Women have long been the makers, if not the public bearers of banners. They embroidered the heraldic symbols of medieval dynasties, appliquéd the mottoes of reformers and stitched down the emblems of unions. Over centuries, they sewed down allegiance, protest and solidarity.
The suffrage banners proclaimed a collective will at their rallies, creating unforgettable spectacles to tell of women’s contribution to social, economic and political life.
These rallies were not just a show of numbers or a strength of feeling, they were public displays of women’s capacity and creativity. The Suffragettes marched by the thousands together through the city streets. The air was filled with the sound of their singing, scented with garlands they clasped and made magnificent by the flotilla of banners they carried. With rainbows of colour, the banners were a potent snapshot of women’s history, achievements and aspirations.
The Suffragettes used their needlework skills to fashion a new visual vocabulary. These were not the vast, commercially produced, painted banners of the male-dominated trade unions sporting golden portraits of political heroes. Instead, the suffragette banners were deliberately made by hand. Embroidered and appliquéd, bearing feminine and symbolic emblems of birds, flowers and lamps, inscribed with women’s names, made in drawing room fabrics of velvet, silk, brocade and satin; they were splendid, rich, beautiful.
‘A banner is a thing to float in the wind, to flicker in the breeze, to flirt its colours for your pleasure, to half show and half conceal a device you long to unravel…Choose purple and gold for ambitions, red for courage, green for long cherished hopes.’
Mary Lowndes, Banner & Banner-Making 1909
The banners provided a commentary on women’s lives – past and present. Heroine banners celebrated women whose achievements had enriched British culture, sciences and medicine. Occupational banners – of nurses, writers, gymnasts, home-makers and fishwives – championed the role women played in Britain’s economy, while regional banners located the geographic spread of women’s disenchantment.
This was a pageant of women. It was a visual refutation of the accusation that the suffragettes were aping masculinity in their bid for the vote, and an assertion of womanhood in all its colours.