’re talking about the early 20th century, and that was how they rolled. She’s responsible for a lot. When I first read her memoir, I wasn’t particularly interested in the First World War and I’d never heard of Salonika. But Isabel Emslie Hutton was more than an amazing woman with an incredible record of service, who tore down barriers for professional medical women and made great strides in advancing treatment for mental health. She was also a good writer. Even now, thirteen years after I first read them, her words evoke an experience I could never otherwise imagine.
Is there anything more cheering than a new hat? There is no tonic to equal it, as every woman knows, and the confidence it brings is indeed great. Mine had a pink ostrich feather, the only one I have ever had, and I wore it on this one occasion, for I was in uniform a few days later. I saw it again though, when in bedraggled uniform I came home in 1921, and found that my parent had given away every stitch of my clothing except that now very demodé and most unbecoming hat. How could I ever had chosen it, and what a sight for the gods I was as it perched precariously on my short hair over a lean, weather-beaten face!
– Isabel Emslie Hutton, Memories of a Doctor in War and Peace
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Women Wearing Various Styles Of Hats, 1910s.The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917.

Is there anything more powerful than the erasure of an entire century? Good writing is akin to time travel. One of the things that always strikes me how relatable historical subjects were, how similar they are to us today, how little things have changed. Here, Isabel is writing about her decision to resign her civilian post and take up war work. Her account of the snide misogyny of the stranger on the street, the “kind” patronising official made me a bit sad, and exhausted. Plus ça change! But who hasn’t cheered themselves up with a new hat, or dress? My own talisman is nail polish. I like the idea that, some years from now, I’ll be able to look back at all I’ll have accomplished since that first set-back that sent me running to the beauty aisle at Boots.

My War Gone By: I Miss it So 

Not much to report here. I’ve been occupying my spare time with various summer projects, and reading. Sarah Waters is one of my favourite novelists; I just love the way she uses history as a setting, and I’ve finally gotten around to reading her most recent book, The Paying Guests. I was struck by a few passages where the main character Frances and some of her contemporaries are discussing the war:

It was every kind of hell, at the time. It was real, stinking hell. But the queer thing is, I sometimes find myself missing those days. There were things to do, you see, and one did them. That counts for a lot, I’ve discovered. Back here, now it’s all over — well, there isn’t a great deal for one. Lots of one’s friends dead and so on….

Eventually, Frances (the protagonist) responds to her fellow dinner-party guest:

I miss the war too. You’ve no idea, Mr Crowther, waht it costs me to admit that. But we can’t succumb to the feeling, can we? We’ll fade away like ghosts if we do. We have to change our expectations. The big things don’t count anymore. I mean the capital-letter notions that got so many of our generation killed. But that makes the small things count more than ever, doesn’t it?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, 137-8.

Photo 09-08-2016, 20 14 59This is an idea that rarely crops up in popular culture portrayals of the First World War. The war was terrible, the idea that it might have had some good aspects, that there might be some people who enjoyed their wartime experiences, is something almost unrecognized  in the cultural narrative about the war. And yet here it is. The war, so wide sweeping, it’s affects in every part of society and every aspect of culture, can hardly be reduced to one narrative. If it seems that’s what’s happened over the course of the twentieth century, I’m pleased to say that tide is reversing in the twenty first. Of course there were some who found pleasant, even pleasurable experiences during the war. There were some for whom the war provided purpose, and structure.

But wait, there’s more! Frances was a pacifist activist, Mr Crowther was in Mesopotamia (“Generally when ladies learn that one was anywhere out east of Suez they rather lose interest. They want the romance of the trenches and all that.”) No predictable VAD or NCO as lazy backstory; thanks, Sarah Waters, for as ever broadening our horizons.