Today is International Women’s Day – a time to ‘reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.’ This year’s theme is Planet 50-50 by 2030 which envisages ‘a world where all women and girls have equal opportunities and rights by 2030’.
A medal for ‘Gallant Action’
Gender equality has of course, been a long-standing fight. In February, Te Papa purchased a British Suffragette prisoner’s medal which bears testimony to the lengths that some women have been prepared to go for equality. The medal was presented to Frances Parker, a New Zealander living in Britain, by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The medal was awarded ‘in Recognition of a Gallant Action, whereby through Endurance to the last Extremity of Hunger and Hardship, a Great Principle of Political Justice was Vindicated’.
As seen in the recent film Suffragette (2015), such medals were awarded to women imprisoned while fighting for the cause. Frances was imprisoned five times. The medal commemorates her hunger strikes, and the bars on the ribbon the days on which she was force-fed.
An exquisite madness
Frances Mary Parker, who was known as ‘Fanny’, was born in 1875 to Harry Rainey Parker and Frances Emily Jane (nee Kitchener) in Waimate, South Canterbury. In 1896, Frances left New Zealand to attend Cambridge University at the expense of her very well placed uncle, Lord Kitchener. No doubt spurred on by New Zealand’s ground-breaking position as the first self-governing country to grant women the vote in 1893, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1908.
Described by fellow suffragette and friend Ethel Moorhead as having ‘an exquisite madness – daring, joyous, vivid, strategic’, Frances was a perfect candidate for the WSPU. Whereas New Zealand women had lobbied for the vote using the power of words, Emmeline Pankhurst, the WSPU‘s founder, promoted ‘Deeds not Words’. From 1911 on, attention-grabbing attacks on property, from letter boxes to significant buildings and monuments, became a regular WSPU tactic. The daring Parker was an active participant.
‘Kitchener’s niece as bomb-thrower’
Frances was first imprisoned, along with over 200 other suffragettes, in March 1912 for her involvement in a window-smashing campaign in London. Following four months in Holloway Prison, she was locked up again for five days in December, and went on hunger strike. It was while living Scotland that Frances carried out her most infamous ‘deed’ on behalf of the WSPU. In July 1914 she attempted to blow up the cottage in which Robbie Burns, Scotland’s much loved poet, was born – a deed which still creates ripples of horror if the Te Papa office is anything to go by. Caught before she could do any real damage, Frances was remanded in Perth prison for attempted arson. She went on hunger strike, and was forcibly fed. Writing under her alias, Janet Arthur, she vividly described her ordeal in an article the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women. It makes for stomach churning reading.
The bombing incident made headlines throughout Britain and New Zealand. While reporters linked her to Lord Kitchener, describing her as ‘his deluded niece’, they misidentified her as ‘Janet Parker’, confusing her real name with alias. Nothing was made of her New Zealand background. This was perhaps a lost opportunity for anti-suffragists.
‘A charming lady’ – Lady Anna Stout
Frances Parker was not the only New Zealander actively involved in campaigning for women’s rights in Britain. Lady Anna Stout (1858-1931) also aligned herself with the WSPU while living in England between 1909 and 1912. In the case of Lady Stout, the WSPU used her status as a New Zealander and ‘possessor of the vote’ to their advantage. Lady Stout, who was described by Adela Pankhurst as a ‘charming lady’, worked to assure anti-suffragists that the women’s vote in New Zealand had not led to the collapse of society – that women were still good wives and mothers, that children continued to be born and that the vote has not resulted in economic ruin. One of her key responsibilities was writing replies to The Times’ anti-suffrage correspondents.
The badges below belonged to Lady Stout, and reflect her involvement with a range of women’s organisations in New Zealand and Britain.
Lady Stout wore the white ribbon depicted above, when she led the New Zealand contingent in a mass march to London’s Hyde Park. The group, which included men and women, were preceded by a banner bearing the words ‘New Zealand’. As ‘possessors of the vote’, the New Zealand, Australian and Norwegian contingents were considered significant supporters. Lady Stout was one of the 150 people who took to a platform in Hyde Park to speak.
Outbreak of war
Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the WSPU suspended its militant activities and the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners. Many suffragettes, including the now free Frances Parker whose case never went to trial, channelled their energies into the war effort. By 1917, Frances had become the Deputy Controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In an astonishing contrast to her earlier years, when she was considered a shameful embarrassment to her family, especially Lord Kitchener, she was awarded a military Order of the British Empire (OBE).
Sadly, Frances did not live to see women in Britain gain full suffrage.
While women over the age of 30 who were married to, or a member of Local Government Register, were granted the right to vote in 1918, women were not granted suffrage equal to men until 1928. Frances died in Arcachon, France in 1924 at the age of 49. French women were not granted the right to vote until 1944.
Frances Parker left her Suffrage medal to her friend Ethel Moorhead (1870-1955). We are grateful to Ethel and her family for preserving the medal for future generations. It is a significant addition to New Zealand’s small holdings of material culture relating to women’s suffrage. We look forward to the medal’s arrival in New Zealand, and to finding out more about Frances Parker – an ordinary women who played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s suffrage.