On Radio 4 Now

Midweek

21:30 - 21:58

Libby Purves meets actor Brian Cox and singer June Tabor.

Coming up at: 21:58

Weather

View full schedule

Episode Transcript

Episode 95 - Suffragette defaced penny

Suffragette-defaced Edward VII penny (defaced in early twentieth century), from Great Britain

In this History of the World in 100 Objects, we've just reached the beginning of the twentieth century, and until now we've been largely in a world of things that were made, commissioned, and owned by men. Today, on the other hand, we've got an object designed to carry the image of a king, but that's been appropriated by women - disfigured and over-stamped with a slogan, as an act of female protest against the laws of the state.

"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 . . "

". . March, march, many as one.
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend."
('March of the Women'; Ethel Smyth)

The coin in this programme is a deft act of civil disobedience, and a brilliantly inventive piece of low-budget popular propaganda. It's a British penny with King Edward VII in elegant profile - but his image has been shockingly defaced, in what was then a criminal act. Stamped all over the King's head, in crude capitals, are the words, "VOTES FOR WOMEN".

"To hold it gives you a sense of connection to the suffragettes. It's wonderful, and it's those things from history, those objects, that just take us back to a period, to a moment, to a wonderful imaginative way of making a political statement." (Helena Kennedy)

"It's got shock value, it's got an incredible level of sophistication, this is really - to me - a really clever idea." (Felicity Powell)

This week's programmes have been about mass production and mass consumption, and today we have the rise of mass political engagement. Power is usually not given willingly, but taken - and in both Europe and America the nineteenth century was punctuated by political protest, with periodic revolutions on the continent, Civil War in America - and in Britain, the long steady struggle to widen the suffrage. This programme's suffragette coin stands for all those - not only in Britain but across the world - who, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fought for the universal right to vote. Indeed many are still fighting.

This small penny takes us deeper into the now familiar story of women's suffrage. In Britain, the process of redefining the political nation was a very slow one, beginning in the 1820s, but by the 1880s roughly 60 per cent of the male population had the right to vote. But no women. The campaign for women's suffrage had begun shortly after the Great Reform Act of 1832, but the battle really got going at the start of the twentieth century, when the suffragette movement was born, and with it a new level of female assertiveness, and indeed violence. Here's Dame Ethel Smyth, who composed that suffragette song, 'March of the Women':

"At exactly 5.30 one memorable evening in 1912, relays of women produced hammers from their muffs and handbags, and proceeded methodically to smash up windows in all the big London thoroughfares - Picadilly, Regent Street, and so on. Inspired by the knowledge that exactly at that moment Mrs Pankhurst was opening the ball with a stone aimed at a window of 10 Downing Street."

Smyth was jailed, along with many other women. One day a prison visitor found her leaning out of a window, using her toothbrush to conduct her co-suffragettes below her, in singing their song during their yard exercise.

". . . On, on that ye have done,
But for the work of today preparing."

The British establishment was deeply disconcerted by the spectacle of respectable women deliberately committing criminal acts. It was a big step beyond the posters, pamphlets, rallies and songs that till then had been the norm. Defacing a coin of the realm was a more subtle crime - one with no evident victims - but it was an even more effective attack on the authority of a state which excluded women from political life. As a campaigning strategy it was, I think, a stroke of genius. Here's the artist Felicity Powell, who has a special interest in subversive medals:

"The idea is incredibly clever because it uses the potential that coinage has - a bit like the internet today - to be incredibly widely circulated. And so to be able to get the message out, subversively, into the public realm, to those who would be consoled by this message as well as those who would be shocked by it, is a brilliant idea. Wish I'd thought of it . . .

"This particular coin makes full use of the fact that coins have two sides. So, there is an image of Britannia, which hasn't been defaced. An image of a woman standing there, very strongly. But turn it over, and there is a real potential for shock value there, real subversion when you see what's on the other side."

On the other side is the profile of Edward VII - balding, bearded, and gazing off to the right. He's in his sixties - the coin is dated 1903. Surrounding him, running round the edge of the coin, is the Latin inscription, "Edward VII by the grace of God, King of all Britain, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India". A mighty set of titles, redolent of ancient rights and of recent imperial power - in fact it's an entire political order, devised over centuries and claiming the sanction of God. But running across the top of the King's ear, and right over his face, in wobbly capital letters, is the word VOTES. Below his ear, FOR - and through his neck, WOMEN. A campaigner has hammered the letters into the surface of the penny one by one, using a separate punch for each letter. Thirteen separate blows. The result is powerfully crude.

Our Edward VII bronze penny was struck in 1903, the year of the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union, whose founders included Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. There had been other peaceful female pressure groups before then, but none had achieved their goal. Thirty three years before, Emmeline's husband had presented the first Women's Suffrage Bill to Parliament, which did well in the Commons, until Prime Minister Gladstone had declared himself against it:

"I have no fear lest the woman should encroach upon the power of the man. The fear I have is, lest we should invite her unwittingly to trespass against the delicacy, the purity, the refinement, the elevation of her own nature, which are the present sources of its power."

Of course, by invoking the delicacy and refinement of women, Gladstone made a calculated appeal to traditional, repressive ideas of how a lady should behave. So although the campaign for women's votes continued, and the Bill was repeatedly brought back to Parliament, for nearly a generation most women held back from direct action, and the unladylike encroachment on the established power of men.

By 1903, the Pankhursts and others had had enough. At this point they were still calling themselves suffragists, but after a few years of activism the 'Daily Mail' would dub these new, feisty protestors Suffragettes - a derisory, diminutive term - suffragette as in ladette - to distinguish them from women, ladies, who stuck to peaceful means.

Under Mrs Pankhurst's leadership the Suffragettes swung into direct action. Defacing coinage was just one tactic among many, but the choice of the penny was particularly ingenious. Pre-decimal bronze pennies, about the same size as the modern �2 coin, were big enough to carry easily legible lettering, but too numerous and too low in value to make it practical for the banks to recall them. So the message on the coin was pretty well guaranteed to circulate widely and indefinitely.

The Suffragettes also embraced the cause in person. In one famous attack, the Velazquez painting in the National Gallery known as the 'Rokeby Venus' was slashed by Mary Richardson, who calmly justified her action:

"I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history, as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history."

Suffragettes embraced many tactics that can still shock us now. Letter bombs were placed in post boxes. When women were put in jail, they went on hunger strike. The most violent self-inflicted action was when Emily Davison was killed, as she famously threw herself in front of the King's horse at the Derby. The Suffragettes became systematic law-breakers in order to change the law, and defacing the penny was just one element in a campaign that went far beyond civil disobedience. How permissible is this kind of violence in the pursuit of civil rights? Here's the human rights lawyer and reformer Helena Kennedy:

"There is that issue of whether it's ethical to break the law in certain circumstances . . . and my argument would be that there are some times when in pursuit of human rights it's the only thing that people can do. I know as a lawyer I'm not supposed to say that, but I think there are occasions when the general public would agree, that somehow one has to stand up to be counted. Obviously, there have to be limits on what we consider to be acceptable in terms of civil disobedience. There are some political acts which one would never condone, and the ethics of where it is appropriate and what is appropriate is a difficult one. The courage of these women was extraordinary, in that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives. Now of course, today, we have people who are also prepared to sacrifice their lives, and one has to consider when and where that is appropriate. And I think most of us would say that anything that involved harm of others has to be unacceptable."

The Suffragette campaign was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, but the war itself provided powerful, indeed conclusive, arguments for giving women the vote. Unexpectedly, women had the chance to prove their ability in traditionally male and distinctly unladylike environments - battlefield medicine, munitions, agriculture and industry - and once the war was over, they could not be slotted back into a stereotype of delicate refinement.

In 1918 women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote, and in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act extended the vote to all women from the age of 21, on the same terms as men. And a hundred years after our penny was stamped with "Votes For Women", a new 50-pence piece was issued to mark the centenary. On the front, the Queen, a woman, and on the back another woman - a Suffragette chained to a railing with a billboard next to her, carrying the words, legitimately on the coin this time, "GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE".

The campaign for women's suffrage was only one among many struggles for civil and human rights that carried on throughout the twentieth century, and are still continuing around the world today. We'll be looking at some of them next week - our last week in this History of the World - but we'll be beginning with the revolutionary fervour that transformed Russia. I shall be looking at a plate made in Imperial St Petersburg, and painted a few years later in the same city . . . revolutionary Petrograd.

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.