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Marguerite Johnson

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About the author

Marguerite Johnson is Senior Lecturer in Ancient History and Classical Languages at The University of Newcastle. She is co-author (with Terry Ryan) of Sexuality in Greek and Roman Society and Literature: A Sourcebook (Routledge 2005) and author of Sappho (Bristol Classical Press 2007) and Boudicca (Bristol Classical Press 2012). She researches and teaches representations of women, gender and the body in antiquity and also the post-classical appropriations of ancient texts, historical figures (such as Boudicca/Boadicea), art and architecture.

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Volume 31, November 2014


Boadicea and British Suffrage Feminists

This paper redresses the limited attention to Boadicea in research on suffrage feminists of the twentieth century. It analyses her importance through the lens of dramaturgical theory that privileges a reading of social protest groups engaged in symbolic acts (protests, theatre, violence) and expressions (artwork, writing, manufacture, dress and costuming). Examining an appropriation of a historical figure like Boadicea this way enables emphasis to be placed on ‘the significance of ritual for expressing solidarity and evoking widely shared feelings among dominated groups.’ (Taylor and Whittier 164) It also builds on the work of Barbara Green (1997) on performativity and the spectacular in suffrage protests by examining how such strategies play out in terms of a particular icon.


Now, the rightness of revolt, the rightness of our militant methods, does not depend upon success. You may resist injustice and fail, or seem to fail, and still you have done right. When you are confronted by oppressions, when you are confronted by the forces of evil, then you must go and do battle against them. (Votes for Women, December 31, 1908: 234)

The above is an extract from a speech by Christabel Pankhurst at Queen’s Hall, December 22, 1908. The occasion was her release from prison. Throughout the speech, the rhetorical and political imperative is a call to, and justification of, militancy. Pankhurst speaks of a ‘campaign,’ a ‘revolt,’ ‘sheer physical danger,’ and ‘the perilous course of militant methods.’ Her impassioned and revolutionary call-to-arms is not only in keeping with the oratory of the era of militant suffrage but also with the historically-informed ideology that underpinned it. Part of the latter was a consistent reference to women of earlier times, both mythical and historical, who symbolised female agency via military strength.

Joan of Arc was regularly invoked by suffrage feminists. She was, for example, a popular heroine of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), one of the militant organisations within the broader suffrage movement in Britain. Another significant historical icon for the WSPU and other suffrage organisations and groups, not necessarily militant in nature, was Boadicea.


The leader of a rebellion against Rome, Boadicea, as she was known during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, led her fellow Britons in a series of battles against the invaders in CE 60-61. Her story was recorded by Roman historian, Tacitus (CE 56-117), who cites Boadicea’s flogging and the rape of her daughters by Roman soldiers as a major reason for her bloodthirsty insurrection (Annals 14.31). Greek historian, Dio Cassius (c. CE 150-235) also recorded Boadicea’s rebellion in Book 62 of his Roman History (preserved in an eleventh century epitome).

After a period of attacks on Roman-occupied sites, Boadicea and her people faced the Romans at an unspecified location in CE 61 and were defeated. Tacitus claims she ended her own life, while Dio claims she succumbed to an illness. Whatever the means by which she died, her legacy was recorded in historical accounts, plays, poems and public monuments from the time of the British emergence from the Dark Ages, through to the era of suffrage, into the twenty-first century.

Boadicea did not replace Joan of Arc as the ultimate symbol of suffrage groups, especially the militants, but she provided women such as the Pankhursts with two very specific aspects of feminist iconography that Joan of Arc did not: she was a mother (of two daughters) and her presence was far more tangible insofar as public monuments were concerned, with the imposing bronze statue of her by Thomas Thornycroft standing next to Westminster Bridge, overlooking the Houses of Parliament (see Ward-Jackson).

Boadicea was also intrinsically British (not French or Catholic) and thus a powerful symbol of the women’s sense of heritage, identity and implicit right to rebel.


Why Boadicea was important to feminist suffragists is answered in part by the contents of a pamphlet from the Brighton Society of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in January 1909:

... this heroic figure of a woman, mother, and ruler ... represents a type of the “eternal feminine” – the guardian of the hearth, the avenger of its wrongs upon the defacer and the despoiler. (Tickner 254)

This underlines the essential nature of Boadicea’s appeal: she was a woman, mother and ruler, with her sex and maternity never impeding or negating her right to rule. As a role model she symbolised suffrage ideologies that challenged traditional definitions of femininity; facilitating articulation of woman’s embodiment of traditional masculine qualities and mediating between conventional constructs of womanhood and its redefinitions. When one considers anti-suffrage propaganda with its aggressive rebuttals of so-called recalcitrant wives and mothers (exemplified by the infamous postcard, ‘Mummy’s a Suffragette’), one can appreciate the women’s assertive, sometimes violent challenges to social ideals and norms. They were deemed subversive in this sense, not only because their public actions were outside ‘proper’ behaviour but because many of them, like Boadicea, were mothers, which made them doubly subversive.   

Dramaturgical Analysis and Ritual

Robert D. Benford and Scott A. Hunt developed the theoretical framework of dramaturgical analysis to better articulate the processes and ideologies associated with social movements engaged in opposition to power structures. They identify four techniques employed by groups to interact with authority: scripting, staging, performing and interpreting. Scripting provides collectives with ‘ideas, attributions, norms, values, beliefs and a universe of discourse’ (39); staging is the ‘appropriating, managing and directing [of] materials, audiences and performing regions’ (43); performing is the ‘demonstration and enactment of power ... [concretising] ideas regarding the struggle between protagonists and antagonists’ (45); and interpreting being ‘the process of individually or collectively making sense out of symbols, talk, action and the environment.’ (48)

Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier’s research on certain factions of the Women’s Movement, particularly from Second Wave Feminism to the 1990s, extends dramaturgical analysis to emphasise ritual. They expand the concept of ritual to establish a closer theoretical nexus between it and its performative or dramaturgical manifestation to elucidate a potent means by which collective movements engage with power structures. 

Performance – Drama, Pageantry and Protests

Suffrage feminists’ employment of spectacle is seen in A Pageant of Great Women, which opened on November 10, 1909 at the Scala Theatre in London. The play was conceived and produced by the Actresses’ Franchise League, written by Cicely Hamilton, and directed by Edith Craig (who also worked on the script). Partly inspired by William Henry Margetson’s painting for the Women Writers’ Suffrage League, which depicts Woman being snatched from Justice by Prejudice; the play brings the drawing to life and calls forth women from the past to plead their case.

There are six categories of women in the production, with Boadicea (and Joan of Arc) placed with ‘The Warriors’:

Joan of Arc: Brave saint, pure soldier, lily of God and France,

Whose soul fled, hence on wings of pain, of fire!

Boadicea: Oh, look on her who stood, a Briton in arms,

And spat defiance at the hosts of Rome! (41)

In this brief speaking part, typical of all the monologues, Boadicea epitomises the historic ‘victim-given-voice.’ Like the other female characters, she is a protester, and she challenges the construct of women as passive dependants. Boadicea’s words also speak directly to the militant arm of the movement that advocated a fight or a war with its members as soldiers.

The play went on to tour the country, encapsulating the performativity and ritual dramaturgy that underpinned the use of ancient heroines in women’s protests. In relation to Benford and Hunt’s dramaturgical scaffolding, Pageant represents all four nominated components. In terms of scripting, for example, and the concomitant element of ‘developing dramatis personae’ (39), it assembled a cast in order to construct and symbolise ‘identities and roles for antagonists, victims, protagonists, supporting cast members and audience.’ (39)

The connection the suffrage feminists made between their collective struggle and the struggle of Boadicea extended to other areas of theatrical protest. In marches between 1907 and 1913, Lisa Tickner observes that ‘the suffragettes developed a new kind of political spectacle in which they dramatised the cause by means of costume, narrative, embroidery, performance, and all the developing skills of public entertainment.’ (56) Tickner emphasises the ritual component of such protests, discussing how they drew on ‘state ritual’ associated with the monarchy, popular between 1877 and 1914, and fuelled by the contemporaneous zeal for ‘invented traditions’ (see Hobsbawm 1983).

These interpretations are exemplified by The Women’s Coronation Procession on June 17, 1911 involving 40,000 participants (both militants and constitutionalists). This was a parody, of sorts, of the official coronation procession in honour of the new king, George V. Women dressed as famous heroines such as Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I, and Boadicea, thus providing the women with a language of symbols to create their own tradition, their own history, in order to emphasise an ancient authority behind their current campaign.

The Coronation Procession was not the only dramaturgical spectacle that included Boadicea. At the protest called Women’s Sunday held on June 21, 1908, members of the Artists League carried banners depicting historical women. The Boadicea Banner, which had also been used a few weeks earlier on June 13 at a procession by the NUWSS, was probably designed by artist and feminist, Mary Lowndes. The banner, one of only a few extant, is shield-shaped, 132 cm x 81 cm, with the name ‘Boadicea’ emblazoned across the top in gold paint on cream silk. There is a central design depicting a wheel with a scythe-like motif (gold on a green background), mistletoe in the top left-hand corner and gold daggers in the bottom right-hand corner (both on a deep blue background).

The pageant protests illustrate women’s appropriation of ritual in their use of the invented traditions that characterised Edwardian culture with its liking for ‘imperialist nostalgia’ (Rosaldo) in the form of parades and celebrations incorporating images of a sentimentalised past. Joshua Esty discusses the revival of rural pageant plays at the turn of the twentieth century: their origins in the contemporary commitment to preserve traditions; use of amateurs in all levels of the production; presentation in outdoor settings such as fields; incorporation of ‘long parades’ and homage to ‘continuous histories and glorious legends.’ (248) The historical story embedded in the pageants usually began with the Roman occupation through to particular townsfolk resisting ‘the Cromwellian usurper.’ (Esty 249) In this sense Boadicea is an integral character, exemplified by Robert Withington’s 1920 monograph on English pageant plays that lists her appearance in productions in Bury St Edmunds (1907), Colchester (1909) and London (1914).

The Edwardian pageant plays, viewed through the framework of dramaturgy with an emphasis on ritual, may be interpreted as a product of English nationalism, promoting and expressing ‘just enough collective zeal to bind people together, but not so much as to trip over into the frightening power of totalitarian group ritual.’ (Esty 247) The appropriation of pageants by suffrage feminists enabled women to express their right to participate in a public expression of nationalism and thus claim a share of an ideology that privileged men. Boadicea, as a symbol of British nationalism, was an intrinsic member of suffrage performance. Additionally, as evidenced in analyses such as Katherine Cockin’s on Hamilton’s Pageant, such performances inserted militancy into a historical narrative tied inextricably to nationalism, thereby normalising ‘the idea of women’s achievements’ and ‘militancy as national heroism.’ (527)

Cartoons and Artwork

Images of Boadicea in Votes for Women provide salient models of interpreting as it operates in Benford and Hunt’s theory. They also exemplify the role of ritual as per Taylor and Whittier’s work. Votes for Women included three front-page drawings featuring Boadicea between 1910 (two) and 1912 (one) by A. Patriot (Alfred Pearse), English cartoonist and campaigner. In the first cartoon,

the ironic sub-heading – ‘Men will never be ruled by women’ – is illustrated by three historical queens: Boadicea (left), Victoria (centre) and Elizabeth (right). Boadicea is youthful, active, accompanied by two warring clansmen, and depicted with standard motifs: horse, spear and shield. Victoria and Elizabeth are less active but equally as powerful: Victoria sits on a throne surrounded by acquiescent representatives of the Empire, while Elizabeth sits side-saddle on a stead, two courtiers in attendance, the Armada in the background. The opening commentary at the base of the cartoon, in addition to statements concerning the General Election, its deferment until after the Coronation and the tensions involving the Irish Party, includes a section entitled ‘Men and Militant Methods’ that opens with a defence of radical methods:

Men, however, much they may criticise the methods of the Suffragettes, are quick to sympathise with members of their own sex who, with far less justification, resort to similar methods. (Votes for Women, September 2, 1910)

Another Boadicea cartoon, published in November of the same year, features Thornycroft’s statue in the foreground with a shadowy Houses of Parliament behind.

Boadicea is represented as powerful, awe-inspiring, resplendent, towering above her crouching daughters, commanding her horses as they rear in front of a scythed-wheeled chariot.

In the third cartoon, ‘Fighting the Spirit,’ .
a knight with a jousting-pole (‘prison regulations’) rides an ass (‘Liberal Government’). He has a shield (‘official lies’), mace (‘Government brutality’), sword (‘forcible feeding’) and other accoutrements. The caption reads:

BRAVE MCK. NNA [sic] OF THE HOME OFFICE: Hail, Boadicea! I hie me in hot haste to His Majesty’s Gaols to exterminate therein thine unwomanly descendants!
BOADICEA: My poor little official, give it up! You can’t fight the Spirit with weapons like yours! (Votes for Women, June 28, 1912)

The topic, forcible feeding, is continued in the reports on the same page, one of which mentions Emmeline Pankhurst’s release from goal following a five day fast, another on the treatment and injuries of women at Holloway Prison, another damning the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, for his inertia. McKenna, the hapless knight of the cartoon, is vilified for sanctioning both the forcible feeding of imprisoned militants and the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, more colloquially known as the Cat and Mouse Act.

The two cartoons of Thornycroft’s Boadicea, standing across from the Houses of Parliament, are reminders of the misadministration of government and symbolic of female militancy in the face of injustice. In a suffragette context, then, the monument itself, and the illustrations of it, are salient examples of the power of ‘invented traditions,’ as ‘all invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.’ (Hobsbawn 12) As a means by which the demands of the militants were conveyed, artwork such as these reflect and reiterate the ritualistic potency of the marches, communicating in illustrative format, what Taylor and Whittier refer to as ‘the redefinition of feeling and expression rules that apply to women.’ (178)

As discussed by Taylor and Whittier in relation to modern women’s groups, feminists strive to acknowledge and champion aspects of womanhood that include emotions and actions, such as anger and violence, believed to be the prerogative of men. The militants, particularly, had recourse to do the same. Hence, for them, Boadicea became an icon of justifiable anger and violence; a historical example of a woman who demonstrated the qualities traditionally ascribed to men alone. In this respect her wrath and her extreme retaliation against the Roman invaders makes her a far more volatile icon than Joan of Arc (beatified in 1909 and thus rendered even more virtuous, literally more saintly, than Boadicea could ever be).

Regarding other artworks, Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the NUWSS, presented released prisoners of the WSPU with a reworking of Thornycroft’s statue by Theodore Blake Wirgman at a banquet at the Savoy in 1906.

The border is inset with two cameos: a mother and child reading a book (left) and a mother and infant (right). Boadicea is without a spear in this reimagining of the original bronze; instead she holds a banner, which reads ‘Votes for Women;’ in her other hand are the scales of justice; an angel presents her with a laurel wreath. Sharon Macdonald interprets the gift as a ‘message to the militants’ (55) – a statement that suggests very strongly that Macdonald interprets the gift as a somewhat barbed one – a message that advises peaceful insurrection by a woman aligned with constitutional suffrage not militancy.

Textual / Rhetorical References

Written references to Boadicea may be analysed in terms of Taylor and Whittier’s ‘symbolic codes.’ These incorporate facets of ‘public discourse’ ‘created by challenging groups’ in the form of ‘speeches and textual materials, myths, stories, and non-linguistic modes of expression.’ (164) Indeed, the quest to document women’s lives, the creation of symbolic codes in the form of textual materials, was an increasing imperative among the earliest supporters of women’s emancipation, resulting in numerous works, including those by John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft, both of whom incorporated historical exempla in a long foreshadowing of Second Wave Feminism’s ‘herstory.’ As the campaign for women’s franchise flourished towards the end of the nineteenth, and beginning of the twentieth century, so too did this imperative. The research and collation of materials – the very act and art of writing and recording women’s lives – was itself a ritualistic process designed to create a political act, namely the development of the recording of women’s history.

Verse was a popular form of militant communication. In a poem printed in Votes for Women in 1909, Winifred R. Carey expressed the symbolic meaning of the warring woman, championing the militants alongside an allusive evocation of an iconic ‘woman’ from the past:    

    With bold heart braving a world’s unrest,
    With banner waving, and glancing crest
    Comes the warrior woman out of the west.

    To the gibes of the mocker she gives no heed,
    For she comes in the hour of their direst need
    To fight for those who would fain be freed.

    And she knows that the path to victory lies
    (Though friends deride her, and foes despise)
    Through the prison gates of her enemies.

    The good she would gain must be bought with scars
    And the heaven of love with its myriad stars
    Shines calmly in through Earth’s prison bars.

    She will not falter, nor faint, nor tire,
    For her being throbs with a great desire;
    Her thoughts are wing’d, and her soul afire.

    With bold heart braving a world’s unrest,
    With banner waving, and glancing crest
    Comes the warrior woman out of the west.
    (Votes for Women October 22, 1909: 57)

The poem references the militants while recalling figures such as Joan of Arc and Boadicea. This poetic performative artefact reflects the militant rhetoric that sought to disassemble the cultural image of woman as peacemaker. The theme also appears in other entries in Votes for Women in the form of essays of a historical nature that presented overviews of warrior women and female leaders.

In ‘Woman as Soldier,’ for example, Sylvia Pankhurst engages in debate on the topic of women fighting in war:

The one argument against the granting of woman suffrage upon which Mr. Asquith and his anti-suffrage friends feel that they can always rely is that women cannot fight in war, and that as they are therefore incapable of fulfilling all the obligations which men as citizens are called upon to perform, women ought not be allowed to vote. (Votes for Women, January 14, 1909: 262)

Her refutation of Asquith’s position is based on a historical catalogue of women warriors. Her opening statement, introducing the exempla that follow, begins with the heroines of the WSPU:

Everyone has heard of Boadicea, Joan of Arc, and probably a score of other great and famous women generals, but there must have been many more thousands of valiant women warriors whose names have been forgotten. (Votes for Women, January 14, 1909: 262)

Illustrative of the ritualistic nature of female protest writing (discussed above), Pankhurst’s article continues with the aforementioned catalogue of warriors, listing relatively obscure women and providing dates and details for their militaristic activities. Therefore, one may read her article not only as a political challenge to Asquith, but also as a commemoration of history’s forgotten woman. Here Boadicea and Joan of Arc function as signifiers for the whole of militant women, past and present, nameless or forgotten, as well as those deemed noteworthy enough to be commemorated.

In ‘British Royal Women’ by F. E. M. Macaulay (Florence Elizabeth Mary), inspired by the death of King Edward (May 6, 1910), the author expresses condolences to ‘the bereaved Queen Mother,’ Alexandra of Denmark, previously Queen-Empress Consort, and celebrates the new Queen Consort, Mary of Teck. She introduces her topic accordingly:

There is no more convincing proof of the part formerly played by British women in public affairs than the position occupied by royal women in this country. (Votes for Women, May 20 1910: 551)

Macaulay, whose opening words refer to the ‘Queens Regnant,’ and allude to Victoria, focuses on those queens who ruled in their own right, including Boadicea:

That the mere fact of being born a woman did not prevent an individual otherwise qualified for that exalted station, from performing its highest functions, has always been maintained in the case of the Queens Regnant. This was so from the beginning of our history. Tacitus says that the Britons “admit of no distinction of sex in their Royal successions.” Boadicea, who was; according to the historian, “not unaccustomed to address the public,” shrank from none of the onerous responsibilities of sovereignty, and perished in battle defending the country she governed. (Votes for Women, May 20, 1910: 551)

As the child of a Reading bookseller who studied at Oxford (leaving after two terms following her father’s death), Macaulay may have read Tacitus. If this were the case, however, she was selective in her reading, for Tacitus explicitly states that Boadicea died by poison, not in battle (Annals 14.37). Macaulay nevertheless provides insightful commentary on the use of the able, militant Boadicea as an example of women’s historical assumption of traditionally masculine roles. A member of the WSPU, Macaulay was a supporter of militant action and its justification is revealed herein in her effective use of Boadicea through the rhetorical lens of the British monarchy, namely, when need be, royal women such as Boadicea went into battle for a just cause. 

Another example of a historical opinion piece is an article by militant supporter and member of the Fabian Society, S. D. Shallard. In ‘Warrior Women in Europe,’ the third instalment in a series on female bellicosity, Shallard writes extensively on Boadicea. He makes much of Boadicea as a female leader and her female comrades, emphasising their socially-sanctioned agency: ‘Caesar more than once mentions that British women played their part in court, in council, and in camp. Tacitus notes the same fact.’ (Votes for Women, March 17, 1911: 80) He also discusses Boadicea and her daughters as victims who refused to acquiesce:

These three women may have been, and quite likely were, by nature among the gentlest of their sex, but the cruel and infamous treatment inflicted on them ... caused a rising of the East Anglian and Middlesex tribes, whose leaders thereupon chose Boadicea as their general, with her daughter as lieutenants. (Votes for Women, March 17, 1911: 80)

With its loose approach to the material (most likely a result of reading Holinshed’s Chronicles [1577] than authorial mischievousness), this interpretation of Boadicea’s story establishes a solid connection between the heroine and suffrage protesters. By recourse to history, Shallard challenges established notions of woman as the ‘gentler’ sex and so attempts to bridge the gap between ideals of conventional womanhood and militant feminism (see his conclusion: ‘The Roman general, I am convinced, must have been shocked at this unladylike conduct.’). The article also suggests that those deprived of human rights in a hegemonic system (read Roman imperialism) are justified in confrontational protests. Shallard’s Boadicea is a victim who fought her battle to the end, securing some victories along the way and ultimately sacrificing her life for the cause. His rhetoric directly echoes the sentiments of Christabel Pankhurst (quoted above); in particular: ‘You may resist injustice and fail, or seem to fail, and still you have done right.’ For Pankhurst and Shallard, then, Boadicea is both victim and, despite defeat, victor. She is the very essence of a heroine.

Firmly encapsulated in a hyperbolic rhetoric and accentuated by the militant newspaper in which they appeared, such articles are text as artefact, reinforcing and explicating the materialisation of such heroines in marches. This is illustrated by a briefer inclusion of Boadicea by Shallard in ‘Women in War’:

It is hardly necessary to recall the fact that, after infamous treatment by Nero’s procurator, Boadicea took the field against the Romans with a force that included five thousand women, nearly all of whom died fighting. (Votes for Women, August 7, 1914: 679)

Written in the month the Great War broke out, Shallard’s article anticipates the social and ethical issues confronting women in Britain as a result of the war, probably aware that a significant number of women supported it.

Newspaper reports and other works of a journalistic nature were also undertaken (again with references to Boadicea). In Life and Labor, author and essayist, Miles Franklin, wrote an account of Emmeline Pankhurst’s visit to the United States:

Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst has been in our midst, petite and daintily dressed, fearless and outspoken, indomitable as a Boadicea, irresistible as a fairy. (Life and Labor, December, 1913: 364)

It seems ironic to a modern person to read a sentence that uses similes of both Boadicea and a fairy to describe someone, for the two types of femininity seem eons apart. Nevertheless, Franklin’s summation of Pankhurst, so deftly evoked in this one sentence, embodies the paradox at the very centre of the public image of ‘the Suffragette,’ as Bartley notes:

Emmeline Pankhurst, and the other suffragettes, seemed to be a paradox: beautifully dressed and coiffured while at the same time rejecting other feminine values. It is this paradox which appeals: the suffragettes’ physical appearance was the very essence of femininity whereas their violent physical actions challenged and undermined Edwardian notions of that same quality of being female. On the one hand, suffragettes conformed to the romantic ideal of womanhood by paying a great deal of attention to appearance and wearing white flimsy dresses with violet corsages. On the other hand, they challenged the very essence of womanhood by their militant behaviour. (123)

In this context, Franklin’s use of the simile shows her nuanced comprehension of the demure, well dressed, (yet) violent women. This makes Boadicea, to whom Franklin refers, such a well-appointed figure of appropriation. Boadicea, like the militants, demonstrated that the so-called dichotomy of female militancy was a fallacy.

In memoirs, leading figures of the WSPU, Sylvia Pankhurst and Dora Montefiore, refer to Thornycroft’s monument at Westminster. Pankhurst remembers a march on May 19, 1906, which ‘started from the Boadicea statue on Westminster Bridge’ (72) and Montefiore recalls:

One of my best meetings was close to the statue of Boadicea in a prohibited part of London, as no meetings were allowed to be held so close to the Houses of Parliament. It had long been my wish to hold a meeting there, as Boadicea in her chariot always appeared to me to be advancing threateningly on the Houses of Parliament, and she was therefore a symbol of the attitude towards Parliament of us military women. Toward the end of 1906 tramlines were being laid at that part of the embankment, and the traffic was obstructed by piles of wood blocks, and these I saw would make a most capital rostrum from which to speak. (109)

Richard Hingley and Christina Unwin note: ‘On this occasion, Montefiore spoke for an hour and a half, but she did not leave a detailed account of what she had to say.’ (175) But in view of her location and her autobiographical musings some 21 years later, they suggest that she probably made connections between Boadicea and ‘military women.’

Such reminiscences point to the symbolic and political relevance of Thornycroft’s Boadicea to the women and their subversive interpretation of it. Erected in 1902, not long after the British victory over the Boers and one year after the death of Queen Victoria, the monument was meant to symbolise British imperialism in the form of a ‘patriot, woman and mother, seeking to avenge political, sexual and familial wrongs’ (Hingley and Unwin 165). The inscription on one side of the pediment, an excerpt from William Cowper’s ‘Boadicea, an Ode’ (1782), emphasises the nationalistic tenor of the sculpture:

Regions Caesar never knew
Thy posterity shall sway.

This British victim of Roman imperialism came to represent British imperialism; a change in iconography heralded by comparisons between Boadicea and Elizabeth I. By the time of Cowper’s poem, the symbolism had been firmly embedded in the collective psyche of the English:

The poem was published at a time of British territorial expansion and political ambition following a period of lengthy conflict, including the American War of Independence, and Boadicea was adapted to fit this context. The poem helped to project Boadicea into the context of the British Empire by suggesting that her actions had assisted with the development of British imperialism, effectively creating her as an imperial icon. (Hingley and Unwin 150)

The ‘possession’ of Boadicea – this hijacking of her – by suffrage feminists extended into debates concerning female emancipation based on oppositional arguments proffered by imperialists. The latter, governed by their ‘Rule Britannia’ mentality, opposed suffrage on the grounds that women are ill-equipped to contribute to an empire on any level. Boadicea therefore functions as a historical counter-argument; in the words of Macaulay (above): she ‘shrank from none of the onerous responsibilities of sovereignty, and perished in battle defending the country she governed.’ As women appropriated pageantry as a means of protest conjoined with overt advocacy of nationalism per se, thus situating themselves in a hitherto masculinist ‘space;’ they also entered into a dialogue with imperialism by recourse to Boadicea. Such connections were intricately connected to the desire for the full rights of citizenship. By aligning with nationalism and imperialism, many militants sought to demonstrate the ability of women to be active, engaged members of the ‘family, local community, state, and empire.’ (Mayhall 6) Such connections or interdependence, once an undefined area of research, has been articulated by Antoinette Burton in her study of British imperial culture, feminism and Indian women:

Like contemporary class and gender systems, imperialism was a framework out of which feminist ideologies operated and through which the women’s movement articulated many of its assumptions. ...Feminists cultivated the civilizing responsibility and its attendant imperial identity as their own modern womanly and secular burden. (13)

Costuming / Consumerism

In addition to overt forms of costuming, suffrage feminists performed an outward display of insurgency via their clothing and jewellery. In the aforementioned words of Bartley, many women dressed in anticipation of countering hostile public generalisation that equated militancy with masculinity. Accordingly, they ensured that while committing acts of protest, they were dressed demurely. Clothing or adorning oneself in this sense is a ritual process; a meticulous selection of attire in order to project of specific image for political communication that adopts the physical accoutrements associated with participation in a ceremonial environment.

The primary means by which one acquired the attire of the sisterhood was via speciality shops, although catalogues and advertisements in suffragette newspapers also pointed one in the right direction. Jewellery was also presented to members to mark notable events, such as the specially commissioned pendant made for Louise Eates on her release from prison, which depicted the ‘Angel of Freedom’ (Crawford 309). The first pieces of jewellery made for and sold by the WSPU appeared in 1908 and included a Boadicea brooch based on Thornycroft’s statue. Emmeline Pankhurst was photographed in 1909 wearing the brooch (Crawford 506) and other women, including Elsie Howey, wore it for formal photographic portraits.

The Boadicea brooch was often a gift and hence an item imbued with emotion and meaning in addition to its expression of sisterhood.

Nine year old Bessie Watson received a Boadicea brooch for playing the bagpipes for a WSPU historical pageant on October 9, 1909 in Edinburgh. As an old woman, Bessie gave the brooch to Margaret Thatcher to commemorate her election as Prime Minister in 1979. Both acts of ‘giving the brooch’ – to Bessie as a child by Christabel Pankhurst and to Margaret Thatcher by Bessie as an adult – illustrate the symbolic value attached to the Boadicea brooch as well as the attendant ritual performativity inherent in rites of bestowment.

Outside (Mis)appropriations

The use of Boadicea was also a strategic device taken-up by those outside the movement. In newspaper and magazine articles as well as cartoons, the women’s connection with Boadicea was employed for purposes both praiseworthy and negative. A report on a rally on June 21, 1908, for example, was described accordingly:

The Women Suffragists provided London yesterday with one of the most wonderful and astonishing sights that have ever been seen since the days of Boadicea. ... It is probable that so many people never before stood in one square mass anywhere in England. (Daily Express, June 21, 1908: 248)

Similarly, Christabel Pankhurst was described as ‘A Boadicea of Politics’ in the popular London journal The Bystander in its April edition of 1908 in a feature article on her. The article is a positive endorsement of her politics and passion and like the coverage in the Daily Express, successfully appropriates one of the major symbols of the movement’s rhetoric – Boadicea – to champion its cause from an ‘outsider’s’ perspective.

Not all such treatments were positive, however. Two cartoons by W. K. Haselden in the Daily Mirror show the satirical power inherent in the misappropriation of such a potent protest symbol. In the first one, printed on June 27, 1907, ‘The Weather v. The Pageants,’ Boadicea is a soggy heroine in her chariot and Lady Godiva is dishevelled as she huddles under an umbrella while the ‘Princes in the Tower’ ferry her and her horse in a little boat.


Pageants are being planned all over the country without reference to the weather. It is suggested that with a little alteration, if it rains, the pageants can be changed into marine affairs, or exhibitions referring to Noah and the flood.

– is a snide comment on the weather that plagued marches such as the aptly-named ‘Mud March’ (9 February 1907).

In the second cartoon, printed in the Daily Mirror on February 27, 1913, Haselden again plays with the heroic icons of the movement, inversing their revered qualities in ‘Female heroism in ancient and modern times.’

This cartoon shows revered icons on the left – the Roman Matron, Joan of Arc and Boadicea – and juxtaposes each one with a modern equivalent – Mrs Crankhurst, Miss Joan Arson and Mrs Hammer-Glass. As the Roman Matron interacts with a Roman military leader, Mrs Crankhurst attacks a policeman. As Joan of Arc burns at the stake, Miss Joan Arson sets fire to a house. As Boadicea charges, spear in hand, Miss Hammer-Glass smashes a window.


Figures such as Boadicea were a means by which suffrage feminists created a past to make sense of a present and in order to present themselves – fully armed – to a hostile as well as a welcoming public. Of course this process was a particular strategy of militants, yet Boadicea also had appeal to women such as Cicely Hamilton and Millicent Garrett Fawcett who did not align themselves with militancy but advocated, particularly in the case of Fawcett, a constitutional approach. In this sense, the analysis of Boadicea undertaken herein suggests the fluidity of suffrage associations and the commonalities that united the women. Thus Boadicea provided a heroic service, providing a role and role model most suitable to a fighting spirit but flexible enough to inspire a gentler performativity as well.


Thank you to Elizabeth Crawford for her generous advice during my research on this paper and to the anonymous referees for excellent suggestions. I am also grateful to The University of Newcastle (Australia), particularly Professor Mike Calford, who selected me to participate in the Emerging Research Leaders program, which financed much-needed archival research at The Women’s Library, London. During my research at the Library in 2012, I received exceptional support from staff at a time when this wonderful resource was under threat. I hope its relocation, from the London Metropolitan University to the London School of Economics, maintains the consummate level of access and professional services I experienced.



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Image 1: Thomas Thornycroft, Boadicea (1902). Courtesy of Bob Speel.
Image 2: ‘Pageant of Great Women’ (1909). Left to right: Joan of Arc, Boadicea, the Rhani of Jhansi and Agnes Dunbar. Courtesy of the Daily Mirror.
Image 3: ‘Men will never be ruled by women,’ Votes for Women, September 2, 1910. Courtesy of The Women’s Library.
Image 4: ‘“Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.” – Byron,’ Votes for Women, November 18, 1910. Courtesy of The Women’s Library.
Image 5: ‘Fighting the Spirit,’ Votes for Women, June 28, 1912. Courtesy of The Women’s Library.
Image 6: Theodore Blake Wirgman, untitled. Courtesy of The Women’s Library
Image 7: Elsie Howey. Courtesy of Bath in Time, Bath Central Library.
Image 8: ‘The Weather v. The Pageants,’ Daily Mirror, June 27, 1907. Courtesy of Mirrorpix.
Image 9: ‘Female heroism in ancient and modern times,’ Daily Mirror, February 27, 1913. Courtesy of Mirrorpix. 



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