Saturday, September 30, 2006

Suffragette City

Earlier in the week I passed a few idle moments in Borders while waiting for it to be exactly the right time to meet friends in Oxford Circus. I am fanatically punctual which, in London, places me firmly in a category of one. Happily, I could not choose between four books with 3 for 2 stickers on them. This is a small mercy as it’s been so long since I’ve been paid any actual money that even buying books seems like an extravagance.

The nice people at Borders know all about the people who come in and thumb through their books while waiting for their perennially tardy friends so they have very conveniently laid out a number of lovely thumbable books for this specific purpose. Andy Warhol Giant Size is so big that it needs its own pedestal. This makes it possible to spend twelve minutes and forty-two seconds ambling through it without requiring physiotherapy afterwards.

The book contains reports of Warhol’s 1968 shooting by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. As a leading member of SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men), Solanas had authored the SCUM Manifesto which claimed,

‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’

If she thought 1968 was boring it’s probably just as well she popped her clogs in the eighties before global tedium really kicked in. Civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females these days are more likely to be found trying to buy houses near secondary schools with literacy rates in the double figures than hatching gunpowder plots.

Solanas may have been the last in a long tradition of radical feminists with double-barrelled ambitions that weren’t to do with names. The Home Office today released documents from 1909 revealing that two members of the Women’s Freedom League planned to shoot Prime Minster and self-confessed male chauvinist pig, Herbert Asquith. Suffragettes had been picketing parliament continuously to demand voting rights for women. The two women were thought to have been practising with Browning pistols on mini shooting ranges in Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road.

The plans came to light when a certain Mrs Moore, also a member of the Women’s Freedom League and friend of Asquith’s sister-in-law, tipped off Scotland Yard. The would-be assassins, whose names were not recorded, had planned to follow Asquith on his way to parliament and engage him in argument before dispatching him. It is not known whether they would still have shot him if he’d been persuaded to their point of view.

The gentlemen detectives of Scotland Yard circa 1909 showed a restraint unimaginable today and chose to suppress the news of the plot. They were wary of interfering with citizens’ right to protest outside the houses of parliament and feared that publicising the assassins’ intentions might spark the very event they sought to prevent.

If Valerie Solanas had only realised just how dull the early days of the twenty-first century would be, largely because of automation, she may have taken a leaf out of Stanley Kubrick’s book and shot at Coca Cola machines instead of one of the most interesting people ever. Or, she might have shot Nixon – he certainly deserved it.

I am often nostalgic for the old days of seventies feminism. It would have given me something useful to do in old age. I am not much enamoured with the idea of standing in shopping malls and selling tickets for luxury cars, even if it will help end cruelty to animals. Although not up for taking pot shots at politicians, except by way of this blog, I think I would like consuming red wine out of tumblers, having my consciousness raised and my purple velvet floppy hat covered in candle wax. Not much chance of a feminist revival at the moment. Most people now think women’s suffrage is something that happens after you’ve incautiously slept with a guy after five too many vodka and cranberry juices and he hasn’t called you… and… it’s been like three weeks. Agony.

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