7/31 Linda, our navigator, does not have fond memories of Birmingham because our route to the hotel was repeatedly blocked by construction that was news to the GPS! As we had promised each other, however, we remained calm. We arrived at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery shorty before closing time. Happily the blue plaque for Bertha Ryland that we were looking for was prominently placed in the main gallery. A fascinating display under the plaque included an exquisite necklace made by a sympathetic jeweler
with semi-precious stones in WSPU colors—purple, white and green. I emailed a photo of the necklace to my good friend Ken Florey, an expert in suffrage memorabilia and the author of two books on the topic, who attested to the rarity of suffrage jewelry, especially of that quality. The white object in the picture is a contemporary artifact honoring suffragettes. (Click on a picture to enlarge it.)
Suffragettes’ militant actions escalated from stone throwing to serious property damage, including arson, bombing, and slashing valuable paintings. By 1914, art museums were on high alert to foil suffragette’s attacks, but on June 9, 1914, Ryland with a meat cleaver up her sleeve walked by the police guards and slashed a painting of John Bensley Thornhill, known as “Mr. Thornhill,” by George Romney three times. She left a note with her name, address, and message: “I attack this work of art deliberately as a protest against the government’s criminal injustice in denying women the vote, and also against the government’s brutal injustice in imprisoning, forcibly feeding, and drugging suffragist militants, while allowing Ulster militants to go free!” ( By Ulster militants, Ryland meant Protestants in Northern Ireland who were loyal to England, as opposed to the majority population of Irish Catholics who wanted to form an autonomous Ireland.) Ryland was arrested and imprisoned where she went on a hunger strike and was forcibly fed. With the outbreak of World War I in England in 1914, the charges were dropped.
The text with the display read in part: “though their actions were extreme the suffragettes’ campaign highlights the desperation and impotence felt by some women at the time.” This
prompted Linda and me to talk about extreme actions and what we might or might not do and under what circumstances. Those same questions came up while I was writing The Vote: Women’s Fierce Fight. Would I have picketed the White House, along with Alice Paul and members of the National Woman’s Party? Yes. Would I have gone to prison? Most likely. Would I have engaged in a hunger strike, knowing that I would be force fed? I just don’t know.