This week’s Q and A is with Jennifer, who currently works for a local authority in Kent. Jennifer has written a book on the Suffragettes of Kent. She originally trained as a solicitor.
Hi Jennifer. Thank you for agreeing to take part in my Q and A feature. Firstly
what brought you to writing a book on the Suffragettes of Kent and where did your love of history begin?
I have always loved writing. As a child I would write stories and make my own books with stapled card book cover designs. As well as my love of stories I think it is the therapeutic nature of writing that I am drawn to. I have always been interested in history too, in particular social history. I think this is mainly because it can be used to inform the here and now. Social history is also great to connect with and to make comparisons with. I love the fact that my book, Suffragettes of Kent is an account of so many different stories and parts of stories, advocating historic voices. i came to write this book because I answered a small Pen & Sword (publisher) ad in the Writing magazine looking for new writers interested in researching and writing about women’s suffrage. It seemed a perfect opportunity for me at the time.
What was it that initially drew you to the Suffrage movement?
The women’s suffrage movement was a challenge on a discriminatory law and culture that shaped other significant changes affecting girls and women. I have always had an interest in this and whilst training to be a solicitor I remember reading about the first women to be accepted into the legal profession which was not until 1922. In addition, the fight for votes for women was fought over such a long period that I knew there would be very many stories to uncover and tell.
The struggle for women’s rights needs no padding out or added ‘excitement’. What the women went through was an ordeal in itself. The Suffrage movement has been portrayed numerous times in tv and film, most notably in the 2015 movie Suffragette. What are your views on creative license and the suffrage portrayal on screen?
I enjoyed the 2015 movie Suffragette and watched it the first time before I had begun my own research and writing. Since publishing Suffragettes of Kent, the key part that stands out for me is the inclusion of the stories of working class as well as middle and upper class suffragettes. This is particularly pertinent to my research findings as in the first chapter of my book I include the previously untold story of a Kent working class maid, Ethel Violet Baldock. Ethel was arrested and imprisoned for her part in the WSPU window smashing campaign in March 1912. In general I think suffrage portrayal on screen is important as it brings this incredible history alive and reaches a more mainstream audience. Creative license is part of any production and this was even shown by women’s suffrage campaigners that performed suffrage plays. The Actresses’ Freedom League (AFL) performed suffrage plays as part of the women’s suffrage campaigning. To convey the suffrage message in these short performances, these plays tended to include exaggerated arguments and humour. For example in the play How the Vote was Won, performed in Kent, in Dover (1909) and Sevenoaks (1910), the idea of a general strike among women was raised, with women deciding to stop work until the vote is conceded, and in the meantime to plant themselves for support on their nearest male relative. This male relative rushes with all the other men of London to Parliament to demands the vote for women!
On your bio on your website you explain how you enjoy the ‘detective’ part of researching the past, something I do enjoy myself. What are the challenges you find when setting out to find what could be a ‘needle in a haystack’?
There are so many challenges but that’s partly the appeal. One key challenge I find is how absorbing the history I’m searching through is. Before I know it I have followed links that lead me to other fascinating historical facts and stories but do not contribute to uncovering the story I am actually researching! Other challenges I face include: having zero findings after the first few searches resulting in the need to widen the search and/or find a different angle to work from; and the opposite: identifying key potential relevant information from a huge volume of research material. The other challenge is that this all takes time!
Why do you think History is important?
History is important because it can be used to inform the here and now. It is great to connect with as it raises many fascinating voices, stories, issues, problems, solutions and lessons to learn from. Bringing historical accounts and voices to life is crucial if we are going to learn from history and effectively apply it to today’s world. It also provides the means to connect members of communities that otherwise would not have interacted. An example of how I was involved in this with my ‘Suffragettes of Kent’ research is through the Mapping Suffrage Women project and a film I was part of. Those currently living in the Maidstone house that Ethel grew up in were filmed talking about their delight in discovering this history and of its inspirational effect on the young girl now living there. Do check the film out as it also features Ethel’s granddaughters, Eileen and Tricia.
What does History mean to you?
History means ‘fascination, fun and evidence’. ‘Fascination’ because the information and stories are incredible and it is so easy to become absorbed in the huge volume of historical information that has yet to be shared with those alive now. ‘Fun’ because I absolutely love to search through the historical and archived material finding stories and part stories to account and share. ‘Evidence’ because history is key to us understanding how we might best move forwards. If we think about it this applies to us when we are considering how to deal with issues in our lives: we look back in our pasts and draw on how we’ve managed previous similar situations and of course at what didn’t work as well. This is all part of basing future decisions partly on past experience and evidence. My passion for history is such that I would love to be able to go back and meet some of those people I mention in my book and tell them what a privilege it is to tell their stories or at least part of them over 100 years later.
Aside from the Suffragette movement are there any other areas/events/people in our past which you find yourself drawn to?
I have an interest in the development of laws, reasons contributing to them and their impact. Women’s history obviously interests me and I have participated in a women’s engineering project with Electrifying Women run by Leeds University. Of late I have been particularly drawn to history that is concentric around the stories shared by a connection with a
community, place or building. This may be because of my current job working for a local authority in their Communities Team. I find it intriguing that such a connection creates a web of intertwined stories and journeys, many of which lead to the most amazing long term friendships and innovative, extremely helpful initiatives.
You live in Kent and have travelled its many roads as part of your book. Is there any history to your local area which has surprised you?
One area I wasn’t expecting to find much information on was the procedure followed by the prison doctors at Maidstone Prison when forcibly feeding suffragette prisoners in 1912. To be able to read the formal reports made following medical examination of four prisoners serving time for their part in the WSPU window smashing campaign was a surprise and whilst a difficult read, very interesting.
The tours undertaken by the different women’s suffrage organisations were also fantastic to discover and piece together. Such was the mix of geography, environment and industry in Kent that these organisations were drawn to use touring caravans to reach as many audiences as possible. They spoke in rural settlements as well as towns; targeted tourists and residents in seaside towns; spoke with hop pickers from London whilst they worked in Kent; found safe locations to stay over including with a fruit farmer and his family; on the land owned by a publican next to his public house and in a field belonging to a fisherman. The surprise was just how many ‘ordinary’ Kent people were in some way involved in the women’s suffrage journey. Many of these would likely never have dreamed of being in anyway involved and indicative of this is the following excerpt from my book:
“The farm was owned by a Mr. and Mrs. Bowen and The Suffragette report included reference to their hospitality, as did a local Kent newspaper. The WSPU gypsies were treated to breakfast the following morning served on the Bowen family’s best china. Quoted in the local newspaper was: ‘We shall never forget their kindness to utter strangers, whose only recommendation was that they were militant Suffragettes.’” [page 217 of The Suffragettes of Kent].
And finally, any future projects in the pipeline for you that you would like to share with us?
I am currently researching and writing another suffrage related book and would love to tell you more about that in the very near future!
I would like to thank Jennifer for her time and participation in this Q and A. For more information on her book and her social media tags please see below:
Twitter: @JennyGodfrey19 Instagram: jenny.godfrey.1426
Jennifer is selling signed copies of her book for £15.00 including delivery to a UK address. To order, email Jennifer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
For Women’s History Month (March 2021) Pen & Sword Ltd are selling the e-book version of Jennifer’s book for only 99p. Find out more here: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Suffragettes-of-Kent-Paperback/p/16513