Over 100 years ago, the students of Newnham and Girton Colleges created a protest banner to march in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ procession of 13 June 1908. A treasured College possession, the original banner is kept safely in climate-controlled conditions. Now a replica of the protest banner hangs proudly in the new Iris Café.
Handmade from silk, velvet, with embroidery and silver paint, the huge banner was a demonstration of the young women’s talents and commitment to the suffragist cause. It was carried by a Cambridge contingent of 400 women in the great suffrage procession of 13 June 1908 and in several processions thereafter. They were joined by women carrying banners representing cities, counties, countries, professions, Universities, and much more. Banners had been widely used by trade unions as a symbol of solidarity, but the suffragist banners took a deliberately different approach. The silk, velvet and embroidery was a deliberate transformation of the traditionally feminine to the explicitly political.
Over the years, the skills and techniques to make these beautiful banners have been lost. In the centenary year of women’s suffrage, Annabel O’Docherty, a specialist in historical dress and a professional theatrical costume maker, decided to take up the challenge. She painstakingly analysed and uncovered the original techniques to create the replica banner. The result was so successful that she created two banners – one each for Newnham and Girton, the two original women’s colleges at the University of Cambridge.
The silver irises, shown clearly in the photo above, are the symbol of Newnham, and the daisies represent Girton. The text reads “Cambridge Alumnae: Better is wisdom than weapons of war”, a reminder of the students’ commitment to social change through peaceful means. The central image of the bridge, ships and book represents the University of Cambridge as a whole: a bold statement for women who could not officially be part of the University.
Now, once again, thanks to Annabel’s expertise and dedication, the banner can be displayed for everyone visiting the College to see: a reminder of the social changes that Newnham students and alumnae have been part of over our history.