HomeStoriesStanding on Strong Shoulders by Maggie Yaxley Smith

Standing on Strong Shoulders by Maggie Yaxley Smith

This story is dedicated to Elsie Howey who planted a Abies Normanniana on 9 May, 1909

“Hi Mum, so glad you could get away.”

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything.”

We ordered our food and drinks, grabbed a table for two on the sunny pavement outside the Colston Hall in Bristol, excited about seeing Joan Baez for her 2018 “Fare-Thee-Well” Concert Tour. This was our way of celebrating 100 years of women having the vote. Over the years, we’d talked about the suffragettes who had sacrificed their freedom, health and in some cases their lives so that we can enjoy the basic human right of voting for the people who govern us. I could never spoil my vote or not vote when it had been so hard-won.

“I always smile when I think of those two women who hid in a 32-foot pipe organ here during a political meeting, way back in 1909. They just kept shouting out ‘Votes for Women’, ‘Votes for Women’, ‘Votes for Women’. The stewards looked everywhere but no one found them. They were two very feisty suffragettes. Of course, Colston Hall is totally different now, it’s been burnt down twice since then and rebuilt.”

“I’d forgotten that story. I’ve been doing projects with each of my English classes on the suffragettes, I must tell them about that, they’d love it, especially as it happened here in Bristol.”

“It was Vera ‘Jack’ Holme and Elsie Howey. Elsie worked for the Women’s Social and Political Union here in Bristol. She was a great speaker and a very brave activist, arrested and jailed six times. She was sentenced to six weeks’ imprisonment in 1908 for taking part in a demonstration outside the House of Commons, along with her sister Mary. Then, arrested for the second time after demonstrating outside the home of Herbert Asquith and sentenced to three months . She broke the governor’s window at Walton Gaol when Constance Lytton was first jailed in 1910. Later on, Elsie was arrested in Penzance and she went on hunger strike. It took her months to recover from throat injuries caused by forced feeding. Her final arrest, in 1912, resulted in all her teeth being broken. The forced feeding was brutal and had lasting effects on many of the suffragettes.”

“It was a horrible thing to do to them. We have photos of both women in our collection. I’ve been telling the children about ‘Annie’s Arboretum’, the suffragette plantation. It wasn’t far from here, Batheaston in Somerset.”

“Ah yes, the Blathwayt family. They opened their home to suffragettes who needed a place to recover from imprisonment. They planted a tree for each of them to commemorate their courage. What a shame it was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for a housing development. Your Great-Aunt Dorothy visited it after the war and said it was inspiring. Each tree had a plaque dedicated to one of the suffragettes who had served time in prison, many of whom had been on hunger strike and of course force-fed. I was bought up on stories of the suffragettes from Aunt Dorothy who was a staunch feminist. She insisted that it was an important part of my education. She was the one who encouraged me to study medicine. She could have gone into any speciality herself but decided to become a local GP and specialise in women’s issues.”

“I wish I’d met her. Didn’t she do a lot of work in setting up family planning clinics?”

“Yes, she was a champion of women’s rights and in particular family planning. She chose not to marry and not to have children, wouldn’t have had the time. She would have been delighted that I opted to work in plastic surgery, particularly reconstructive work for women after breast surgery. It makes such a difference to women’s self-esteem. I love what I do but I may well have had my head turned by a different standard of living, doing more lucrative plastic surgery, if it wasn’t for her. She made me think deeply about the role of women in the home and in society as a whole. Aunt Dorothy believed very strongly that if the woman of the family was educated and supported, the whole family would be better off.”

“One of our projects at school is to plant an oak tree in our grounds to commemorate this 100th anniversary. We’re lucky the head is supportive of what we’re doing. We should be planting it one afternoon in the last week of term, it would be great if you’d like to come along. Two of the classes are putting on an exhibition of their own poetry about the suffragettes alongside photographs of them that we’ve collected.”

“Count me in – I’d love to see the exhibition. It’s great that you’ve got so involved in this.”

“I love the photos of Vera Holme, or ‘Jack’ as she was known. There are quite a lot of photos of her. She was quite a character, a cross-dressing gay actress, in 1909, awful to think she could have been arrested for being gay or for being a suffragette! She sang and performed outside the gates of Holloway to boost the morale of suffragette prisoners. I think she was arrested more than once. Despite being treated so cruelly, it didn’t deter any of them.”

“It seems crazy to us now that even highly educated men were so afraid of giving the vote to women. I suppose they were bought up to feel entitled and superior and were afraid of losing their so-called ‘privileges’ and of course the power that goes with that. It would be much harder to imagine if we weren’t faced with a throw-back to that time with President Trump. The battle for women’s freedom and genuine equal human rights is far from won.”

“It’s gratifying at school to hear that the boys and the girls are all horrified by the cruelty and unfairness towards the suffragettes, especially the idea of being force-fed.

“In my experience, children are much more fair-minded than adults!”

Mum and I hadn’t had a chance for time out together for a while. It was too easy to get caught up in our busy lives. We lingered over this meal, anticipating what was yet to come. Mum had always been a Joan Baez fan. I’d increasingly come to appreciate her music. I love her pure voice and the fact that she is such a creative woman, very much her own person.

“In talking to the children about suffragettes, I’ve been thinking a lot about how far we’ve come as women. I think there’s a lot of dishonesty about women’s rights, human rights, animal rights, even planet rights if there was such a thing.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Jen. One of the problems is that we make laws and social statements about equal pay, anti-discrimination, anti-bullying, human rights legislation and that seems to give the ‘powers that be’ the right to then ignore them and point to the fact that there is now a law, a policy, a statement.”

“So much hypocrisy! I’ve been most disgusted by the BBC, because I had this rather childish trust in it, having grown up listening to Radio 4 and the great programmes they offer. I’ve just watched their own Panorama programme that focused on the appalling anomalies in the BBC’s payment of its women staff. I was so angry that Martina Navratilova was apparently paid £15,000 for being a BBC presenter for Wimbledon and John McEnroe was paid £150,000. I can see that men’s games last longer but Martina was a bigger champion than McEnroe ever was. I like listening to them both but what he was being paid for Wimbledon was in no way worth 10 times more than the work Martina was doing. It’s just wrong, like the China Editor’s pay, it’s just plain wrong. Will it ever change? It’s like a giant con, in the headlines for two minutes and then, nothing happens. It’s like an institutional mimic of Trump, if someone challenges him it’s fake news and then it disappears!”

“It actually takes a while to believe that this is what happens. Recently I heard about a doctor in our hospital who was known for bullying women staff and making racist remarks. Suddenly, he was promoted into a highly-paid job in another hospital. It’s bizarre!”

“That seems to be normal practice in 2018. It’s more important to be seen to be doing something . I don’t know when it became more important to pretend and lie rather than making real and lasting change.”

“It comes down to time is money, and money is power, and power is still the main currency in what is still predominantly a white, European, male-run society. I don’t support Theresa May or Brexit but if boys in your school behaved the way her cabinet are behaving, not giving the teacher in charge the ability to get through their lessons, some of them would be suspended!”

“I know. These days, I feel embarrassed to be a UK citizen. We’re both lucky with Dad and Steve being strong and secure enough as men to accept us as powerful women. They can enjoy that rather than be threatened by us. Until the white European men who are in charge of most institutions start to wise up and see how great it is to have women and men from many different backgrounds working together, we will continue to have a battle on our hands.”

“Well, politics begins with the personal and your dad and Steve have been willing to listen to our point of view. It’s been up to us and other women to speak out and ask for what we need, but we also need men who are able to support us as much as we support them. We’re all in this together after all.”

“Thank goodness I have you as a role model and all these other strong women, it makes a big difference.”

“I sometimes think that because of the many generations of war, there was no experience of how to live with peace and cooperation. We need to appreciate that ‘difference’ and ‘other’ is something that adds to our world rather than something to be afraid of. There needs to be a new way of living, thinking, feeling. Power up to now has meant winning and losing rather than compassion, cooperation and creativity. The only way we can really win is to see that we are connected, all part of one planet.”

“It’s true that some things change by us appreciating our connections with others and some things are about us daring to be free as individuals.”

“I think we have to choose our battles, Jen. Change mostly happens slowly. Just occasionally, people like the suffragettes come along and force things to move faster. Despite the threat of being imprisoned, they hit back with hunger strikes and then had to bear the torture of being force-fed. I remember Aunt Dorothy telling me that in June 1908, there was a rally in Hyde Park and around 300,000 suffragettes assembled. Department stores sold out of white dresses and even more people came to watch.”

“They really were an extraordinary force of their time.”

“And we are all better for it.”

“You are right though, about us needing to learn the skills we need for creativity, cooperation and compassion. I’m beginning to see the positive effects on pupils and staff from running mindfulness meditation sessions.

“This is part of a different revolution, the revolution of self-awareness, daring to free ourselves, inside.”

“I’m finding that the children and staff who have signed up for these sessions are calmer. They are more open to listening and there is less hassle in the classroom. If we are more aware of ourselves and how we behave, we can choose to do the same or risk doing things differently. I like the idea of daring to be free inside ourselves.”

“This all builds confidence. I now recommend to certain patients that they might find mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises a good way to help them recover from their operation. Anything that empowers and calms us can help our immune system to work more effectively.”

“That’s great. The other thing that is working well on so many different levels are our Friday afternoon outings. The head has just agreed that my colleague Patrick and I can have a small amount of funding for our Friday afternoons. The walks now incorporate a project like clearing a beach or doing some sort of community or creative work. The children are learning that caring for something or someone can be fun.”

“Anything that makes them think more about the environment and people who are less well-off has got to be good, Jen. I believe each generation has amazing capacities to find solutions. Just witnessing how people cope with pain, accept death with such humility and fight so hard to recover inspires me every day.”

“I’m so grateful that you and Dad encouraged Matty and me to do what we wanted as well as doing something for others. I knew I wanted to teach from doing volunteer work in the children’s ward and Matty knew he wanted to become an engineer from his work experience in Chile. You both set us an example that people matter, ourselves and others.”

“Well, on that very positive note, I think we should go and enjoy one woman who has inspired me most of my life with her voice, music and creativity. There are many women on whose strong shoulders we stand and Joan Baez is one of them for me.”

It was the most astounding concert, and poignant because it was a Farewell Tour. Joan Baez’s voice was pure and strong and she looked so elegant, lived and loved. As well as a few tears shed, we both had a smile on our faces to think of Elsie Rose Howey and Vera ‘Jack’ Holme shouting ‘Votes for Women’, ‘Votes for Women’, ‘Votes for Women’ way back in 1909 from the inside of a 32-foot wooden pipe organ, in this very place.

Maggie Yaxley Smith M.A. Blog: 

Maggie was a therapeutic counsellor, supervisor, group facilitator and manager of a University Counselling Service for 35 years. She has an M.A. in Women’s Studies. Her first book: Finding Love in the Looking Glass: A Book of Counselling Case Stories, Karnac, (2014), is a book of fictitious counselling dialogues concerning anorexia; depression; marital breakdown; addiction and childhood sexual abuse. Maggie retired to enjoy creative writing, yoga and family life.