Suffrage scrapbooks: forgotten histories of political activism
When you picture a scrapbook, you likely conjure up an image of a homemade album dedicated to the family or a hobby. It’s less likely you’ll think of scrapbooks as records of political campaigns, such as women’s suffrage. Yet here at the British Library, 37 bulging hardback scrapbooks tell us a personal history of suffrage activism through the eyes of Alice Maud Mary Arncliffe Sennett (1862-1936).
Women's Social and Political Union membership card from the opening volume of Sennett’s first scrapbook. , British Library C.121.g.1.
Actress turned businesswoman; Sennett was a dynamic, strident suffrage campaigner. She served time in prison on Black Friday in 1910 and again in 1911 after smashing the Daily Mail’s office windows. She also set up the Northern Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage.
An article 'Why I want the vote' written by Maud Arncliffe Sennett in 1910 for The Vote, journal of the Women’s Freedom League.
Through all this campaigning, she scrapbooked prolifically. She kept the key from her husband’s stay at Bloomsbury Street hotel before he picked her up from prison. More conventionally, she carefully lifted articles from a plethora of publications, encircling them with annotations.
In one instance, next to an article on Herbert Asquith published in 1910, she criticised his ‘cruel looking mouth and sinister eyes’ and wrote how she would like to ‘shoot Asquith right at the place where his heart ought to be’. Sennett’s scrapbook facilitated her critical engagement with press coverage on women’s rights.
Sennett also used her scrapbooks to record the support networks underpinning her activism. One way she did this was through preserving congratulatory letters praising her public speaking. In her first scrapbook, she included a letter from suffrage activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who described Sennett as the ‘one of the greatest platform successes she had ever known’.
Before this letter however, Sennett pasted in another one. It was from her servant Bessie. Working for her mistress since at least 1906, census records identify Bessie as Eliza Punchard, who lived with her husband and three sons in Beckenham.
After hearing Sennett’s speech, Bessie wrote, 'Do you know you made a simply splendid speech, I was so proud of you’. She continued, writing how she would happily go to prison of her accord if it would help the cause; she would ‘make the sacrifice in my own right not to feel that you will be worrying over me if I should go’.
Lifting the cover of Sennett’s fourth scrapbook powerfully articulates Sennett’s appreciation of her servant’s support. In a beautiful, flowing font, Sennett dedicates her scrapbook to Bessie, ‘the only one true and trusted friend I have found…the star to which I have hitched by wagon of loneliness’. Bessie’s support meant a great deal to Sennett, so much so that she immortalised it in the front of her scrapbook.
Sennett’s scrapbooks offer an intensely personal history of the suffrage activism, blurring the lines between the personal and the political. She chronicles the exceptional and mundane, turning to an assortment of materials to offer her history of the suffrage campaign.
Over a century later we are given a tantalising glimpse into the material, emotional histories of suffrage activism, as well as forgotten women such as Bessie, who played a vital part in women’s political campaigning.
PhD student studying a history of scrapbooking in Britain from 1914-1980 at Churchill College, Cambridge. She founded and runs the website Women’s Land Army
Read more about Arncliffe-Sennett’s scrapbooks.
Read more about suffrage scrapbooks in the American context in Ellen Gruber’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. Oxford University Press, 2012, chapter 5.