Blackguards and Bonnets

Curator Roz Currie writes about the Jewish suffragettes held at Holloway Prison.

In 2015, while working at the Jewish Museum, I put on the exhibition ‘Blackguards and Bonnets’ exploring the story of Jewish suffragettes. I found myself inspired by the many stories of women who had fought for the vote. These included Dora Montefiore who in 1900 found her tax paying for a war that she had no say in and couldn’t do a thing about it. And Leonora Cohen whose widowed mother took on all the responsibilities of a householder without the right for her voice to be heard.

Through the 19th century, as different representation acts were passed and more and more groups, including Jewish men, were enfranchised, still women and working class men had no vote. By the time the Women’s Social and Political Union was formed in 1903 it is understandable that they had become frustrated with the politicians of the day. Israel Zangwill probably expressed the question with the right level of anger, “How do they justify their monstrous proposition that one half of the human race shall have no political rights?” (From ‘One and One Are Two’ a speech given in 1907).

Blackguards in Bonnets, explored just a few of the stories of the women and men who fought for enfranchisement. Rebuffed time and again, they were remarkable in keeping their eye on the final prize. This was despite the horrors of alleged police brutality and then imprisonment, hunger strikes and force-feeding at Holloway Prison.

Women imprisoned at Holloway include Leonora Cohen, mentioned above, who joined the Leeds Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1909. Her most famous act came after yet another meeting with parliament was cancelled. She filed down an iron bar so it would fit in her bag and smashed a case at the Tower of London which held some of the crown jewels. She was forced to the ground by alarmed Beefeaters and arrested. Wrapped around the bar was a piece of paper declaring: “Jewel House, Tower of London. My Protest to the Government for its refusal to Enfranchise Women, but continues to torture women prisoners – Deeds Not Words. Lenora Cohen”/ reverse “Votes for Women. 100 years of Constitutional Petition, Resolutions, Meetings & Processions have Failed.” This bar can be seen on display at Leeds City Museum.

In 1912 the Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage formed, joining Christian suffrage groups, providing a platform for religious women to demand the vote without the need to engage in wider politics. The founders included women from powerful Jewish families such as Henrietta and Caroline Franklin. They had two goals –to demand that women achieved equal franchise with men, and to improve the status of women in the Jewish community. Members were clear that including women and giving them a voice could only make the community stronger.

To learn more why not watch the Blackguards in Bonnets talk I gave at Edgware United Synagogue in December.

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