Suffragette Stories

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What She Left You by Sara Taylor

This Story is to remember Annie Kenney and Jessie Kenney 

Item: box.

You stop, consider, then amend: hatbox. You consider again, add ?

It’s thin and light, possibly birch or leather but more likely pasteboard, the magazine cuttings that decorate its surface smudged by dirty fingers and yellowed by time. It has always lived in the top of your mother’s wardrobe, under the cigar box filled with bits of broken costume jewelry and foreign coins of negligible value that she kept for you to play with. You were never allowed to touch the hatbox. Until now.

If your mother had been a different person, you’d guess the box held an expensive hat. At one time it may have, though certainly never while she’d owned it. She could be politely termed thrifty, though in your more uncharitable moments you’ve been known to call her tightfisted. She probably found the box, decoupaged it to hide the split in the bottom that your fingers can still find under the brittle layers of paper. Is a hatbox still a hatbox if it’s never held a hat?

You put aside notebook and paper, ease the lid off with your fingertips.

Item: train ticket.

A few train tickets, it turns out; you’re not sure if you should list them singly or together. The solicitor gave you detailed instructions, but you hadn’t been in much of a state to pay attention. They’re third-class tickets, clipped and stamped, most of them faded blue-green, or green-blue, or putty-colored really, the print rubbing off. The pinkish ones are in better nick, but only just.

As you pick them up you hear your sister’s voice in your head, Those will be worth a mint some day. She’s a decade older than you, and you’re over-aware that you came along when times were easier, that you shouldn’t begrudge her penny-pinching. You too have a streak of it, as does everyone you know who is old enough to remember a time of war, but compared to your sister and your mother you’re positively profligate.

You consider the dates, guess that these tickets carried your mother to join the marches in London before the Great War, and then again after it had ended and the vote been won. There had been more than enough opportunity to march in Manchester, and you know she’d raised a ruckus in the city of her birth, but you suppose she couldn’t resist the draw of confronting power where it sat.

Your sister would want you to list the tickets individually, and though you’re annoyed that you’re the one saddled with the task, that she’s dodged every bit of filial responsibility since she immigrated to Australia, you write a brief description of each one in your notebook.

Item: Huntley & Palmers tin containing assorted pins and suffragette’s ribbon.

The white of the grosgrain ribbon – satin, you think – has yellowed, but the green and purple are still acid bright. “Votes for Women” is embossed on the little brass bar from which it hangs, the pin that once fastened it to a lapel broken off. Several of the pins are enameled, in the shape of shields and disks and stylized arrows, many bearing the same colors. You pick out what looks like a tiny pewter portcullis, turn it over in your fingers.

She’d probably gone to that first meeting with no greater want than a cup of tea somewhere warm and out of the house, away from her newly-married parents’ affection, her younger stepsisters’ squabbling. She’d thought the cause a thing for ladies at first, been surprised to recognize women from the mill when first she entered the hall where the meeting was held.

Her stepmother hadn’t understood why she’d fallen in with those women, why they were agitating for the vote when there were so many more worthy and likely causes to champion, when it would change so little and cost so much. Her father told her it made no matter what she did, so long as she didn’t neglect her responsibilities or get herself arrested. She supposed her stepmother too small-minded to want more, assumed that she didn’t understand that it wasn’t just the vote that they wanted, but to shake society into a new pattern, to break down the old barriers between men and women, workers and their masters, remake a world in which they were finally equal. Later, when she knew the woman better, she felt ashamed of that first thought.

There are other pins, later pins, which speak to more recent questions. You wonder what she’d make of the developments with Rhodesia, if she would have joined the protests. You wonder what she’d make of the race riots in the United States, and for a moment you’re relieved to have been spared that discussion with her. You realize you’ve abandoned your inventory all together.

One of the pins makes you pause, take up your pencil again.

Item: Anti-suffrage pin.

You won’t go so far as to throw it away, but it doesn’t deserve to be in with the others. It’s round, salmon in the center with a trefoil, rose, and thistle in gold, “The National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage” around the edge on a black ground. You wonder where she got it, how she got it, whether it was through infiltrating a meeting, through charming a member, or if she’d merely found it, plucked it from the ground. She had magpie tendencies, your mother. You wonder if your sister has heard the story. Wonder how many stories vanish without being noted.

No, there is a hat in here, an old-fashioned hat squashed near the bottom of the box. You’re not sure if that’s the design or just what’s befallen it since it was new. You try and press it back into shape, and remember the photograph she showed you of herself at seventeen, holding an embroidered banner with a group of older women. The photograph was in the paper, the only one you have of her at that age; they didn’t have the money for such things then.

Item: Crushed hat, black straw decorated with grosgrain ribbon.

She’d heard what happened when Dora Thewlis was arrested at the ’07 march, how the press and the police and everyone had fixated on her age, forgotten almost entirely why it was that she had marched. She was determined not to make the same mistake. She’d dug up her dead mother’s hat, nearly ten years out of date by then, had padded her bosom and middle and worn her stepmother’s maternity corset, had kept her head down and her voice pitched low. Whether it was convincing, or the police saw no difference between one working-class woman and the next, she couldn’t say, but either way she’d gotten through her first march, her first arrest, without any remark on her age. She gave a false name at the police station, was ranked Third Division and served two weeks, with hard labour that wasn’t so bad as the work she’d done in the factory, the help she’d given in her stepmother’s laundry.

You realize you’re taking far too long over this; there’s still most of the house to get through. You wonder if you can get away with writing hatbox of assorted keepsakes, decide that even were this in the spirit of the task your sister would object, perhaps even insist on you doing it again. You wonder if your mother named you her executor as a gift, or a punishment. You suppose it could be both at once.
You resolve to be faster.

Item: Pressed nosegay, tied with a piece of lace.

Item: Packet of letters, which you don’t read, consider burning even though you can’t bear the idea.

Item: Stone.

It’s smooth and round and weighs comfortably in the palm. You wonder why she kept it, set it aside.

Item: Jump rope handle.

You pause. No, not a jump rope handle. You grope for the word, the word for the middle part of a shuttle, the part that the thread is wound around, that plays it out as the shuttle flies across the warp like a speedboat. You cross out jump rope handle, write in shuttle pirn. Though it’s not entirely wrong: you once had a jump rope whose handles were made of old pirns, just the right length and thickness for your hands.
She’d begun minding the looms just after conscription began. Twelve hours a day she caught the shuttles, took out the empty pirn and fitted in a new, full pirn, kissed the shuttle even though it was known to spread illness, because it was the quickest way to pull the thread through, and speed was all the foreman cared about. Well, not just speed: she lost that job after the Great War ended. She hadn’t done anything wrong, only now that all the men that were still alive had returned from the war, he couldn’t justify keeping her in a man’s role, paying her a man’s wage.

‘There have already been so many asking, and all with mouths to feed at home,’ he’d told her.

She didn’t ask about the mouths that she had to feed, asked instead what other work he might have for her.

‘You’ve fast hands. I could give you a place as a bobbin setter.’

She’d pushed back the unbidden flash of memory at the words “bobbin setter,” felt a pain in the finger that she’d lost when last she’d done such work.

‘At the same wage?’ she asked.

He’d scoffed. ‘Never heard of a bobbin setter what was worth a weaver’s wage, love.’

She knew not to press the matter.

Though she would not say it, she was thankful that her father had abandoned them by then, whether for another woman or the joy of his own company or through no intent but simple mischance. It meant no more babies, no more wondering if this would be the lying-in that would finally do for her stepmother, who she now simply thought of as ‘mother.’
She spoke fondly of those years with her stepmother, and you’d rarely thought to question whether she minded it, how the war had left her with slim chance of marrying and even slimmer chance of her own home and children. It had been easier to think that two daughters with ten years between them and no husband to speak of had been her choice, all she had wanted for her life.

Item: Young Suffragists leaflet, dated 1926.

Item: Shard of window glass.

Item: WSPU membership card.

Item: Prison handkerchief

She sometimes woke disoriented, confused by the lie of the room, the sounds outside. Not just at the end, when she was fading and you knew it, but when you were small and pressed close to her side on winter mornings, hoping she wouldn’t make you go to school. You wonder now why it always happened that she thought she was in prison, when after all she’d spent so little time there. Why not her childhood bed, or your childhood home, or the little cottage on the downs above Brighton where you’d moved when you were nine? But when she woke confused, and afraid, it was always the prison.
She’d hated being touched unexpectedly. You’d once seen a well-meaning arm pull her back from a kerb just before a bus passed, been embarrassed at how she’d flailed in panic, then crumpled to the ground.

There had been a moment of vulnerability near the end, the two of you sitting watching the cloud shadows playing across the Downs, when she’d told you what had happened. That whenever an arm pressed across her chest, a hand grabbed her wrist, an embrace came unexpectedly, it took her back to the prison, pinned to the table with the press of the steel bit against her lips, digging into her gums, waiting for the tube down her throat. She’d not been half so shaken by it when it actually happened, couldn’t seem to understand why she was now so shaken, recalling in safety so many years on. It had upset you, hearing this. She’d not told you more, and you hadn’t dared to ask.

Perhaps she’d kept the ‘kerchief as a talisman against the memories, not because she wished to remember her time in prison, but to have a keepsake that could be crumpled in the fist, to be able to hold it and say, it happened, and now it is over.

Now you remember where that stone came from.
Before that first march she’d wondered if it would come to violence, if there would be stones or bricks or anything within reach when the time came. They were to stick to well-defined parameters, not to harm anyone, merely to make their protest seen, but she woke on the morning hoping for the opportunity to throw a stone, determined to be prepared if it came. There was so much anger in her, pressed down and firmly bottled, and this was finally a chance to let it free. She’d gone looking for stones but found none, finally stolen one from her younger brother’s collection.

The march had not been entirely as she expected. It had begun peacefully enough, but as the crowd grew, suffragettes and antis and watchful police crowding the streets, she’d been jostled, knocked to the ground, lifted up again and then pinned to a railing. It was only when she slipped her hand into her pocket at the police station, looking for a handkerchief to blot a bloody nose, that she remembered it was there, felt herself blanch.

She’d considered wrapping it in her bloodied handkerchief, instead slipped it into her shoe just before she handed them over, with her stockings packed down tightly on top. She was fairly certain that, had it been found, she would have been given three months, as the women who’d thrown stones had been given.

She hadn’t told her parents her plans, hadn’t been able to send them word of her imprisonment, and so, when she returned home after her release, she found them panicked and grief-stricken, convinced that something awful had befallen her. This fear had done little to temper their anger the next day: two weeks’ absence with no word was more than enough for her to lose her place in the box factory where she’d worked since she was thirteen, cutting labels from six in the morning until six at night.

Item: Envelope of assorted newspaper clippings.

She’d gleefully told you stories from before the war, but now as you leaf through the clippings, you realize how silent she had been about the ten long years between the first women being given the vote and all women being given the vote. Some of the clippings are about suffrage, but most of the ones dated after 1918 cover different topics. The ladies with whom she had marched had moved on to other causes: some to prison reform, others to advocate for birth control, still others laying plans to enter Parliament. Once property-owning women over thirty had the vote, they seemed to think their mission fulfilled.

She’d been five years too young in 1918, and could but dream of owning property sufficient to be permitted to vote. And had she not marched with them? Had she not been arrested with them? Had she not had the bit forced between her teeth when she refused food so that Bovril and brandy could be poured down her throat, only to come back up again the moment the doctor ripped the tube free?

You recognize one of the oldest clippings from when you were seventeen and she brought it out, to name for you the women standing with her in the photo. She was also seventeen, wearing that squashed hat you found earlier, her head bowed, fingers clenched tight around the top edge of the embroidered banner. You are grateful that she didn’t quite turn her head in time, that you can make out her face under the rim of the hat, the shape of the nose and lips soothingly familiar. The poor quality of printing doesn’t do her justice, though when she first showed it to you she’d insisted that no, she really had looked that ghastly when it was taken.

For a moment, you hold the clipping in your hands, let yourself be comforted by the image of her. You are seventeen again, seeing it for the first time, and you wonder if you could have been friends had you been born at the same time, had you not been in a position to resent the hard edges of her, the resilience that so often manifest as a lack of caring. You wonder how different things might have been had you been closer in age to your sister, if you’d had the same father, if your parents had married and he’d lived with you in that little house outside Brighton. Not for the first time, you regret not pressing her to clarify, suppose there’s only so much clarifying the human mind can do. Memories, after all, seem to warp even as they are made.

You fit the lid carefully back on the box, hold it tightly for a moment, then take up your notebook and tear out the entire page on which you’ve inventoried the box and its contents, crumple it and stuff it deep into your skirt pocket. What it holds can’t be counted, can’t be appraised, doesn’t belong on a dead woman’s probate inventory. And if your sister wants a slice of it, well, then she can just drag herself across the ocean and take it from you.

You sit on the bed for a moment, just until your tears run dry again, then turn to deal with the rest of the wardrobe, the rest of the house, the everything and the nothing that your mother left behind.

Sara Taylor holds an MA in Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia, and completed the Ph.D. in Creative and Critical Writing at UEA in 2017. Her debut novel, The Shore was long listed for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize and shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Sara's most recent novel is The Lauras.