Votes for Catharine Susan and Me, Kathleen Ainslie (c.1910/11)

 

Visitors to the People’s History Museum (PHM) will find an eye-catching range of posters, postcards and banners among Gallery 1’s array of exhibits on the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century women’s suffrage movement. Many of these were clearly produced in support of the various Votes for Women campaigns. It is not always so easy to identify contemporary writers and artists’ own feelings towards women’s suffrage through their work, however. One such irresistibly ambiguous artefact is the exquisite children’s book Votes for Catharine Susan and Me, by author and illustrator Kathleen Ainslie.

A rare original copy of this book has now been acquired through the Library’s Voting for Change project, on which we are partners with PHM. Visitors to the Library can therefore judge for themselves whether – and, if so, towards which side – Ainslie might have been hoping to sway her young (and older) readers with regard to attaining the vote for women.

Catherine Susan and Me title page

Ainslie appears to have been known best for her beautifully drawn turn-of-the-20th-century children’s books. These feature the charmingly winsome adventures of a group of Dutch wooden peg dolls, which were themselves a nursery staple of the period. The well-spoken main characters in Votes for Catharine Susan and Me also appear, for example, as guileless debutantes in Catharine Susan and Me’s Coming Out, in which they gamely nail feathers to their heads in the pursuit of glamour, as well as experience some suitably sophisticated pursuits (namely polo and theatre) along the way. Although no longer apparently children themselves, Ainslie’s heroines remain resolutely child-like: ‘Then in the evening they took us to see some acting – But I don’t remember what it was about’.

The reader might speculate as to whether Ainslie deliberately attempted to adopt a neutral approach when penning Votes for Catharine Susan and Me. This was, after all, a publication intended primarily to amuse and entertain young readers, as well as even younger children to whom it would have been read, potentially over and over again. As a short illustrated storybook aimed at this audience, part of a longer-running series, it is certainly visually and narratively engaging in its own right. The copy acquired by the Library bears the handwritten inscription: Eileen Westmacott, January 1911. While in hospital this was given. Those who gifted it likely thought Catharine and Susan’s antics would provide some welcome escapism for a poorly (or convalescing) child.      The Library’s copy of the book bears a handwritten inscription

Yet, whilst it is worthy of viewing just for its wonderful illustrations alone, Votes for Catharine Susan and Me will undoubtedly appeal to those interested in the turn-of-the-century suffrage movement, particularly where related campaigning intersected with everyday culture such as popular literature and reading (including aloud to young children). Whilst the various scenes depicted in the book will not necessarily have been familiar to younger readers, Ainslie draws on several of the more controversial aspects of women’s franchise struggle using a light-hearted, arguably frivolous tone. These include public disobedience and protest (‘They wouldn’t let us go in – But we had a splendid fight outside’), physical confrontations with the police and, perhaps most surprisingly for a children’s book, the practice of hunger-striking, albeit this is inevitably depicted an indirect, playful way.

In spite of its light-hearted tone, the book references serious aspects of related campaigning and protest, including hunger-striking

Whether Ainslie intended Votes for Catharine Susan and Me to be read on several levels (by various audiences) or not, her decision to give women’s suffrage campaigning such prominence in a children’s picture-book c.1910/11 certainly makes this new acquisition very distinctive indeed. The women’s suffrage movement had by this time infiltrated the wider public consciousness and, as part of the Library’s extensive related collection, this book is a highly unusual and uniquely fun insight into this period and suffrage politics.

Andrea Thomson

 

Notes:

  1. The Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum & Labour History Archive and Study Centre were successful in getting a ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Voting for Change – 150 Years of Radical Movements, 1819 to 1969, their collaborative project, focuses on the movements and campaigns for the franchise, from the build-up to the Peterloo protest in 1819 through to the lowering of the voting age in 1969.

2. Kathleen Ainslie, Votes for Catharine Susan and Me, Castell Brothers: London, (c.1910/11), Working Class Movement Library reference: BS0