Deeds not Words

The Suffragette Motto can still inspire women today

Suffragette meeting 1908Around 100 years ago women across the UK were campaigning to be given the right to vote. As shown in the recent film ‘Suffragette’, years of polite letter writing and petitions had achieved nothing and the Women’s Social and Political Union was established with the aim to campaign more directly. These suffragettes took ‘Deeds Not Words’ as their motto and the group in Birmingham did things such as paint graffiti on the cathedral and set light to both the Handsworth Park boat house and Northfield Library.

Their actions sound shocking, but they knew they needed to do something extreme to make their voices heard. Much of the media of the time condemned them, accusing the women of being hysterical or unladylike. And, as the film’s main character Maud Watts (played by Carey Mulligan) discovers, many were ostracised by their families who found having a suffragette in their midst humiliating.

When I read accounts of the ‘Votes For Women’ campaigns I wondered how it would have felt to be told that something we take for granted today – our ability to express our opinions – was denied me purely because of my gender and how society perceived my role. My novel, Deeds Not Words, developed from there as I decided to look at how the suffragettes’ actions influence Caroline, a Brummie in the present day, to defend a cause she believes in. Caroline lives in a democratic society where free speech is valued but, like many of us, finds that restrictions can be imposed by those who claim to love us most.

Deeds Not Words book CoverIn the book, Caroline is a museum curator who begins to uncover secrets from the past which stir up trouble. She has to decide whether to act or instead to take the easy option of staying silent. I wanted to explore how someone might be heroic, especially if they were inspired by something a relative had done in the past.

The story follows Caroline as she runs into an old flame, becomes embroiled in rivalry at work and finds her family’s expectations a burden. As well as including references to suffragette history, the plot looks at how Birmingham’s artistic and industrial heritage remains important today. This extract from the book reveals what happens when Caroline discovers the existence of a cousin she was unaware of. Concerned he’s telling lies to con money from her grandmother, Caroline does some investigation into the family tree…

Discovering the Garrold family in the 1911 census had uncovered a mystery. Caroline had to register with the website and enter her credit card details before she could view the full record, but it had been worth it. William Garrold was the head of the household and gave his profession as Factory Owner. He’d been born in Glasgow. He listed Annie Garrold as his wife; they’d been married for twenty-three years and she’d been born in Birmingham. They had four children, of whom two were living when the census was taken. Only one, Thomas, appeared on the census return, though. His occupation was shown as Factory Manager. Caroline smiled when she read they also had a live-in housemaid, but the note William Garrold had written across the bottom of the form snuffed out her smile.

The first four lines of the official paperwork had been completed in neat handwriting – regular sized letters in bold black ink confidently detailed the extent of William Garrold’s household. Below those carefully recorded details though, in the same handwriting although perhaps less controlled, was the message, ‘My daughter has attempted to make a protest by staying away from home on the day of this count. She does live here at my expense.’

Caroline gasped. She read the message twice to be sure she’d properly understood. The fury in William Garrold’s words still burned despite the hundred years since they were written. Even the depersonalising process of scanning the record into pixels on her screen removed none of the emotion. William Garrold had refused to allow his daughter her protest. He advertised her existence whether she liked it or not. It was clear he was not a man to be crossed.

A quick internet search informed Caroline it was likely the missing daughter had been a suffragette, refusing to be counted as a citizen until she was granted a vote. ‘Good for you,’ Caroline whispered to her screen. It seemed many suffragettes had managed to get their political message onto the forms, scrawling notes such as ‘Women live here too’ or ‘No vote, no census,’ across the official documents. Not so in the Garrold household. There, it was clear William was in charge and he did not support the suffragette cause…

I imagine there may have been rifts in many families who thought their suffragette daughters’ behaviour was shameful. But, while her great aunt may have been banished at the time, Caroline finds having a suffragette in the family gives her a role model, someone to emulate when she has to make difficult decisions of her own.

I hope that, like the suffragettes, Caroline’s story will inspire other women to act when they believe something to be wrong.