LONDON — In October 1913, three Jewish women were thrown out of London’s New West End Synagogue during the Yom Kippur service after loudly declaring, “May God forgive Herbert Samuel and Sir Rufus Isaacs for denying freedom to women; may God forgive them for consenting to the torture of women.”
The women were members of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage (JLWS), an organization founded in 1912 dedicated to attaining votes for British women. The JLWS also campaigned for equal religious and communal rights for women within the Jewish community and its membership included both Liberal and Orthodox rabbis as well as notable Anglo-Jewish families such as the Montefiores and the Zangwills.
Although the League was largely law-abiding, the 1913 Yom Kippur disturbance resulted in its members being branded by the Anglo-Jewish press as “blackguards in bonnets” – a description that is the title of a new, small exhibition at the Jewish Museum London.
Timed to coincide with the United Kingdom’s general election on May 7 and running until May 22, Blackguards in Bonnets looks at significance of the British Jewish women and men who were involved in the struggle to gain electoral representation. From awareness-raising tea parties, rallies and lectures to more militant actions such as hunger strikes and acts of arson, the exhibition shows this political movement crossed the class and religious spectrum.
The entire exhibition is built around a hunger strike medal, explains curator Roz Currie. Loaned to the museum by a private collector, the medal’s striped ribbon reflects the official colors — green (hope), purple (dignity) and white (purity) — of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
The WSPU was one of the early suffrage organizations set up in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst as a more radical alternative to previous suffrage groups. Gertrude Lowy, the owner of the medal on display, and her three sisters were all active members. Using this symbol of war bravery, the WSPU gave a name-engraved medal inscribed with the words “For Valour” and “Hunger Strike” to its hunger-striking female members. It was seen as an award for the owner’s dedication to the cause and wearing it indicated that they had served a prison term for militancy, gone on hunger strike and would have, therefore, been subject to the painful method of force-feeding.
But it was not just women who were force-fed, says Currie. The focus may have been on women but men too received the same treatment. Suffragist and politician, Hugh Franklin was force-fed 100 times and sent to prison on multiple occasions, making him one of the few men to be imprisoned for his part in the suffrage movement. Born into a prominent Anglo-Jewish family, his militant activity included an attempted attack on then home secretary Winston Churchill as well an act of arson on a train.
Class status affected involvement in the British suffrage movement. The JLWS tried to engage immigrants in the East End of London but this proved challenging, explains Currie, as many immigrants were not naturalized and therefore would not have been eligible to vote. Suffrage activity was perceived as quite bourgeois, requiring time, confidence and money. Within such a class conscious ridden culture, it was middle and upper class Jewish women who used their social standing to achieve change.
The exhibition highlights the fact that several members of the same family were often involved in the fight, for example well-known novelist and Zionist, Israel Zangwill was an ardent suffragist and worked alongside his wife Edith and her family, helping to establish United Suffragists, one of the later campaign organizations.
“She believed women could do absolutely everything. She was very, very controlling, but I thought she was wonderful,” says Diana Franklin, referring to her great-grandmother, Henrietta (known as Netta) Franklin, who was one of the founders of the JLWS — and mentioned in the exhibition — along with her sister Lily Montagu, founder of the UK Liberal Jewish movement. Netta, male suffragist Hugh Franklin’s relative, died in 1964 aged 98 when Diana was just seven.
Speaking on the phone to The Times of Israel, Franklin admits that she could do no wrong in her great-grandmother’s eyes and recalls a strong woman who “ruled with a rod of iron.” Franklin’s suffrage activities extended into the secular movement and Netta served as president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).
‘She was a matriarch with an unwavering, domineering self-belief. She was a very difficult lady but in many ways she was admirable’
“She was a matriarch,” says Angela Loewi, Netta’s granddaughter, with “an unwavering, domineering self-belief. She was a very difficult lady but in many ways she was admirable.”
Netta was a leading advocate for education for women and a great supporter of the rise of women in professional life. When she was forced to have her leg amputated, says Loewi, she insisted on employing a woman surgeon.
Blackguards in Bonnets is a fascinating subject and shows that the role and actions of Jewish women and men — not just those from prominent families — was critical in helping to achieve suffrage. Unfortunately, it is too text heavy and the range of objects and archival material are limited. What is on display, however, is intriguing, especially the hunger strike medal, for which surprisingly — given the information overload — there is no explanation of its significance.
In 1907 Israel Zangwill said, “Ladylike means are all very well if you are dealing with gentlemen; but you are dealing with politicians.”
After several decades of fighting politicians for it, in 1918 the Representation of the People Act granted the vote to most women over 30 and all men over 21. Equal franchise was finally granted to women in 1928.