Activists in the Archives

Today’s guest post comes from Gemma Elliott who is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. She holds an MLitt in Modernities from the same university, during which her research focused on the role of suffrage campaigners in the fiction of Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf. Currently, her doctoral research looks at Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage novel sequence as autobiographical fiction. More broadly, her research interests focus on feminist and modernist texts.
Twitter: @_gemmaelliott

As one of just three students who were chosen to take part in the SGSAH’s first year of their Scottish Universities Research Collections Associate Scheme, I was nervous. Even more daunting was the fact that my historical project – visiting and collecting records of all items related to the women’s suffrage movement held in Scottish university archives – was outside of my subject area as a PhD candidate in English Literature. I had form with the suffragettes and suffragists though, with my MLitt dissertation looking at representations of suffrage campaigners in modernist fiction. I was also a Hunterian Associate in 2015, exploring an unpublished suffragette memoir held in the University of Glasgow’s archives. The research I did as a Hunterian Associates Programme member essentially led me to realise just how hidden the histories of the women’s suffrage movement in Scotland are, languishing undiscovered in archives that are fairly inaccessible to those outside of academia and barely promoted even within universities. The aim of my SURCAS project was to find as many of these hidden histories as I could, visiting the archives and special collections of universities throughout Scotland, and blog about them, finding connections as well as providing a trail of archive record numbers and locations that will hopefully make the items easier to research in the future.


A letter from the Edinburgh branch of the NUWSS, held at the University of Strathclyde

What I’ve discovered is that the fight for voting rights for women at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries didn’t just take place in the incidents that have made it into our cultural consciousness. Whilst Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the Derby and the violence of Black Friday in London were vital to women being awarded voting rights, so too were the lesser known activists who gathered in small campaign groups all over Scotland and the wider UK to contribute in their own small way towards the goal of full enfranchisement for women. The contributions of these women are evident in the autobiographies, magazines, letters, notes, minutes, and much more which I’ve been tracing through the archives of Higher Education Institutions throughout Scotland. However, with no single repository for all of these many individual stories, the contribution of so many women to their political histories are not widely studied or promoted. Due to this lack of information, I found that even those who had catalogued some of the archival items, presumably knowledgeable archivists, didn’t describe them accurately. For example, one university archive (which I won’t name!) had given an item the keyword of “suffragette” when it related to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Members of the pacifist NUWSS were actually known as “suffragists” as opposed to the militant “suffragettes” from the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union. The two groups, who agreed on little but their conviction that women should be able to vote, would most likely not have appreciated being confused a hundred years later.


The University of Glasgow’s suffrage society newsletter

My goal with my Suffragette Cities blog has been to right some of these wrongs. I’ve tried to highlight individual stories that have been lost to time, such as a letter from a suffrage campaigner to a friend working at the University of St Andrews who worried that her health had never recovered after spending time in prison due to her activism. This sacrifice of her wellbeing for the cause by a woman who was never well known and will never make the history books really made clear to me the cost of the fight for women’s suffrage, with women all over the country affected in a variety of ways. I’ve also tried to ensure that each of my blog posts on these hidden histories links clearly to the archive record of the item I’m discussing so that future researchers can use my work as a catalogue of items relating to the women’s suffrage movement.

So what now? Well, thanks to the demands of working as a graduate teaching assistant (so, so much time spent marking!) and the stress of approaching the final stages of writing my thesis, I still have a couple of archives left to visit to complete my research. Hopefully I’ll continue to discover fascinating stories of women who contributed in small but vital ways to the campaign for women’s suffrage.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Joanna via email at, or connect with the blog on Twitter

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