Millicent Fawcett (second from left) with other members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage in 1908
Millicent Fawcett (second from left) with other members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage in 1908 © Getty

I found myself wishing, ahead of last month’s march to celebrate the centenary of British women getting the vote, that I had taken note of the “Menus and Meals for Suffrage Workers” suggested by The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book. A luncheon of Mutton Cutlets, Cold Beef and Potato Salad, Victoria Sandwich and Chocolate Jelly would have set me and my daughters up much better for the day than the egg sandwiches I took along.

In the event, my paltry picnic did not dampen spirits but, like the march itself, the menus in the book are reminders that the votes for women were hard won. “It is not always easy to provide suitable food for workers who have to get their meals as best they can during a day’s hard and exacting work often lasting 12 hours or more,” notes its author.

Compiled by Mrs Aubrey Dowson, a member of the Birmingham branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book was published in 1912 to raise funds for the cause. The NUWSS was established in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett to exert pressure on the government through legal means. Consisting of 77 pages, the book contains recipes donated by suffragists from all across the country. With contributors as far afield as Southport and Penrith, the book is evidence of the campaign’s national reach.

Polly Russel and her books at the British Library.
The book’s cover © Charlie Bibby

Divided into 11 chapters such as “Dinner and Supper Dishes”, “Salads and Sauces”, “Still-Room” and “Vegetarian Cookery”, the book includes recipes donated by some well-known campaigners. Mrs Helena Swanwick, one-time editor of Common Cause, the first independent newspaper for the NUWSS, suggests a recipe for Stuffed Fillet of Plaice, while Fawcett offered up Chestnuts as a Vegetable (cook in stock and serve with lemon zest).

Almost without exception, the suffragists’ recipes are straightforward and short. Written with English names rather than fashionable French, most contain no more than five ingredients and a few lines of description. “Baked Bananas”, suggested by Miss Athya of Southport in the breakfast chapter, is a case in point: “bake the bananas then eat hot”.

Suggested dishes are typically for everyday fare and easy to execute. In the chapter for dinner, there are recipes for Brisket of Beef and Croquettes of Chicken, and for luncheon, Beef Cutlets and Economical Lemon Cream. This was a book for busy women on a mission, not society hostesses, housewives with time on their hands or women with legions of servants.

That a cookery book was deemed a suitable vehicle for the feminist cause might seem strange; the kitchen has long been associated with women’s oppression. For suffragists, however, a cookery book was a practical way to deploy their “womanly” skills and knowledge. At the time, women did not have control over their own money, children, education or destiny.

Arguing for a place in the public sphere was in itself radical. The suffragists were not looking to overturn women’s relation to the home but to increase their agency within it. Leaflets produced by the NUWSS described women as “The Housekeepers of the Nation”. This being the case, “Don’t you think it’s fair,” the leaflets asked, “that a woman should be able to help decide how her children are to be educated and what kind of home she is to live in?”

By 1903, with no sign of the government relenting, Emmeline Pankhurst set up the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant organisation whose motto was “Deeds not Words”. The violent actions of the suffragettes — the term coined by the Daily Mail to describe the militants — are perhaps better remembered than the tireless but ultimately less dramatic antics of the law-abiding NUWSS members. Debate reigns as to whether the lawbreakers or the lawful were more instrumental in winning the vote for women but, despite strategic differences, tenacity, ingenuity and courage were common to both.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book also suggests that for the NUWSS, humour and wit played a part too: at the end of the book, Alys Pearsall Smith, the activist and first wife of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, pens a five-step “Recipe for Cooking and Preserving a Good Suffrage Speaker”. The first instruction is to “butter the speaker”; the fourth to “beat her to a froth with an optimistic spoon”.

Polly Russel and her books at the British Library.
Pages showing the “Menus and Meals for Suffrage Workers” and Alys Pearsall Smith’s “Recipe for Cooking and Preserving a Good Suffrage Speaker” © Charlie Bibby

Although the fight for gender equality is far from over, the achievements of these early campaigners are now widely acknowledged. Earlier this year, a statue of Millicent Fawcett was unveiled in Parliament Square in London, suffragist histories have been told on television and radio, exhibitions and workshops have taken place across the country, and it was recently announced that Elizabeth Crawford, a leading expert on suffrage, is to receive an OBE from the Queen. By the end of 2018, no one should be in doubt about the contributions of the suffragists to improving the status of women in Britain.

In the end, it took more than 50 years of campaigning, the combined efforts of suffragettes and suffragists, and a world war, to swing public opinion and persuade the government to let women vote. I like to think that as well as the petitions, protests, prison sentences and hunger strikes, the banana fritters, egg croquettes and other meals proposed by The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book also played a part.

The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book, compiled by Mrs Aubrey Dowson, 1912

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; @PollyRussell1; the_history_cook

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