There were many women who brought women’s rights to the forefront and in the early 20th century, these women helped bring awareness to sexism and overturn antiquated ideas of the separate spheres. Recently, some of the heavy hitters of this movement in Britain came to the forefront with the release of the film Suffragette last year. However, when I saw this on Pinterest, I got curious about Muriel Matters and went in search of more information. What I discovered was a suffragist who worked in the same time frame as the more famous suffragists depicted in that film but became more of a rebel within the movement rather than part of the main vein of it.
Although Matters is known for her contribution to the British suffragist movement, she was, in fact originally from Australia, which was one reason why she was never really part of the “cool kids” represented by Emmeline Pankhust and her set. Keep in mind that for many years, Australia was almost like the neglected child of Britain rather than a country in its own right and was known as the place where outlaws, convicts, and misfits who couldn’t or wouldn’t live in the UK ended up. In truth, Matters had a taste of women’s rights well before her British sisters, as South Australia, where she was from originally, gave women the right to vote in 1894.
But Matters didn’t start out with ambitions to see women get the vote although she was exposed to it early in life and certainly influenced by it. She actually started out as an actress performing in music halls and saloons around Australia. But encouragement to take her talents to London brought her to the UK. Music hall gigs were few and far between and so she worked as a journalist to help support herself. This led her to interviewing a Russian anarchist who challenged her to do more with her life than acting. Considering Matters’ roots, it was perhaps no surprise that she turned to suffragism.
Matters’ direction in this movement was more left of center. She became part of the Women’s Freedom League, a sort of alternative group of women’s rights activists who worked parallel to Pankhurst and her cronies. I think it’s not much of a stretch to see what attracted Matters to the WFL. This group saw the Pankhurst organization as less democratic and more hierarchal (with Pankhurst and a select few making decisions regarding activities and organization rather than leave it to the decision of the majority) and also more geared towards the higher social classes. This is actually not a new complaint about the women’s movement, as the second wave feminist movement also received complaints of hierarchy and bias towards certain social (and racial) classes.
Matters did a lot for the WFL. This included a caravan tour in 1908 where she and others established more branches of the organization, a balloon flight intended to scatter flyers about women’s rights, and a lecture tour. However, her most famous activity was perhaps when she and another suffragette chained themselves to the grill that separated women spectators from completely seeing the activities in the British House Of Parliament in protest of banning women from governmental activities. Their agitation caused Matters to be arrested for obstructing justice and serve time in jail.
Matters’ attempts to do more with her life than just be an actress extended beyond women’s rights. She also fought for rights for the poor, helping mothers and children in the slums of East London. Later, her work included educational reform, protest against World War I, and even a stint as a candidate for the Labour Movement seat in the House of Parliament in 1924. Although she didn’t win, the fact that she, as a woman, was able to run for office, a position that she herself helped to make a reality, was a significant achievement in her long career as a suffragist and reformer.
http://www.murielmatterssociety.com.au/Muriel_Matters_Society_Inc./The_Muriel_Matters_Society_Inc..html (homepage of the Muriel Matters Society)
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3646366/?ref_=ttpl_pl_tt (IMDB page for the 2013 TV movei Muriel Matters)
http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/oct/11/muriels-neglecting-an-australian-suffragettes-unsung-legacy (article on Matters from The Guardian)