music womens suffrage

Ethel Smyth

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by Clare Butler for the Illustrated Women in History exhibition 2017 at Swindon Central Library. 

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was a woman once described as an armoured tank drawing enemy fire. She was a celebrated composer, author, musician, enthusiastic golfer, and, in her own words, a ‘militant suffragette’. Her supporter Sir Thomas Beecham said there was something about Ethel “which differentiated her from every other member of her sex. She was a stubborn, indomitable, unconquerable creature…”

Ethel’s love of music started at a young age however her father did not support her musical interests. Nevertheless, she continued to fight tenaciously for a musical education and when she was 19 her father finally relented and allowed her to study in Leipzig.

Ethel threw herself into life in Germany and began her tuition at the Conservatorium. She became dissatisfied with the lack of teaching on orchestration and sought a private tutor: Heinrich von Herzogenberg. She soon grew close to Heinrich and his wife Elisabeth (Lisl) and saw them as a surrogate family. Lisl is considered by some to be Ethel’s first ‘great love’.

Ethel described her own sexuality as an ‘everlasting puzzle’ and once confided to her only known male lover that it was ‘easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours’.

By 1910 she achieved the recognition for her music that she had strived for and the University of Durham awarded her with an honorary doctorate. Perhaps due to this success she felt she could dedicate her time to another cause. In 1910 she met Emmeline Pankhurst and became involved in the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It has been speculated that Ethel and Emmeline later became lovers.

In 1911 she composed ‘The March of the Women’ which became the battle song of the WSPU. She also took part in protests and even threw stones through a Conservative MPs window – an act of defiance which resulted in her spending two months in jail. Conductor Sir Thomas Beecham visited the prison and found the women there parading around the courtyard chanting ‘March of the Women’ while Ethel conducted “in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush”

At age 71 Ethel fell desperately in love with Virginia Woolf. “An old woman of seventy-one has fallen in love with me” Virginia wrote, “It is at once hideous and horrid and melancholy-sad. It is like being caught by a giant crab.” Ethel could cope with being laughed at and almost reveled in it. She admitted that perhaps she was something of a ‘juggernaut’ and knew that people said “O! Dame E.S. is such a handful!”

Over time Virginia grew fond of Ethel and compared her own ‘furtive and sidelong’ existence to the ‘spontaneity and ruthlessness’ of Ethel’s.  In a speech Virginia sums Ethel up wonderfully:

“She is one of the race of pioneers, of pathmakers. She has gone before and felled trees and blasted rocks and built bridges and thus made a way for those who come after her… I have no doubt that I owe a great deal to some mute and inglorious Ethel Smyth”

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