Remember the Million Women Marches of 2017, when peaceful massed protests were held in cities across the globe? I joined the one in London, and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. As I stood in the square where crowds were gathering before the ‘off’, surrounded by women (and men!) of all generations and backgrounds, listening to the excited chatter of strangers becoming friends, of singing, laughing and the beating of drums, I suddenly got it. This is what changing the world looks like.
I was writing my book Hearts and Minds at the time, about the Great Pilgrimage of 1913. That’s what non-militant suffrage campaigners called their own Million Women March in support of the vote. It might not have involved such great numbers – thousands rather than millions – but it was pivotal to our political history as citizens and feminists. It provided the pattern for peaceful massed protest we have used ever since. And I like to think it’s where the concept of sisterhood was invented.
I’m certain that the Great Pilgrimage did more than any other single element of the suffrage campaign to bring about enfranchisement in 1918.
There was nothing religious about the Great Pilgrimage; in this case ‘pilgrimage’ meant a march for a cause, a shared purpose, unity. Remarkably, it lasted for six weeks from the middle of June till the end of July; six principal routes fed through the country from all points around the UK, finally meeting in London’s Hyde Park for a massed rally. Aristocrats marched shoulder-to-shoulder with colliery girls, academics with housewives, the young with the old and men with the vast majority of women: the Great Pilgrimage was about solidarity and mutual support.
People joined in or dropped out along the way, each wearing the suffragist colours of red, green and white and sparing as much time as possible from the ordinary round of daily life, which wasn’t easy. Meetings were held at villages, towns and cities and signatures collected for a giant petition. Many pilgrims stayed the whole course, travelling as far as 300 miles, quite possibly never having left home before. This was a huge adventure – like a glorious post-Edwardian road movie - and a huge success. For those who took part, it marked a personal as well as a political revolution.
Most people think the fight for the vote was all about the suffragettes. They played a vital part, of course, but when Emmeline Pankhurst formed the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903, the suffragist campaign had been peacefully pushing forward for forty years - led by Millicent Fawcett, whose statue was recently erected in Parliament Square. There was so much work to be done; so many doubters to persuade, and generations of opposition to overcome. Bad publicity attracted by suffragette so-called ‘terrorism’ made things even more difficult. How were campaigners to convince parliament and the people that women deserved a vote, and would use it responsibly?
That’s where the Great Pilgrimage came in. It was the suffragists’ imaginative answer to a challenge set by Prime Minister Asquith. If you can prove that the ‘ordinary women’ of this nation want a vote, he told Mrs Fawcett, then I will listen to you. By the time the Pilgrimage was over, he admitted that not only had they succeeded in that; they had shown - at a time when militant suffragette action was at its height - that women could be resolute, dignified and inspiring. ‘Perhaps women are people after all,’ he grudgingly admitted (and so eligible to vote under the Representation of the People Act). The Great War intervened, but I’m certain that the Great Pilgrimage did more than any other single element of the suffrage campaign to bring about enfranchisement in 1918.
What happened next? In 1936, echoing the Great Pilgrimage, MP Ellen Wilkinson led 200 men on a hunger march from Jarrow to London. The women of Greenham Common enjoyed the same sort of sisterhood as the pilgrims had done – and I stood in that London square with cheerful modern pilgrims peacefully fighting for their political voices to be heard
The march goes on. It’s easy to give way to apathy and to forget that – thanks to the suffragists and suffragettes – we have a voice and should use it. Democracy is still a work in progress around the world. Why not celebrate this International Women’s Day by remembering the suffragist pilgrims of 1913? Their belief was that every little thing helps in the campaign against injustice, even if it’s just linking your arms with your neighbour, lifting your chin, and putting one foot in front of the other.
Jane Robinson is the author of Hearts and Minds, out now.