How Ethel Smyth's March of The Women became the anthem of women’s suffrage

In January 1911 Ethel Smyth's music became the voice of the women's suffragette movement

Published: January 18, 2022 at 2:53 pm
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Clad in purple and white brocade doctoral robes, on 21 January 1911 the composer Ethel Smyth stepped onto the Royal Albert Hall stage. She lifted her conducting baton to an overwhelming roar and the applause of thousands of suffragettes who had gathered to hear the world premiere her March of the Women.

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It’s a simple tune: joyful, in a major key, the lyrics encouraging women to ‘Shout, shout, up with your song’, and to ‘Laugh in hope for sure is the end’. From the moment it was first performed, her March became the official feminist anthem of women’s suffrage. It was sung across the world, in homes and halls, on streets and on the steps of the United States Capitol.

By 1911, women’s suffrage and the feminist campaign was headline news in Britain. Frustrated by the lack of progress made by years of peaceful petitioning for women’s votes throughout the Victorian era, in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, adopting a militant policy deliberately to court arrest. Escalating from spitting at policemen to smashing windows, the WSPU’s members embraced the use of militant strategies to keep women’s suffrage on the front pages of British newspapers.

But the WSPU also used less inflammatory means to raise awareness for the campaign. Theatricality was crucial to their identity, and the Pankhursts led enormous rallies of tens of thousands of women through London, clad in the WSPU colours of white, purple, and green. Musicians were among those who marched: in the 1908 rally at Hyde Park, the cellist May Mukle led the musician’s section within the 500,000-strong group.

Music was an important part of these rallies — the suffragettes wanted to be heard as much as seen. But until Smyth’s March, no music had been written specifically for the WSPU. They had put new lyrics to well-known tunes like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and the Marseillaise. Smyth’s March gave the WSPU its own voice. ‘The song has in it all the spirit of the Women’s Movement,’ the Votes for Women newspaper enthused; ‘the tenderness, the hope, the faith, and the cheerful and triumphant thrill of victory.’ From 1911 onwards, suffragettes were instructed to learn Smyth’s song by heart so it could be sung at all WSPU events.

Emmeline Pankhurst was at Smyth’s side in the Royal Albert Hall at the song’s unveiling, telling the gathered women that ‘no one could feel as deeply as I do the gratitude for her services to the women’s cause that I so feebly express tonight’. Two months later, they would stand together again on the same spot, for Emmeline to present Smyth with a ceremonial gold baton in thanks for her music. Over the two years that Smyth dedicated to suffrage, she and Emmeline would become an inseparable unit.

Smyth was certainly among Emmeline’s closest friends – there is speculation that they might have been lovers – and she thought Emmeline ‘an even more astounding figure than Joan of Arc’. They were imprisoned together at Holloway in 1912. When Thomas Beecham came to visit Smyth there, he witnessed her directing a rousing rendition of the March from her cell window, conducting fellow suffragettes in the yard outside with a toothbrush. Beecham commented that if sending Smyth to prison was intended to encourage her to reflect and repent, she ‘neither reflected nor repented’.

The March was not the only suffrage-inspired music Smyth would write. Her comic opera The Boatswain’s Mate – her most popular opera during her lifetime – is explicitly pro-women’s rights, quoting her March in the Overture. She also wove the WSPU into her music in more subtle ways. Her String Quartet in E minor, finished in 1912, on the surface has nothing to do with the WSPU – but Smyth wrote to Emmeline that if the last movement ‘is anything it is… “Suffragette”!’ It was an identity Smyth had first made public in January 1911, when her explicitly political music affirmed women’s right to be heard.

We named Ethel Smyth one of the best female composers of all time and one of the The best English composers ever

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Read our reviews of the latest Ethel Smyth recordings here

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