Celebrating, Commemorating, Centenaries of Suffrage

As the centenary year of women’s suffrage draws to a close, The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life has been examining how and why we celebrate centenaries.

What springs to mind when you hear the words ‘women’s suffrage’? The purple, green and white banners of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Emily Wilding Davison losing her life in protest at Epsom Derby, or perhaps the lively rendition of ‘Votes for Women’ given by Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins? All this and more was acknowledged at a fascinating event from The Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life at Birkbeck on Tuesday 13 November, as the centenary year of women’s suffrage draws to a close.

Chaired by Professor Sarah Childs of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics, Celebrating, Commemorating, Centenaries of Suffrage aimed to address the centenary of women’s suffrage by exploring how and why we celebrate centenaries.

The first part of the evening saw Dr Mari Takayanagi, a Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, deliver her paper Celebrating Suffrage Centenaries. She began by explaining how one of the most important anniversaries in the UK’s democratic history is in many respects problematic. As the UK celebrates the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, it’s worth remembering that the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific have already commemorated their 175 anniversary of women’s suffrage, while the more local Isle of Man has had equal suffrage since 1881. Suffrage has rarely been awarded, at least at first, without being linked to age, race, marital status, class and even relation to men in the armed forces, and British women would wait another ten years for the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 to grant them the same voting rights as men.

Still, this first legislative step towards equal suffrage should be recognised and the impact of this year of national commemoration has been both powerful and wide-ranging. Centenaries act as a catalyst for reflection, prompting greater public awareness and accelerating academic research. During this period, government grants were awarded to projects addressing discrimination and improving female work progression and numerous exhibitions were curated to capitalise on the renewed interest in women’s suffrage. Institutions that boasted some of the biggest collections on this subject, such as the Museum of London and the Manchester People’s Museum, used the opportunity to draw public attention to their permanent exhibits.

Dr Takayanagi argued that centenaries hold a unique emotive power, asking whose memory should be drawn on in their commemoration, and whose memory should be honoured? Unsurprisingly, memorable protagonists of the suffrage movement took centre stage in the celebrations. Emily Wilding Davison alone was remembered through documentary, commemorative services, a play, a plaque, a tree, not to mention #Emilymatters and an appearance at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Indeed, the marking of the centenary of suffrage has in many ways been dominated by the militant side of women’s suffrage, the WSPU. The striking purple, white and green banner now seems synonymous with the entire women’s suffrage movement, leaving the red of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the gold of the Women’s Freedom League to jostle for shelter underneath it.

Undoubtedly, said Dr Takayanagi, the WSPU knew a thing or two about marketing, but could the success of their particular brand of militant feminism ring truer with today’s audience and the swelling anger of the #Metoo campaign than their non-violent counterparts? Thirst for feisty feminist heroines can be quenched more easily with an Emmeline Pankhurst than a Millicent Fawcett. Either way, Dr Takayanagi hopes that the huge public interest roused in 2018 will continue as the ten year countdown to the centenary of universal suffrage begins.

This insightful talk was followed by a roundtable discussion with Mary Branson, Parliament Artist in Residence 2016, and Dr Red Chidgey, lecturer in Gender and Media at Kings College London. The thread running through a broad and lively discussion and Q&A session seemed to be the desire for the uncovering of an inclusive, collective memory of the fight for universal suffrage. Branson discussed how her discovery of a staggeringly wide range of arrested female protestors through the parliamentary archives led her to create an art installation, New Dawn, that would celebrate the ordinary women of the suffrage movement. Dr Chidgey drew on the example of modern feminist movements, such as Sisters Uncut, who sport the colours of the WSPU, to ask if the ‘beloved national feminist memory’ of women’s suffrage could become a tool of protest, rather than its result.

The evening was aptly concluded by Sian Norris, Ben Pimlott Writer in Residence 2018 in the Department of Politics, who read two monologues from the pamphlet  And in the end, we won: Three stories of women’s protest, written as part of her residency at Birkbeck. As her words led us from the mind of a silenced woman of pre-1918 Britain to one who feels she has no voice in the era of the Trump administration, we appeared to need the memory of the suffrage movement more than ever before.

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Man Booker at Birkbeck 2018: A conversation with Mohsin Hamid

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor, discusses the recent Man Booker at Birkbeck event, which saw writer Mohsin Hamid in conversation with Birkbeck’s Dr Anna Hartnell about his novels Exit West (2017) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007).

Writer Mohsin Hamid on Anarkali Street in Lahore, Pakistan.

On Tuesday 30 October 2018, in a stimulating, erudite and humane exchange, Mohsin Hamid spoke to an audience of over 200 Birkbeck staff and students about his Man Booker Prize-nominated novel, Exit West (2017). Many of the recent novels discussed at the Man Booker at Birkbeck event have been partly or fully set in the past, but Hamid’s novel is set contemporaneously and is concerned with the challenges we collectively face in our globalised, interconnected world, including armed conflict, climate change, religious violence and the mass migration of peoples.

The novel tells the story of Nadia and Saeed, who meet unexpectedly in an unnamed city and feel drawn towards one another, despite their manifest differences. Saeed is religiously minded, straightforward and well-behaved, while Nadia belies her outwardly conformist appearance by living alone, riding a motorbike, experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms and refusing to pray. Where Saeed is cautiously content, Nadia is instinctively interrogative and rebellious. However, their tentative, burgeoning relationship is beset by an armed conflict that sees their city seized by shadowy, sadistic militants. Forced to flee, the thrown-together couple find themselves bivouacked in a refugee camp on Mykonos, squatting in an uninhabited, palatial mansion in London, and subsisting on a hillside just outside San Francisco.

Initially, Exit West is an apparently realistic novel that depicts Nadia and Saeed’s relationship with wry empathy and the coming onslaught with clear-eyed horror. But, the novel soon becomes something far stranger and less predictable, when the characters begin moving between countries via mysterious black doors. While omitting the great strain and trauma of life-threatening journeys across increasingly militarised borders, the novel still viscerally conveys the poverty, suffering and shock experienced by the uprooted everywhere.

If the novel begins to feel like a magical realist allegory about contemporary migration, it evades our expectations again, by imagining a not-too-distant future, in which the West – and London in particular – teeters on the edge of dystopia, as the inhabitants of nation-states struggle with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants through the enchanted doors. Hamid’s compassionate and optimistic vision is of a world that adapts to this challenge; Nadia and Saeed find themselves on a building site, helping with the expansion of London as it grows to absorb the incomers. The nascent threats of racism, nativist violence and authoritarianism thus give way to a pragmatic humanitarianism. While Nadia and Saeed’s relationship does not survive the upheavals they face, they are able to separate amicably and the novel’s coda depicts an older, friendly re-encounter between them in the now-peaceful city of their birth.

Dr Anna Hartnell, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, asked Hamid about the large themes that provide a backdrop to Nadia and Saeed’s relationship and he wryly observed, “My life has always seemed to play out against a huge political backdrop”, including the rise of militarism and Islamism in Pakistan, the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and Brexit in the UK. In the face of these vast, overwhelming tumults, Hamid’s focus is on the ordinary, everyday affability of Nadia and Saeed, who retain their humanity despite the most extreme provocations. “We have the most powerful people in the world who tell us that there is no truth and that nobody’s decent”, Hamid observed, “so, I tried to write a novel about people being decent.”

For Hamid, the novel is both a mirror of ‘what it is like to be a human being on this planet’ and a navigational tool that can orientate us in discombobulating times. The make-believe elements of Exit West are, for the author, a means of understanding and circumnavigating the real world. “I’m interested in writing books that do what books can do”, Hamid argued. In an era saturated in the cinematic, the novel, he asserted, should do what the screenplay can’t: it should dispense with dialogue and get inside of people and their feelings. He is interested in ‘taking novels in a bookish direction’ and he spoke passionately about the ‘really powerful’ narrative voice of children’s books, which is often on the side of the characters and of the reader, too, drawing them together and making the reader feel deeply invested in the action. With his interest in children’s literature, Hamid also humorously acknowledged that the magical doors in Exit West ‘may owe something to Narnia’.

Hamid was clear that we must all acknowledge and embrace our innate hybridity and categorical impurity. In the face of those who vociferously insist on crudely simplified, unidirectional ethnic, national and religious identities, Hamid passionately insisted that he is ‘a complete hybrid’ and a ‘mongrel’. He identified ‘underlying trends’ in the contemporary world towards ‘nostalgic tribal politics, rooted in the false belief in permanence’ and ‘living life backwards’. Having lived in California, New York, London and Lahore, Hamid remarked that “this desire for purity is something I take very personally”. He espied parallels between Pakistan and the UK, where nativist ideas about ‘pure’ national identity have rent the social fabric, created impossible categories of nationalist belonging, and prioritised security and surveillance at the expense of liberty, the rule of law and freedom of expression. In his work and in his political outlook, then, Hamid is interested in replicating the magic of the black doors: collapsing distance and difference and encouraging us to acknowledge our similarities and our shared vulnerabilities. He insisted that he writes ‘half novels’, which gift an interpretive capaciousness to the reader and allow these vital cross-boundary identifications. He based the nameless city in Exit West on his hometown of Lahore, but readers have identified it with other places on the verge of bloody conflict, including Warsaw in the 1920s and Sarajevo in the 1980s. For Hamid, the novel’s opening location is ‘the city you wish it to be’.

Hamid also made a fascinating comparison between the magical black doors in Exit West and the ubiquitous mobile phone. They are physically similar and both close the distances between people and give us immediate access to elsewhere – ‘each of us carries a black rectangle in our pockets’. Indeed, mobile technology is a key element of the novel, with mobile phone access cut off in the war-torn city and in the evocatively titled ‘dark London’ in which Nadia, Saeed and the other migrants are, siege-like, denied electricity, lighting and internet access.

For Hamid, contemporaneous challenges represent opportunities for a more just and equitable world. “It’s preposterous to tell people that the accident of where they were born should determine their life, or death”, and he insisted that, in 200 years, people will marvel at our current obsession with nations and borders. He cited the great strides towards equality for people regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality as great causes of optimism and he also articulated the universal benefits of migration: “Better music, better food – and the average sex life will improve.” “I don’t have a prescription for the future,” he mused, “but it could be a lot better than this.”

Hamid’s novel thus invites ‘the reader to imagine the migrant within themselves’. The passing of time makes us all migrants in our lives and he memorably described being an adult as being ‘a refugee from’ your own ‘childhood’. He observed that most people have an experience of feeling foreign or out of place in their own lives – you may be the only gay person in your family, or getting older may be disorientating you, for example – but this is a source of strength and insight that should be embraced. For Hamid, a radical identification with migrants is enabled by the novel as the supremely empathetic art form and it allows us to refuse narrowness and prejudice – and the violence they breed. “I’m a mixed-up, weird thing,” Hamid concluded – “but so is everybody else”. Nadia and Saeed thus stand as archetypes of two aspects of the human personality, with Saeed representing the instinctive searching for sameness and that which is homely and safe, while Nadia represents the longing for freedom, change and difference.

With many creative writing students in the audience, Hamid made a passionate case for what Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts, described as ‘the pleasure and provocations’ of literature. The Booker Prize Foundation and Birkbeck share a commitment to breaking down the barriers that can prevent people accessing literature and culture and this hugely successful event, which saw two thousand free copies of Exit West distributed beforehand, further confirmed the ongoing benefits of this rewarding partnership.

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9 year old tells mum “You’re going to be amazing” as she graduates with a first class degree in Law from Birkbeck

Chloe Livingston, 29, took the meaning of multi-tasking to the extreme when she decided to enrol for a law degree whilst working full time and raising her son as a single parent. On 6 November 2018, she graduated with a first class honours in Law from Birkbeck.

Growing up, Chloe had always dreamed of being a lawyer or a doctor, but fell into a career in banking on leaving school. Although successful, she never lost the desire to return to study. “People always told me I was smart, but I had nothing to back it up,” she explains. “When I first began looking into university, it was really so I could tell people that I had a degree.”

Discussing returning to study with a friend, Chloe was reluctant to become a student again. “I didn’t want to go back to being a student with no money,” she says, “It wouldn’t have been fair to subject my son to that lifestyle.” That’s when Chloe’s friend suggested Birkbeck – the evening study model meant that she wouldn’t have to give up her job and could continue supporting her son while getting the education she’d always wanted.

Chloe knew that it wouldn’t be easy to give up so much time to study, but was lucky to have a support network of friends and family close by to help with childcare. Despite being only five years old when his mum started her course, Chloe’s son was really supportive. “Some days I would be locked in my room or glued to the dining room table working and he’d come in and say ‘are you ok mummy? Do you need anything?’” she remembers.

As well as her responsibilities as a parent, Chloe took on the additional challenge of full-time study while working. “I took part in a Birkbeck alumni mentoring scheme before starting my course, and my mentor asked if I was sure I could take on the workload,” she remembers. As a relationships manager for a bank, Chloe’s day job is no nine-to-five and she would frequently be required to stay late, even completing an additional banking course at one point during her studies. “I thought that because lots of Birkbeck students also work during the day, the lecturers might go easy on us, but that definitely wasn’t the case!” she laughs. Thankfully, Chloe’s employers were very supportive, especially as they could see the impact of her studies in the workplace, as she became a voice for key issues like diversity.

Just as she was hitting her stride though, a terrible accident almost changed everything. A near fatal head-on collision towards the end of second year threatened to stop Chloe’s progress in its tracks. “Thankfully I was okay,” she remembers, “Birkbeck were really supportive and gave me the adjustments I needed to complete my assignments. Second year nearly broke me, but I had too much to lose to not pull through. I couldn’t let the sacrifices my friends, family and most of all my son had made for me be for nothing.”

There’s no doubt that taking on further study alongside other commitments is tough. Chloe’s advice is to be realistic about what will be expected of you in terms of time and effort – “They’re not going to spoon feed you anything,” she warns. Having heard of the non-traditional routes that students take to Birkbeck, Chloe wasn’t expecting to make good friends on the course. She says, “People told me that I wouldn’t meet like-minded people at Birkbeck, but you get out what you put in and I’ve come away with some brilliant friends.”

Having begun her degree to prove herself, Chloe was surprised to find how much she enjoyed studying Law. On her course, she learned skills that she could put to use straight away – an in-depth knowledge of contract law proved particularly useful during a booking dispute for a family holiday!  Now, Chloe is looking to leverage her experience in finance with a career in corporate or commercial law and will be applying for a masters in Law next year.

Graduating with a first class University of London degree, Chloe is proud to be a role model for her son. “At first, I think he thought that university looked too much like hard work!” she remembers, “But when we were walking home from school the other day he turned to me and said ‘I’m so proud of you mum, you’re going to be amazing.’” Chloe, who has taken her son to both her siblings’ graduations, is looking forward to celebrating her own graduation with her family.

“The way I got my degree worked best for me,” she says. “If I’d gone to university at eighteen, I don’t know if I would have completed my course, or got a first. Now I’m wondering what to do with my evenings!”

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Birkbeck student overcomes bereavement, anorexia and depression to graduate on her late father’s birthday

At the time when most young people are applying to university, Sarah Solomon was battling an eating disorder and depression as she came to terms with her father’s death. Now she’s looking towards her next challenge with optimism as she graduates with a degree in law from Birkbeck.

Sarah Solomon has always been interested in law, “I’m the kind of person who likes reading the small print!” she laughs. Yet, despite being a keen student, Sarah was prevented from doing as well as she could have at school. “My Dad committed suicide when I was fourteen and I really struggled to cope,” she explains. “I suffered with depression and anorexia and was in and out of hospital for the last four years of school, so I didn’t get great GCSE or A level results.”

Six years later, when Sarah felt ready to return to education, she was dismayed to find that most universities were very inflexible when it came to her exam results, despite the time that had passed since. “Birkbeck looked at more than just grades when they considered my application,” she says, “They take on students that really want to be there.”

Going back to full-time education was a nerve-wracking experience for Sarah at the start: “There was a lot of work and a lot of writing, which was a skill I hadn’t used much for the last few years, but after a few months it just felt normal again,” she explains. In her first year of study, Sarah received support from Birkbeck’s wellbeing service. “I knew that with depression I might find it hard to motivate myself to go in,” she says, “Birkbeck couldn’t solve that problem for me, but they really listened to me and were very supportive.”

It would have been easy to walk away in those first few months, but Sarah persevered and soon began to enjoy studying. “People don’t study at Birkbeck for the sake of it,” she explains, “It’s important to make friends, but you’re also there to gain something for your future. I really enjoyed studying the theory and methodology of law and even started to like writing essays!”

Birkbeck’s evening study model suited Sarah, who prefers working late in the evening, as it gave her the space in the day she needed to focus on her mental health. “It’s important for universities to understand that students and staff have competing demands on their time, and to make provision for that,” she says. Her advice for potential students is to know who can be called on in your support network for when challenges arise. “Have a discussion with your friends and family beforehand,” she advises, “studying in the evening will affect your social life, but for me it was all worth it.”

A highlight of studying at Birkbeck for Sarah was the relationships she built with the lecturers and tutors she worked with. “The professors and lecturers who taught us were really supportive and approachable, but I was also impressed by how up to date they kept with their research – there was always something new to learn from them,” she explains.

Sarah graduates on Tuesday 6 November, on what would have been her dad’s birthday. He also studied law at university, as Sarah explains: “I didn’t choose my course because of my dad, but I suppose it was always in the back of my mind while I was studying. I’m relocating to Canada with my husband next year and I’d like to do more research in law and eventually work as an academic or in a not for profit – I don’t want to place any restrictions on my future.”

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