This year marks the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK. Throughout 2018 there have been events, marches, exhibitions, plays and books to mark this significant anniversary when some, but not all women, finally got the vote. As the year draws to a close, no doubt many of us will pause to reflect on the celebrations, but also the discussions about equality, opportunity, and the ongoing challenges faced by today’s women, which this anniversary has provoked.
As a historian and a writer, I have always been drawn to consider the position of women throughout the centuries, to examine their lot in life as mothers, daughters, lovers, witches and warriors. As the centenary dawned almost twelve months ago, I found myself drawn once again to the suffragettes. I decided to write a short story which reflects upon their struggle and their legacy, upon the power of the pen and the significance of the simple but hard-won act of making your mark at the ballot box. The piece, entitled Noughts and Crosses, is written as diary extracts from two women living in Edinburgh but almost a hundred years apart; an early twentieth century suffragist, and an early twenty-first century student faced with voting for the first time. I chose this format because as well as commenting on the political, I wanted to convey the empowerment which comes from personal writing and reflection. Noughts and Crosses is a celebration of women’s achievements, but it also reflects that in a time plagued increasingly by cynicism, turmoil and fatigue as established political systems creak and groan against the strain of twenty-first century challenges, the act of voting in itself nonetheless endures as a form of protest.
Noughts and Crosses was my entry for this year’s Costa short story award. A few days ago I found out that it had, unfortunately, been unsuccessful in making the shortlist. (The shortlisted entries can be found here. Please do consider reading them and voting for your favourite in the public poll – you’ll potentially make a writer somewhere very happy!) I felt it was a shame, given the story’s topical nature, for it to gather dust in a drawer forever more, so to speak, so instead, I have decided to publish it here. I really hope that you all enjoy it and I would ask, if you do, please share it on social media and maybe tag a friend who you think would like it too.
Noughts and Crosses
Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 16th February 1909:
Yesterday evening was so exhilarating that I can barely keep the smile from creeping on to my lips. I know I must suppress it; H is at home today, locked in the drawing room with his papers and his cigars but nonetheless capable of spotting my unexplained glee from a mile away. He thinks we were at the theatre, Bess and I. No doubt he imagines that I enjoyed an evening of frivolity, a casual spectator at a performance of the latest production to travel north from London. If indeed, he imagines anything at all.
You see, last night confirmed something to me, something that I have long suspected, and now I feel certain is true. Men like H don’t see us, not really. They admire us, they choose us, they marry us. But they don’t see us – not like they see each other. We are the fair sex, the delicate sex. But we are not the serious sex. We are not the sex that is capable of making important decisions, even about matters which affect us first and foremost.
Last night I heard these arguments rebutted, one by one. I admit that I was captivated by the strength with which the case for our suffrage was made. The room was filled to the brim with such inspiring women, all arguing with the force of sheer logic why women such as I should be allowed the vote. Many of the speakers grew very animated, advocating strong action to achieve our aims – chaining ourselves to railings, breaking windows and so forth. I must admit that the mere thought of such disobedience makes my blood run cold. Can you imagine what H would say?
Nonetheless, I’m already planning my ruse to attend next month’s meeting. I’ll tell H that we’re going to the theatre again. He will think me an enthusiast; he will laugh and tap me under the chin affectionately, just like he always does when he is amused. I don’t like having to lie; sometimes I envy Bess her freedom to do as she pleases, although of course I would not wish to be a widow. But I must lie; better that I am regarded as a supporter of the arts than a supporter of votes for women. Better I keep my face composed and my thoughts to myself. At least I can write it down and this diary, this paper and this ink can testify to what I dare not utter aloud: I believe that a woman should be allowed the vote in all elections, if she is of equivocal status to a man who is already allowed the vote according to the law of this land. I don’t think that is particularly radical. And yet, I know in my heart that H would disagree.
Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 24th April 2010:
Don’t even know how I’ve got the energy to write anything in here right now. So exhausted. Last night was braw though. Sinead and Mhairi had it all planned out by the time I got to Mhairi’s – into town, drinks then a club then more drinks! All good fun and no boys to complicate things, either. Managed not to run into Callum which was a bonus. Been doing my head in since we split.
Turning 18 is the best! Although today I’m feeling it. Head is pounding. Back to bed for me soon, I think, before I go out for a family dinner. Bit quieter than last night but it’ll be good – Mum says Gran is coming too, which is nice. Gran always has a good story or two about when she was my age. Mum says I should make the most of her, that she’s getting on a bit now and her memory isn’t what it was. Glad I’m only 18, not 80. Better keep those sorts of comments to myself though, or Mum will be once again reminding me that I’m an adult now. Seriously, I’ve been 18 for less than 48 hours and I’ve already lost count of how many times she has said that to me. The best one was yesterday afternoon, when she decided to dump a load of election leaflets in my room. Came through the door, apparently. You can vote now, she tells me, as if I didn’t already know. Next election is in May – well, okay, I’ll admit that I didn’t know that. Why would I? Not like any of it means anything to me. I dunno. Maybe I’ll have a read later. After I’ve slept some more. So tired.
Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh,10th October 1909:
The day of the march started well, but ended terribly badly. I am so shaken that I can hardly manage to hold my pen to write this. Nor can I stop the tears tumbling down my cheeks, spilling on to the page and making the ink run, forming messy black pools as deep as my despair. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t be surprised; I must have known that this day would come. Indeed, it is a miracle that I managed to keep this secret for so long. Yesterday, however, I took one step too far from the shadows, exposing my involvement for all to see. And H has his spies everywhere, of course, just as any successful man with a care for his reputation should. How foolish of me to think that I would not be seen! How dreadfully foolish.
The day which greeted us was still, sunny and bright; unusual for this time of year but wholly welcome. Bess and I joined the march at Princes Street, slipping through the crowds which had gathered and taking our places behind an enormous, beautifully embroidered banner declaring ‘Votes for Women’. As I walked I felt such pride at being part of something so important, to be making my stand for the right of women to vote on the same basis as men. I still believe that this cannot be too much to ask, that it cannot be so scandalous a notion! And yet it must, for when I returned home later a voice greeted me, one so grave that I thought for a moment that there must have been a death in the family. That evening there was a death, of sorts; the death of my spirit as it was crushed by the authority bestowed upon my husband’s sex. I was reminded at once of what it means to have no rights, no rights at all.
Today I am confined to my room like a reprimanded child. Bess is prohibited from visiting, H having satisfied himself that I have been led astray by a wicked widow whose lack of a husband has caused her descent into wild fanaticism. So I sit here, pressing my pen down hard as I write these words, my tears evaporating into anger at being robbed of those things that I hold dear: my cause, and my friend. The worst of it all is that I am punished so harshly for doing so little. I was a coward who went to a few meetings and walked in a procession. I broke no laws, smashed no property, set no fires. Now I sit and I wish that I had done, that I had given my all. Instead, yesterday was my final, feeble act; I dare not do anything else for our good cause ever again.
Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 1st May 2010:
Not managed to scribble down a single thought this week. College work is just immense; two assessments and an essay to complete and no end in sight. At least it’s Saturday.
Mum is doing my head in about this voting thing! Keeps asking if I’ve read the leaflets yet, have I got any questions, do I want to chat about it…total nightmare! She even got Gran joining in at my birthday dinner last week. I think when she was younger my gran must have been a feminist – she came out with all this stuff about the fight for equality and women’s rights. Reckon that’s where Mum gets a lot of her ideas from, too. Honestly, I had both of them on my case. Women fought and died for your right to vote, Gran says to me, like I didn’t know, like I never went to school and learnt these things. So I told her, nicely of course because she’s my gran, that surely if they died for my right to vote, they died for my right not to vote, as well? Surely it’s the choice that matters? That shut them both up. Honestly, absolute nightmare.
Anyway, I did have a look at those leaflets. Can’t say that any of them were very inspiring. Even if I did want to vote, I’ve no idea who I would vote for. Still think my first instinct was correct – waste of time, so don’t bother.
Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 12th August 1914
It has been some time since I have written down my thoughts. In truth I have become very good at avoiding the practice of thinking as much as possible, letting life glide past me while I watch, a passive observer at the back of the crowd. It seemed easier that way; easier for H, easier for me.
Last week, however, everything changed. Britain is going to war, and it looks like H is going, too. He has to do his bit, so he tells me. He says that with so many men going away, it is likely that women will also have to help, that I must be prepared for some of the servants choosing to leave and taking whatever wartime work presents itself. Life will change, he keeps telling me, but it will only be for a little while. Everyone expects that the war will be over by Christmas.
I hope it is over quickly. I can’t bear the thought of being left alone in this house, especially with a baby on the way. I haven’t told H yet. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I know he’ll be so happy with me, and I can’t bear his delight when I feel so unhappy with myself. I will tell him before he leaves.
The news of war has affected the cause, too. There will be no more marches, no more action; it has all ground to a halt. Part of me is relieved, I think. The reports over the last few months have been so upsetting, with more and more women finding themselves arrested and charged with increasingly dangerous acts. This summer one woman even tried to interrupt the King and Queen’s visit to Perth by running towards the royal car! They say that once in prison those women who refuse to eat are force-fed, and that Perth prison is one of the worst places for this practice. The very thought makes my stomach churn. At least this war has put an end to that, but on the other hand, where does this leave the cause? I hope it is not forgotten forever.
Diary of Clara Donoghue, Edinburgh, 6th May 2010:
Well, I went and I did it. Still can’t believe it. Until yesterday I was sure I wasn’t going to bother to vote. Must have read those leaflets hundreds of times – even went on the internet to try to decide who to vote for, and came away even more confused. Why can’t politics just be straightforward? Seems like riddles to me. Riddles and promises which aren’t kept.
Something about what my gran said kept bothering me, though. Kept hearing her voice going round and round in my head, talking about the suffragettes and everything. That made me think that not going at all seemed like a bit of a waste. So, I voted – well, sort of. I made my mark at least. Several marks, actually. I still didn’t know who to vote for, so I went to the polling station and I put a zero in each of the boxes – a series of noughts all in a column down the page. Then I put my paper in the ballot box and left. I know it doesn’t count as a vote, but I’ve been and I’ve had my say anyway. That’s what women fought for, after all – the right to a voice, not to say any particular thing with it.
Mum’s just glad I went and voted. I haven’t told her the full story, of course. Keep thinking about the power of the pen now. Started off thinking that my noughts were just symbols of my cluelessness but now they feel like a protest – my protest against how rubbish I think it all is, carved out in ink. Weird thought. Still not telling Mum though.
Diary of Mrs. Emma Milton, Edinburgh, 14th December 1918
Tonight my heart is so full of joy that I think it might burst. Even the sorrows and horrors of the last four years cannot dampen my happiness. All that hard work and strife, all that bravery and determination; it was all worth it.
I voted today. Such wonderful words! I voted. I went with Bess; we’re both on our own now, reunited since she returned from her Land Army work. She has changed a great deal; she is so worldly-wise, and so strong! But she is still such a dear friend. Little Edith came too, wrapped up warm as she skipped along to the polling place. I showed her what to do, how to put a cross against your chosen candidate and how to put your paper in the ballot box. She didn’t really understand, despite my efforts to explain how important it was. But she will understand one day. She will understand what I, what all of us did for our daughters, how significant that little mark made in ink actually is.
On my way home I thought about H, just as I do every day. It’s hard, knowing that he will never come home, that he will never see Edith grow up. I know that he was never in favour of votes for women, but I like to think that he was watching as I voted, that he was proud of me. I thought too about all the women who weren’t able to vote today. There is still more to do in that regard, especially since all men now have the vote. All men – I wonder what H would say about that! It’s strange how this war threw everything up into the air and we are still grappling around, trying to gather the pieces. H was right; life did change, and I feel certain that it will keep changing. Perhaps by the time Edith votes, all women will be voting alongside her! I can’t think of anything more wonderful.