Blog, Event, Politics, Women's History


Abstract of paper to be given at the Annual WHN Conference 2018. Unfortunately I was prevented  approaching all the marvellous presenters of papers to be given at the WHN Annual Conference (Privacy Considerations). I appealed to presenters through the blog for abstracts but have received none. If anyone reading this post is encouraged to send an abstract, it would be very welcome.For the past few years this has been a great source of material for the WHN Blog, and an important introduction to the papers to be given at the conference. I’d like to thank once more the people who contributed in the past.

Robin Joyce WHN Blog Administrator

Let fiction have a say: British Women Fight for the Vote in Stand We at Last and Things a Bright Girl Can Do.

Understanding the past through historical fiction successfully complements academic histories. Although it can be argued that fiction can embellish and even invent history, there is also the possibility that some fiction writer’s historical research is as thorough as an academic’s when they rely on critical analysis of their work as well as popularity. There is also the argument that interpretation takes place in both fictional and non-fiction historical accounts and the ‘bee in the bonnet’ that EH Carr refers to in What is History? is relevant in both fields. In considering the British suffrage movement the poignancy of ‘Suffragette’, the film (I haven’t been able to bear following through to its conclusion) is as valid an argument for its status, as criticism that some women were omitted. The story is a contribution to the knowledge that is an essential part of ensuring that British women’s fight for the vote is brought to a wide audience. Two fiction texts in this paper  also have an important role in ensuring that women’s voices are heard. Zoe Fairbairns’ Stand We at Last, published in 1983 is an early contributor to this knowledge. Sally Nichols’ Things a Bright Girl Can Do is designed for young adult readers. Published in 2017, it prepares the way for young adults’ understanding of the suffrage activities of 2018.

The full detail of the 1918 Act of Parliament in which women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities is not articulated in either novel. A non-fiction text would provide this information, with the figures: about 8.4 million women gained the vote. Sarah, the suffragette of Fairbairns book,  despite her Australian experience, did not reflect upon women winning the vote in Victoria, Australia 1896 and Federally in 1900. She was once again in England, politically involved in issues there as well domestic duties. Both novels concentrate on British suffrage, fairly enough.

Fairbairns is a feminist writer. Her historical saga begins in the 1800s and features sisters, Sarah and Helena. Their choice of vastly different lives, marriage or travel to Australia, creates the background to their female ‘descendants’: Pearl, Ruby, Emma and Jackie who embraces 1970s feminism. Sarah’s feminism is apparent from her early refusal to share her sister and husband’s house, her independent travel by ship to Australia and domicile in the Australian bush, return to England and political action on behalf of women. I say her descendants in inverted commas as Pearl is the child of her dead sister’s husband, Jonathon’s liaison. Sarah becomes Aunt Sarah to her children and grandchildren. It is through their eyes that Sarah the suffragette is partially observed; along with the prison wardress; and the women’s movement at the time and Jackie who researches the woman of property whose name Sarah takes on her voyage, Mrs Packham. This appropriation, together with Sarah’s motivation, actions and thoughts give us a personal view point of this fictional suffragette.

Sarah’s story is set in a broad context, with reference to the fight for women’s suffrage alongside her other political actions, domestic and public. She is imprisoned as a suffragette and threatened with forced feeding.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do has a clearly stated suffrage purpose, from the front cover in purple, white and green and ‘Votes For Women’ highlighted on the back cover. Visually, the cover does its job well. The text is also persuasive and strong: early in the novel  two young women meeting at a suffrage rally. The date is February 1914, locating this account of the fight towards 1918 partial success in a tight time frame. Accordingly, we get more detail, but miss the build up to this action: something that can happen in non-fiction as well. Sylvia Pankhurst speaks briefly before the police break into the hall. Pankhurst has just reached the deadline for her re-arrest after her hunger strike in prison. Three girls, one working class, one middle class with ambition  and the other a middle-class Quaker, provide several themes around the suffrage fight: peace vs violence from a female perspective; lesbian love; class conflict and public and private duty.

Both examples of historical fiction complement academic histories. Fiction, such as Stand We at Last has an important role in articulating the debates around women’s struggle, both before, during and after 1918. The novel relates the dynamic activity of fictional women with whom the reader can readily identify and link to non-fictional women’s activities. Things A Bright Girl Can Do makes feminist history easily accessible to young people, an essential part of illuminating women’s struggle for equality.

Robin Joyce



Robin Joyce is an Independent Scholar with academic qualifications in History and English Literature. She has written on women’s fiction, women in film and television and women’s contribution to politics and history. Zoe Fairbairns’ novel, Stand We at Last features briefly in her PhD Thesis. She would have liked it to have been a major part, but the rigours associated with that precluded her wish. This is an opportunity to talk about that novel. Joyce believes strongly in the need to enthuse young people with the joy of history, and Things a Bright Girl Can Do gives her the opportunity to talk about an example of how this can happen.

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