Suffragette Militancy in the Regions

York’s Alternative History and York Social Pub Talks joined forces last night, 20 May, at the Golden Ball pub, to present Krista Cowman[1] speaking on ‘Suffragette Militancy in the Regions’, sparking off a lively question and answer session and discussion to follow. The event was in commemoration of the time in June 1913 when Emily Wilding Davidson fell in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, dying of her injuries a few days later. We were also celebrating the less well-documented bravery of thousands of women, including several from the York area, risking reputations, health and their lives for the right to have their voices heard in British political life.

Succinctly and entertainingly, Krista Cowman explained the context and reasoning behind the growing militancy of the suffragette movement in the years preceding the First World War. She drew attention to the risks the women took, to their extraordinary personal courage and, quite naturally, this posed the question as to whether their militancy and superb organisation achieved worthwhile results. Questions and discussion centred around the issues of success and organisation, and it is fair to say that the debate continues. Issues in history like this are never definitively resolved, though they are always relevant.

I would note a few personal observations. Without the combination of firm resolve and dedication, backed with a highly effective national network of supporters, the women’s suffrage movement could not have supported the degree of militant activity they undertook. That is a lesson for today’s advocates of ‘direct action’ and civil disobedience, in the absence of any such background organisation. Equally interesting and relevant to today’s movements was the way in which the police authorities evolved new methods of surveillance in response to the women’s suffrage movement, at one point seizing the WSPU’s records, which were never returned. No matter how today’s movements organise, the police will find ways of adapting their tactics and strategies to protect the interests of the State and the status quo. Witness present-day debates about infiltration of groups, abuse of personal relationships (not just by the police, it is fair to say) and kettling of peaceful demonstrations.

For certain, the WSPU and its offshoots and rivals remain a quite amazingly relevant focus of debate about how best to organise for a better world. Krista provided some useful advice on the sources of information in public and private archives for those willing to the research.

Krista Cowman set the bar high for whoever undertakes the next joint talk we host! Log on to this site for future events.

[1] Krista Cowman is Professor of History at the University of Lincoln, a founder member of the Women’s History Network, and author of numerous publications, including the Borthwick pamphlet on Suffragette Militancy in York.

Militant Feminism Pub Discussion 20 May

A Century of Militant Feminism
York’s Alternative History and York Social
Jointly Present:

Krista Cowman, Professor of History, University of Lincoln, will introduce a pub discussion on “Suffragette Militancy in the Regions”.

Where: The Garden Room at The Golden Ball on Cromwell Road, York.

When: 8 pm prompt start, on Monday 20 May 2013.

A century ago, the Suffragette movement in Britain took to direct action as part of their strategy to have women’s voices heard. On 4 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stepped in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and died of her injuries. In memory of her and the many other brave women who risked everything for the right to vote in parliamentary elections, we invite you to hear about some of the less well known activists and their role. Come and discuss how far the women’s movement has come in 100 years, how much remains to be done and what can be learned from the past.

Krista Cowman is a founder member of the Women’s History Network and has published widely on women’s political movements and their use of history as a means of creating a strong political identity. Among her publications is “The Militant Suffragette Movement in York” (Borthwick Publications, 2007).

[Afterwards, York’s Alternative History will discuss any ongoing work we are doing and everyone is invited to participate]

Personal Stories: an interview with local activist Nick Smith part 1

Helen Graham interviewed me as part of our project to collect and document the stories of local activists.  The interview took place on the (very wet) evening of 15th March 2012 in the York Arms pub.  The full interview came to nearly 2 hours long, so I have edited it down into smaller installments which will be posted here over the next few weeks and months.

This is part one, where I discuss how I became interested in politics as a teenager.  Includes my thoughts on how my hometown (Bedworth, Warwickshire), music, my A-level history teacher and the Socialist Workers Party influenced my developing political, moral and ethical values from socialism to pacifism, vegetarianism and anarchism.

To listen to the interview please click on the link below…

Nick Smith’s YAH interview part 1


Telling – and not telling – feminist stories

As part of York’s International Women’s Week celebrations – and connected to York’s Alternative History – we held an event to explore York’s feminist history. We’d called the event ‘Telling Feminist Stories’ but it became clear right from the opening discussions that the issue of the day was precisely what should, and should not, be ‘told’ in a public context.

The initial focus for this discussion was that much of the publicity, leaflets and newsletters of the 1970s and 1980s state, very clearly, that they are for ‘women only’. The politics of autonomous women’s campaigns therefore raising questions of how they can be shared via the York’s Alternative History Flickr page and, indeed, how they should be managed in an archive. An issue which some of the women involved in the relevant campaigns are going to explore further.

However, this specific issue was just the most tangible aspect of what became a much wider debate – a debate which is relevant for the whole project of York’s Alternative History – about the relationship between the personal, the public and the political.

It has become a bit of a cliché that second wave feminism – otherwise known as the Women’s Liberation Movement – generated the slogan ‘the personal is political’. This is most often interpreted now as making the point that things like housework and sex are also political issues. Yet the discussions at the Telling Feminist Stories event also helped me understand that while the personal might be political this does not mean, at all, that it should therefore be ‘public’.

Much of the activism I’ve been involved in has, in a very literal sense, been focused on being in public – that is, after all, the meaning of to demonstrate. Marches, pickets, protests, stalls are all practices which understand political change as coming through the ability to be seen.

While these modes of politics also have their intimacies – the quiet conversations between strangers at public stalls, the friendships that happen before, during and after public meetings or the in-passing discussions where things suddenly fall into place – what was different about the Women’s Liberation Movement was that these intimacies were not seen as incidental but as central. Consciousness Raising was precisely about moving between specific and intensely personal experiences and a broader political analysis. Within that re-imagining of the political lies a complex theory of change as that which happens within and between people and in private and in public.

One of the driving forces of ‘radical history’ has being that its focus is on people and practices understood as ‘hidden’ or ‘ignored’ – and women’s lives and the fact that they have often happened in not-public spaces have especially provoked that logic. Yet perhaps more radical is to de-centre the imagined ‘public’ for which ‘history’ is intended and instead to recognize that something’s importance and value can be lost by too thorough documentation, by being pinned down too much or by shining too bright a light. There is an academic and archivist arrogance to the noble idea of searching out that which has been ‘hidden from history’ – after all it ain’t ever been hidden from those involved.

The feminist story I was told in this workshop was that I and you and the archive don’t need to know the details and intimacies of the various groups linked to York’s Women’s Liberation Movement. Those who need to know already do. We do urgently need, however, to feel the importance of the personal and personal-political relationships as a register of activism. While there are things which may never be of ‘public record’, in a time when political contest will require much, much more from us that the odd day on strike or attendance at a set piece national demonstration, knowing this much is to know a lot.

Other archives, projects and publications on the histories of the Women’s Liberation Movement:

Sisterhood and After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project

The Feminist Seventies

The Feminist Archive North

Telling Feminist Stories, 10th March, 2-4pm

For a few years in the late 1970s Parliament Street was home to WIRES, the national information sheet of the Women’s Liberation Movement. There was a Women’s Centre on Holgate Road. Women in Black have stood silent protesting war near the fountain. York had a consciousness-raising group (and maybe even more than one…?). And Guppy’s regularly hosted lesbian discos. Over the years York has been home to feminist theory courses at both universities, a lesbian bookshop called Libertas, York Lesbian Arts Fair and is currently home to the Centre for Women’s Studies, Raw Nerve, a feminist publisher and York Women’s Aid.

And, of course, feminism happens all the time in York in less organized ways…through disputing a sexist joke or in a 100 other ways.

If you have memories, stories, posters or badges of York feminisms past – however you define ‘feminism’ and no matter how recently or long ago – come along and share them as part of York International Women’s Week and York’s Alternative History.

Telling Feminist Stories
Art Room
St Clements Hall
Saturday 10th March
In keep with the autonomous politics of much the activism we will be discussing the Telling Feminist Stories meeting will be women only. However, York’s Alternative History is also very keen to reflect traditions of feminist activism which have chosen to organize in other ways, whether that be men and women working together, third wave feminism or queer feminism. If you would like initiate these types of discussions it would be wonderful to hear from you.

For those who would like to contribute anything to York’s Alternative History online archive we will have a scanner at the event.

Just turn up or for further details contact Helen Graham on or Laura Potts on

Part on York’s International Women’s Week