© V.Irene.Cockroft, London, 22 April 2020
Such a desirable doll as Dora, the veteran Votes for Women campaigner preserved in a custom-made glass case, was bound to attract attention when she turned up at an Adelaide auction in March 2020. When, against stiff competition, Dora was acquired by The Muriel Matters Society Inc., one could sense the glass misting from her sigh of satisfaction.
It wasn’t the first time in her 100-plus years that Dora had sighed to herself, ‘Recognition at last!’ The first time would have been in 1918 when the Votes for Women campaign accelerated from aspiration to acclamation with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. At last, a wedge in the door of equality resulted in voting rights for women over thirty.
Clearly, Dora had been designed to commemorate an event of this magnitude. Almost certainly, she was intended as a tribute to a special person involved in that event. But how, when and why did Dora depart politically laggard London for enticingly advanced South Australia?
Alas, at some point in her international history, Dora and her provenance parted company, placing her future at risk. The alert Muriel Matters Society Inc. recognised Dora’s importance and rescued the distressed, defiant damsel so that at least part of her story might be revealed, pending more research at a later date.
The solid wooden base on which the velvet and lace-robed maiden stands, is inscribed Women’s Suffrage Journal, a title that, tantalisingly, raises more questions than it answers. What Women’s Suffrage Journal? Where was it published? Why was it commemorated? When? Who made the fine feminist figurine on which such skill was lavished? Who commissioned her, and for whom? That’s a lot of who-done-what’s to unravel. Where to start?
There was a UK Women’s Suffrage Journal. It was co-founded in 1870 by Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827–1890), the strong-minded force behind early, first wave Manchester women’s suffrage meetings; and by Lydia’s equally impressive friend, Jessie Boucherett (1825-1905). In 1866, (the year of the first major British women’s petition to Parliament requesting the right to vote, or suffrage), Boucherett had founded and begun editing the influential Englishwoman’s Review.
Jessie transferred her journalistic skills to the Women’s Suffrage Journal in order to keep women abreast of suffrage developments, which Jessie deemed the most vital issue of her era.
Lydia Becker, after twenty more years of sterling service to women’s suffrage and the Women’s Suffrage Journal, died in 1890. Bereft of its indefatigable muse and in need of fresh stimulation in order to achieve its feminist aims, the Women’s Suffrage Journal closed.
Also in 1870, there was founded in the United States of America, a Women’s Journal calculated to satisfy a similar need to follow the fortunes of the Women’s Suffrage Movement for gender equality. The Women’s Journal enjoyed several incarnations before it ceased publication in 1931, but never was it titled Women’s Suffrage Journal. The distinguished doll whose base is so inscribed, is British.
Dora wears the distinctive suffrage campaign colours of red, white and green which symbolised the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS suffragists). This National Union was founded in 1897. It was the earliest and the largest suffrage union. The NUWSS represented the majority of grass-roots suffrage societies throughout the United Kingdom. Its three colours were not finally decided upon until 1907-08, long after the demise of the Women’s Suffrage Journal.
Yet, adorable Dora brandishes the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) Votes for Women slogan printed on a pennant, whilst wearing the NUWSS colours and commemorating a journal that had blossomed and died before the advent of either the slogan, campaign colours or herself.
Dora was a serious display item when she was created. The dignity of passing years has rendered her even more so in our time. However, her historical anomalies pose a conundrum.
What was the mysterious concept that united Dolly Dora, Votes for Women and the Women’s Suffrage Journal?
Could the answer be that her pennant refers, not to the ‘Votes for Women’ slogan as such, but to the periodical of that name edited by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867-1954) and published by her husband Frederick from 1907 until 1912, in support of the WSPU?
The colours – and other clashes!
The well-known WSPU campaign colour combination of purple, white and green was the brain-child of Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. The colours were first flaunted at a monster Women’s Sunday rally held in Hyde Park, London, on 21 June 1908. The rally was organised by the WSPU to meet a demand from anti-woman-suffrage British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, for proof that a majority of women wanted the vote.
Asquith ignored the evidence that didn’t suit his view! Over time, the combination of purple, white and green has evolved into universal colours of protest.
How does that background accord with the red, white and green NUWSS outfit worn by Dora doll?
In 1912, WSPU leaders Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst expelled the Pethick-Lawrences from their union. This was ascribed to the Pethick-Lawrences’ questioning Christabel’s increasingly violent campaign tactics. Christabel replaced the Pethick-Lawrences’ Votes for Women magazine with a new, more radical publication which she edited herself, The Suffragette.
The Pethick-Lawrences continued to publish Votes for Women for a progressive, male and female, militant and non-militant, diversity-encompassing readership. By 1914, when European hostilities made the First World War inevitable, the fellowship that had evolved around Votes for Women was known as the United Suffragists (US).
Recognition at last, not for the last time!
As ‘The War to end All Wars’ drew to a close in 1918, the British government made plans for a general election on 14 December.
Under existing law, only male citizens who had been resident in the UK for the previous twelve months were eligible to vote. This disenfranchised a large number of troops who had been stationed abroad during the war. New legislation was necessary to enfranchise men who had fought for their country. Many women also had put their lives on the line for their country, as doctors, nurses, drivers and other auxiliaries on the field of battle; and as steel-nerved munitioneers working with gunpowder, Land Army girls feeding the nation, and other dedicated workers on the Home Front.
Representation of the People Act 1918
Perhaps fearing a return to female militancy, the Government threw into the mix of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, votes for women over thirty who also met a property criterion. This was glossed as a reward to women for their loyal war work – but many of those women war workers would have been aged under thirty. The same Act abolished property and other voting restrictions for virtually all men. The electorate increased from around eight to 21 million, but inequality between men and women remained entrenched.
Not for another decade – in 1928 – were all British women granted equal voting rights with men at age 21 (nowadays it is 18).
Additionally, one might say irrationally, on 21 November 1918, a Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act conferred on women the right to stand for election in 3 weeks’ time! Underwhelmed by government generosity but determined to test the Parliamentary path so that other women might follow in future years, pioneer Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence stood as a Labor candidate for a seat in Manchester. She was unsuccessful.
With votes for women nominally won, in 1918 the publication of Votes for Women petered out. This made its co-founder and long-term editor, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, the prime candidate for receiving a unique tribute at the United Suffragists’ 1918 Victory Celebration after which the group dissolved itself. Most likely the tribute’s feminine form would have been conceived and commissioned by the visionary editor of Votes for Women in its final days, Manchester Guardian journalist Evelyn Sharp (1869-1955).
The heroic Suffrage Campaign figurine, Dora, symbolises the importance of two great suffrage periodicals that straddled the First Wave, British women’s movement from 1870 to 1918. Not counting the gap between 1890 and 1907, that’s well nigh half a century of intense editorial effort before women’s suffrage seeds bore fruit. Without either one of those publications, crucially, the hard-fought suffrage campaign might have lost momentum before the vote was won. But it did not.
At present, much of dolly Dora’s story is supposition but the circumstantial evidence is convincing. Whatever her origin, or route to Adelaide, Dora has found her way into hands that appreciate her significance to the greatest, still evolving revolution in human history – the evolution of equal respect and opportunity for all, irrespective of gender and other forms of diversity.
Someday, perhaps, the question, ‘Who made the figurine?’ will be answered. Deft-fingered females were wonderful miniaturists.
How delighted Lydia, Emmeline and Evelyn would be to see their tribute not only outlast a century, but witness votes for women being taken for granted!
May members of the Muriel Matters Society and Dora celebrate together in 3018, just how much further women’s interests, and civilisation, have advanced together.
 It is worth noting that many years later her husband, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence (1871-1961), was elected to the UK Parliament in 1923. From 1945 to 1947 he served as Secretary of State for India. He was made a baron in 1945. For more information, see https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-William-Pethick-Lawrence-Baron-Pethick-Lawrence-of-Peaslake