Shoulder to shoulder

Oxygen celebrates the pilgrimage of women who marched for six weeks from Lands Ends to Hyde Park for the largest ever suffrage rally. Jane Duffus finds it to be a breath of fresh air

, 15 July 2013

Marlborough rally scene.JPGYou could say that 2013 has been a good year for emancipation of women. Colliding with the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby in 1913, we’ve enjoyed a raft of new suffrage books this year, Clare Balding’s documentary about Davison and Jessica Hynes’ sit-com Up The Women. Alongside this resurgence in interest about our feminist foremothers comes Oxygen: a new play by Natalie McGrath. This celebrates another suffrage centenary – that of the pilgrimage of women who marched for six weeks from Land’s End to Hyde Park for the largest ever suffrage rally.

Produced by the Dreadnought South West Association, Oxygen is one of a series of projects to champion women’s voices and stories over the years. Since the tour began on 19 June, Oxygen has been traveling across the South West, following the route taken by those determined women 100 years ago. They have been stopping off at town halls, arts centres and community halls along the way to spread the message of women’s history to as many people as possible.

What is refreshing about Oxygen is that it focuses less on the militant suffragettes and more on the peaceful suffragists, as well as its illustration of the struggles between the two as they try to work alongside one another. In Oxygen, this is illustrated by two sisters, each of whom side with different camps, although ultimately they march shoulder to shoulder with the same goal. It is also importantly illustrated by having peaceful leader Millicent Fawcett speak at the final rally in Hyde Park, rather than militant leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

While women have the right to vote, we still have child poverty, human trafficking and sweated labour

Oxygen covers a lot of issues that were relevant at the time with perfect accuracy, making clear that women’s emancipation involved a great deal more than simply enabling women to have the right to vote once every five years. It was also to do with ending child poverty, ending the white slave trade and ending sweated labour. It was also to do with shedding constraining clothing like corsets (“I am distorted no longer! Liberty!” cries one character), and much more besides.

Oxygen Stevie Thompson CREDIT Alexandra Hall.jpg

Music plays an important part in Oxygen, just as it did in the whole suffrage campaign. In fact, the production showcases four brand new songs with lyrics written by Natalie McGrath and music by Clare Ingleheart. These were all uplifting, touching and beautiful – I very much hope that they will be available to buy from Dreadnought South West before long.

There is a cast of five (Rebecca Hulbert, Michelle Ridings, Rachel Rose Reid, Stevie Thompson and Carolyn Tomkinson), who flit between characters and classes. All must be applauded for their talent and performance – as well as for holding up unfailingly in full period costume during a sweltering heatwave!

You could say that 2013 has been a good year for emancipation of women. But you could also say that while women have the right to vote, we still have child poverty, human trafficking and sweated labour. Oxygen is an uplifting and touching reminder of what we have achieved so far and of how far we still have to go.

Oxygen was at The Malcolm X Centre, Bristol on 12 July. The play is touring until 20 July and will be in Chippenham on 15 and 16 July, Marlborough on 17 July, Swindon on 18 July and London on 20 July, with a celebratory picnic in Hyde Park on 26 July.

Photos from the production are by Alexandra Hall and are used with permission.

Jane Duffus is a journalist, author and feminist activist. She has been researching the UK suffrage movement, as well as the actions leading up to it, for several years. Jane lives in Bristol where she set up and runs What The Frock! Comedy, promoting talented female comedians. You can contact her on Twitter @bristol_jane

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