Today is the centenary of the incredibly brave and successful campaign that the Suffragettes and Suffragists fought to extend the franchise to women. It is a reminder of people who took on real risks and were prepared to incur heavy penalties for something that so many of us simply take for granted in the present day.
It was a bold and progressive move that set the stage for universal voting rights in which all men and women, regardless of class, were able to actively participate in the electoral process.
Right now, however, the campaign for female equality seems to be in a more regressive phase that censors paintings which even mildly eroticise women. Last week, in a complete failure of both imagination and courage, the Manchester Art Gallery removed an artwork by the pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse called Hylas and the Nymphs based on a Greek myth where a young warrior Hylas is tempted away from his lover by a group of naked and alluring water nymphs. Apparently, the gallery wanted to “prompt a conversation” about the “old-fashioned” representation of women in Victorian art.
It is absolutely fine to have a discussion about that, but it makes it much more difficult when we can’t even look at the art?
Since when is the art world so prudish about the female body? Also, artworks aren’t just put on display because they evoke warm and fuzzy feelings. It is important to exhibit art that does the opposite.
They were controversial and routinely offended people’s sensitivities. And that was how they began to change society.
In a victory for free expression, the gallery was roundly condemned across the political spectrum for such a draconian move and Manchester Art Gallery almost immediately reinstated the painting.
Personally, I think the Victorians were more imaginative, open and forward-thinking than people give them credit for. The incredible 19th century thinker and author of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill and the social milieu he moved in, being a case in point (not to mention Charles Darwin). The Victorians were far from perfect, of course, like all other cultures and epochs throughout history. But it would be foolish for us to think that we are in every way superior, which is a dismissive and childish attitude towards the past. Being progressive does not mean sweeping away everything that preceded the current moment.
The Suffragists/gettes were not afraid to publicly challenge convention. They stuck to their convictions even when faced with seemingly implacable opposition. They were controversial and routinely offended people’s sensitivities. And that was how they began to change society.
We can never dream of achieving anything similar if we shrink from ideas which make us feel uncomfortable.
One hundred years on from the achievements of such daring people we need to remember this more than ever.