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Politics: Suffragettes

In 1913 and 1914 the campaign to win women the vote became more militant and turned from window-smashing to attacks on art. Paintings in public museums and galleries – the nation’s cultural heritage - were attacked in order to effect political change. The militant women who carried out these acts of iconoclasm did so in the name of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903 at the Manchester home of Emmeline Pankhurst. Their slogan was ‘deeds not words’.

Suffragette action placed museum and gallery staff on a state of high alert. Gallery directors discussed proposals to ban women from their institutions, introduced plain-clothes policemen and circulated surveillance photographs of known militants; women were asked to leave muffs, bags and umbrellas at the entrance. Following the attack on the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914, national museums in London, including the Tate, closed altogether for two weeks.

The attacks provoked public anger and newspapers reported the ‘outrages’ as assaults on the nation. But for the suffragettes the idealisation of inanimate objects while real women were treated with indifference, was the real outrage and injustice against which they were fighting.