When you think of suffragettes, what comes to mind? Women picketing in front of the White House, holding signs and wearing purple sashes. A young woman stepping in front of a horse, willingly sacrificing herself in order to bring attention to the cause. Defacing cultural sites, such as The Rokeby Venus (a painting in the National Gallery) or a mummy case in the British Museum. Secret meetings, whispered rumors, and late night speeches hurriedly delivered before the police could arrive.
Scenes from a movie, to be sure. Yet the true power of suffragettes wasn’t their most public moments. It was the small, everyday actions that – when combined – showed their true strength and commitment.
Like this penny. A small coin from 1903, defaced with the slogan “Votes for Women.”
Mutilating coins was one of the methods that suffragettes used to spread their message to a wide audience. Pennies were used by all classes of society and were so small in denomination that they remained in circulation for a long period of time. The perfect medium for sending a resounding message.
Defacing coins was also against the law. To deface a coin and then circulate it was shocking to society at the time, in the same way that bra-burning would be for second-wave feminism in the twentieth century. It was civil disobedience on an everyday scale – an action that resonated throughout society and demonstrated solidarity. As Helena Kennedy, a human rights lawyer, stated in an interview for the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects series,
That act was in itself seen as treachery and yet of course people would be handling coins in their purses and in their pockets and would suddenly see this invocation, this demand for a right, for an entitlement and I think it was quite an inventive thing to do.
It was a quiet act. Yet one that questioned what was more important: the law against defacing a penny, or the right of a woman to have a say in how her country (and her life) was governed?
It was also an act that made the ordinary into the extraordinary. Funny how the same could be said about suffragettes…
Girl Museum Inc.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.