March of the Women

“Shout, shout, up with your song! Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking; March, march, swing you along, Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking.” Ethel Smyth

Miss Taylor of Belmont, Stranraer, came to Orkney in October 1871 but not as a tourist like many were starting to do. Miss Taylor was the honorary secretary of the Galloway Society of Woman’s Suffrage and her mission was to bring word of the campaign for  votes for women. She addressed two packed public meetings in Stromness and Kirkwall which were chaired by the local Provost.

Miss Taylor was heartily supported in her talk where she said:

“This movement need fear no opposition for it is founded upon justice and appeals directly to the sense of right that is implanted more or less in the breast of every man and woman.”

“This movement became a public question” continued Miss Taylor, “When it was brought into Parliament by Mr J.S. Mill – nearly 5 years ago”.

It was in 1867 that John Stuart Mill led the first debate in the UK Parliament on women’s suffrage. In that same year a national movement was founded.

This was a time when women were paid a fraction of what men were paid, they had no parental rights over their children and they had no say in decision making.

The meetings in Orkney, headed by many members of the Presbyterian clergy, concluded by signing a petition in favour of a Bill being presented to Parliament, ‘conferring the franchise on women who are householders and ratepayers.’

It was made quite clear by Rev Webster of the United Presbyterian Church that “what is wanted is not the enfranchisement of all women.”

There was no support from the local MP for Orkney and this was to be a feature of future campaigns. Many petitions went before Parliament and local councils in Scotland supported these.

Fast forward to the 23rd of September 1909 and a private meeting takes place in the delightful home of Mrs James Cursiter at Daisybank Kirkwall. It was resolved at this gathering to form the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society (OWSS) with an annual subscription of 1/-. It was open to men and women and was part of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The national union comprised of all the peaceful campaign groups.

The Orkney group consisted of local landowners, Ministers, school teachers, artists, writers and local business people. It was very active and held monthly meetings throughout the year. Like all political organisations it held popular fundraisers of musical evenings and dramatic entertainments

By October the 9th 1909 the OWSS was in such fine fettle that it took part in the Edinburgh Procession organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union.  The march from Bruntsfield Links, Lothian Road, and Princes Street to Waverley Market brought together all under one banner the various groups campaigning for votes for women. The march was over a mile long with pipe bands, brass bands and women dressed as historical female figures. The Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union marched in their academic gowns and those who had been incarcerated for their activism appeared in prison clothes. Leading the march, on horseback, in a General’s uniform, was Flora Drummond. It was the culmination of a vigorous campaign throughout the summer of that year.

The OWSS also took part in the London suffrage procession in June 1911 where they marched behind their resplendent banner designed by the artist Stanley Cursiter. Sadly the banner no longer exists and there are no pictures of it. All we have left is a written description:

“a Viking ship (gold) on a sea of royal blue silk. Above it are the colours of the NUWSS – red, white and green in horizontal stripes. It is fringed in gold and lined with white. On the back is the word ‘Orkney’.”

the Orcadian Woman's Suffrage Society banner reimagined

Shetland was there too and joined with the thousands on a lovely day. The Procession stretched from the Thames Embankment to the Houses of Parliament. It was so big that it overflowed into the side streets.  Estimates at the time put it at 30 – 40,000 and it took 2 hours to pass by.

The marches were not an end in themselves but brought to the attention of the wider public and to politicians the cause of women’s suffrage at a time when the only media available was the establishment printed press.

petitioning westminster

“Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance, (Laugh in hope, for sure is the end) March, march—many as one, Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.”

This article first appeared in the December edition of iScot Magazine. 

Text by Fiona Grahame Illustrations by Martin Laird

Related stories:

Orcadian Suffragists Take Centre Stage for New Exhibition at the Northlight Gallery

St Andrews Fair Saturday

iscot orkney news a gude cause martin laird (1)


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