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Thunder of Freedom - Part I

Happy International Women's Day for Sunday!

Over recent years, no one can have failed to notice the celebration of the centenary of the granting of (partial) suffrage to women. In the years which led up to 1918, women worked tirelessly, and courageously, to ensure that their cause was constantly in the public eye. The centenary has resulted in an avalanche of books, and there are some stand-out titles both fiction and non-fiction, which aim to show readers - from tots to teens - why women became activists.

The winter edition of Armadillo highlighted Sarah Ridley’s excellent survey Suffragettes and the Fight for the Vote and Sheena Wilkinson’s inspiring novel, Star by Star. There have been some excellent novels for young readers, and one of the best is Linda Newbery’s Polly’s March which will reappear later this year, fourteen years after its original publication, with a brand new title: Girls for the Vote. Linda has also written Until We Win, a short novel from that fabulous publisher of super readable books, Barrington Stoke. Through its heroine, seventeen-year-old Lizzy, Until We Win addresses many emotional, moral and ethical dilemmas which are as pertinent today as they were when women fought (often literally) for the right to have a say in government. It also offers an excellent insight into the run-up to the First World War (itself the subject of another of Linda’s short novels for Barrington Stoke, Tilly’s Promise), and gives readers a real feeling of life a century ago. As well as militant action, campaigns for women’s suffrage also employed more subtle ways to advance their cause, particularly through their campaign colours green, white and purple. Stewart Easton’s cover of Until We Win is designed to look like one of the embroideries stitched by imprisoned suffragettes.

For a longer read about teenagers determined to join in the fight for equality, Irish author Anna Carey’s two novels about fourteen-year-old Mollie Carberry are another compelling insight into life for women in the early twentieth century. Set in and around Dublin, The Making of Molly and Mollie on the March, published by O’Brien, are each written in a series of letters from Mollie to her English penfriend, Frances. Mollie is a thoroughly endearing character, whose life as an Edwardian girl in Ireland is quite different to ours, but whose feelings, irritations, and worries are nevertheless surprisingly similar to those of a girl in 2018. Mollie has siblings who seem to her to get preferential treatment from her parents

(especially her brother of course), and her life at school is equally beset by unpleasant or unfriendly girls. Anna Carey has just the knack of capturing Mollie’s world and drawing us right into her astonishing discovery that her annoying elder sister Phyllis is secretly attending suffragette meetings - and Mollie’s own determination to be involved. These splendid books are filled with comedy as Mollie’s plans variously misfire or come to fruition, and we painlessly learn a lot of history – English and Irish – along the way.

Along with a host of novels popular with girls in the early twentieth century, Mollie also reads Constance Maud’s No Surrender, Suffragette propaganda originally published in 1911, and republished a century later by Persephone. This is fact-based fiction which gives a vivid, and at times horrific account of what women endured along the long road to equality. Finally, Nosy Crow’s anthology Make More Noise offers ten short stories celebrating women’s achievements, stories which vary from the factual to the fantastic. Sally Nicholl’s tale, Out for the Count, recalls Census Day in 1911, a day when women stayed away from their homes for the day, to show that they felt that they counted for nothing in the eyes of the government. Katherine Woodfine’s is a story of a housemaid with ambition, which celebrates the determination shown by girls to educate themselves. These are stories which demonstrate the lengths to which women have to go - even today - to make themselves seen and heard.

Rebel Voices written by Louise Kat Stewart and illustrated by Eve Lloyd Knight is a non-fiction book from Wren & Rook, which is packed with information about the global rise of votes for women. Although a complete timeline fills in the whole narrative, Stewart focuses on specific stories from different countries around the world which show just why and how women fought and won their cause. Knight’s illustrations, and the dramatically restricted palette which forms a background to the text, make this book particularly memorable.

Stewart and Knight’s book spans more than a century and many countries in which women gradually gained some rights equal to those which men have enjoyed for far longer. Of course, we still aren’t equal in many countries, and in many spheres of life, and in Part 2 of this blog – specifically looking at books pertinent to International Women’s Day – I shall focus on fiction and especially non-fiction which highlights great women through time. As a starter (in more ways than one) I would heartily recommend Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the titles in Frances Lincoln’s biographies of women, Little People, BIG DREAMS, specifically aimed at little readers – more of this wonderful series in Part 2!

And by the way, the phrase ‘Thunder of Freedom’ comes from lyrics written by Cicely Hamilton, put to music by Ethel Smyth in 1911 as The March of the Women, dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union, and adopted by the suffragettes as their official anthem. Sound and images here:

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