I’ve long been an admirer of the historian Simon Schama, but no more. I happened to catch an extract of just a few minutes’ duration from the latest episode of his BBC series The Face of Britain – a series on British portraiture, including photography.
The episode will be on iPlayer for the next 29 days. The piece I saw starts at 44:30, with Suffragettes being photographed for surveillance purposes as they strolled in the exercise yard of Holloway prison, or as they exited the prison. Schama says:
The images are themselves striking, and actually beautiful, I think, and unintentionally heroic. The suffering these women endured for the vote is written all over their gaunt face (sic).
The photograph used to illustrate the ‘gaunt face’ was, predictably, that of a thin woman. Then, at 44:54, we see footage of soldiers marching towards the war front in 1914, in the course of WW1, during which so many would be killed or injured. Schama:
In the summer of 1914 the Suffragettes suspended their campaign, and the heroism of women [my emphasis] was replaced by the patriotism of men [my emphasis].
Given how many men were killed or injured in WW1, and how few women, Simon Schama should hang his head in shame at making a gender comparison in that manner. Then – as a professional historian – he should educate himself on this period in British history, by reading William Collins’s piece Universal Suffrage in the UK and Herbert Purdy’s piece Did feminists really win the vote for women?