I'm an artist, educator and activist particularly interested in learning from tactics, props and gestures used as protests. I use this blog as a platform to archive and communicate examples of what I call 'gestures of defiance'-exciting, urgent and relevant actions that link protest histories and present radical potentials. On this blog I'm simply compiling and reposting examples I find as they happen. Months may go by with out a post but the blog as an archive is still active.
Police use covert surveillance to catch organised criminals, hooligans and speeding drivers. But it was introduced to fight a different menace - suffragettes. By Alan Travis
From http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/oct/10/gender.humanrights 'March, march - many as one, Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend'
- The March of the Women, battle anthem of the WPSU. Composed by Ethel Smyth, Holloway prison, 1911
It is now common practice for police to hide a photographer in a van; and for closed-circuit television cameras to film the crowd at a demonstration or a football match in order to identify troublemakers later. But few know that these techniques of covert surveillance were first developed nearly a century ago by Scotland Yard to tackle the then novel direct-action tactics of the militant suffragettes battling for votes for women. The remarkable police mug shots on the right, taken in 1914, of 18 suffragettes who went to prison for the cause, also show that it was the police rather than the press who first developed the snatch tactics of the modern-day paparazzi.
Some of the shots look strikingly modern, and the curious thing about most of them is that the women are not looking at the camera. This is because most were taken without their knowledge, using covert means inside prison. In one or two cases, the prison authorities tried to photograph them openly and the women tried to distort their faces so that the final result was less recognisable.
The photographs were found in newly discovered Home Office files at the National Archives in Kew. They feature in a new exhibition to mark the centenary of the founding of the Women's Political and Social Union at the Manchester home of Emmeline Pankhurst 100 years ago today.
The fight for women's votes had begun as early as 1832, when the Reform Act extending suffrage used the word "male" instead of people. Suffragist societies were established across the country in Victorian England, but by the early 20th century many women were disenchanted with the progress that had been made using their tactics of petitioning and letter-writing. Pankhurst, a member of the Independent Labour party, started the WPSU to adopt a more radical approach.
In 1905 Emmeline's daughter, Christabel, was the first WPSU member to be imprisoned as a result of the unprecedented campaign of direct action. The Daily Mail in January 1906 dubbed the movement the "suffragettes" as a term of abuse, but the women turned it into a badge of pride.
The protesters chained themselves to railings, sabotaged political meetings, clashed violently with the police and smashed windows - all of which led to banner headlines in the papers. Many women, and some men, went to prison for the cause; some of these went on hunger strike and suffered the brutality of being force-fed. But it was one of the later tactics in the Votes for Women campaign - their attacks on major works of art in April 1914 - that sparked the development of the paparazzi techniques by the police.
The police special branch had already dedicated 16 officers full time to the task of following the activities of the WPSU, monitoring their meetings and telephone calls. They often tried to follow them but were soon asking the commissioner for motorcycles to help them keep up: "As soon as they are out in the country, they drive too fast for any conveyance that police officers can obtain. A motorcycle would perhaps make it possible to follow them. As a start one would perhaps suffice."
The files show that in September 1913 the Home Office had ordered that the photographs of all the suffragette prisoners be taken without their knowledge. This was done because many of the women refused to have their pictures taken and, in an era when film speeds were much slower, this could prove fatal to the results. Early attempts to photograph the women from a distance while they took exercise in the prison yard did not prove a great success: "It cannot be regarded as a very satisfactory means of identification, but it is the best obtainable after several attempts. Shall I have them taken in the ordinary way? This of course could not be done without their knowledge," the police photographer asked Scotland Yard.
The files include a remarkable picture of Evelyn Manesta (no 10), a young woman from Manchester, which shows what happened when they tried to photograph the suffragettes "in the ordinary way". She has the arm of a prison warder around her throat to restrain her and she is grimacing in an attempt to distort her face. The somewhat grotesque result was used in a wanted poster of Manesta circulated by Scotland Yard but the image was doctored to hide the warder's arm around her throat and the embarrassment of the police at their brutal treatment of the women.
The response of the police to the suffragettes' non-cooperation tactics was to adopt the techniques of the modern-day paparazzo - a long lens and a concealed hiding place. The home secretary himself authorised the purchase of a Wigmore Model 2 reflex camera "to be used for the purpose of photographing suffragette prisoners". Scotland Yard's "convict supervision office" bought the special lens - a Ross telecentric lens costing the princely sum of seven pounds, six shillings and 11 pence. It could be attached to a snapshot camera and would "take satisfactory portraits of suffragette prisoners from a distance". A professional photographer, a Mr Barrett, was commissioned to take the pictures "concealed in a prison van" in the exercise yard in Holloway prison.
The authorities were so worried that the suffragettes would learn what they were up to that Barrett was issued with codewords by the prison commissioners: "wild cats" for suffragettes and "New Varsity House" for New Scotland Yard. When Holloway prison called Barrett to take a picture, they would ask for the "photogram". The prison commissioner reported to the home secretary: "I met Mr Barrett and arranged for the taking of photographs of all suffragists this morning at the inclusive rate of 2l 2s 0d and 3/- an hour if he is detained more than two hours."
The photographs came into their own after WPSU activists started a campaign of slashing paintings in art galleries in Manchester and London. In March 1914, Velasquez's Rokeby Venus was severely damaged when Mary Richardson attacked it with a meat chopper in the National Gallery, slashing it seven times. Richardson said at the time: "I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.
"Mrs Pankhurst seeks to secure justice to womanhood, and for this she is being slowly murdered by a government of Iscariot politicians. If there is an outcry against my deed, let everyone remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy as long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women."
Her attack led to a decision to circulate the mug shots to the galleries so they could watch out for "known militant suffragettes" among the visitors. The keeper of the Wallace collection wrote to the police special branch, asking if they could supply more copies "so that the whole of the watching staff may make themselves thoroughly familiar with the appearance of the persons concerned".
The 18 photos sent to the Wallace collection were all of women who had been convicted of criminal damage, arson or conspiracy. Evelyn Manesta, who had been convicted for attacking pictures in Manchester art gallery with "laminate", was among them.
The resistance of the suffragettes to being photographed was just one example of their campaign inside prison to be treated as political prisoners and not common criminals. A "Holloway" brooch on display in the exhibition, featuring the House of Commons portcullis intercepted by a prison arrow and designed by Sylvia Pankhurst, was given to every WPSU member who was jailed. It was regarded as the Victoria Cross of the suffrage movement.
Pankhurst saw WPSU members as "soldiers in the war we are waging" and developed the more militant tactics of sabotaging political meetings, attacking public property and hunger-striking. These tactics brought notoriety and funds - meetings held to demand the release of hunger strikers could raise as much as £2,000. In June 1906, 30 suffragettes, many of them holding babies in their arms, clashed with the police outside the home of Herbert Asquith, then the Liberal chancellor of the exchequer.
An account in the file records the violent arrest of one of them: "A policeman proceeded to strike her with his fist, and she accordingly slapped his face. The policeman came forward and pinioned her, taking her by the throat and forcing her backwards so that she became blue in the face. With that she kicked the policeman's shins, and was arrested."
The first suffragettes chained themselves to the railings of 10 Downing Street on January 17 1908. One powerful advocate was Evelyn Sharp, whose pamphlet, Why Women Should Have the Vote, features in the exhibition. A full-time writer for the Manchester Guardian and a member of the Kensington WPSU, she was told by an anti- suffragist after one of her passionate speeches: "One could have sworn that you were a demure little imp of mischief who made the teasing of poor old cabinet ministers a fine art, and hugely enjoyed the row you raised." Another WPSU member, Una Dugdale Duval, the debutante daughter of a naval officer, sparked a national scandal in 1912 when she married Victor Duval, the founder of the Men's Political Union for Women's Enfranchisement, but refused to use the word "obey" in her marriage vows.
The campaign of window smashing soon followed. Downing Street was the first to hear the sound of breaking glass and in June 1912 the suffragettes launched a major offensive, breaking the windows of 270 buildings in London's West End.
"Window-breaking, when Englishmen do it, is regarded as an honest expression of political opinion. Window-breaking, when Englishwomen do it, is treated as a crime," wrote Pankhurst in her biography, My Own Story.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Pankhurst rallied the WPSU to the war against Germany and women went to work in the munitions factories and on the buses for the first time. When the war ended, the government gave women over 30 the vote, but it was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that it was given to everyone over the age of 21.
· The March of the Women exhibition at the National Archives, Kew, London, opened this week and runs until December 31.