The idea of making a fuss is an anathema to me. And I’m certainly not a parade or protest kind of person – making a fuss in public, in a crowd. I don’t think so.
It was a surprise even to me, then, to find myself gathering in a car park with a mixed bunch of nearly 100 suffragettes, some in full Edwardian, and some, like me, in a random selection of violet, green and white. This wasn’t a protest march, it was a cheery community parade for Macclesfield’s regular Barnaby Festival, but nonetheless I was uneasy as I greeted friends, adjusted costumes and waited to set off. This really isn’t my kind of thing, and I might have made my excuses if something hadn’t happened the day before to strengthen my resolve.
Escaping the festival frazzle, the green quiet of a walk from Litton, in the Peak District, was a moment to push my mind into a more expansive space where history has clicked forward century by century, and nature rolls on in the patterns of new life, old life, compost.
The ramsons are over but you still get a faint whiff of their rotting garlicky smell in the woods, and the champion and ox eye daisy are rampant this year. A mandarin duck dips in and out of the leafy shallows with her impossibly tiny chicks and the craggy limestone battlements stand where they’ve stood for millennia.
And then, one of those moments of enchantment – the well dressing at Cressbrook.
Prompted by signs, we eventually found the dressed well tucked away in a little common space next to a community garden and accessed by footpaths. They’d themed it ‘Women hold Up Half the World’ in memory of a member of the community.
The notes that accompanied the dressing enjoined us to consider that “Women have given, and continue to give, as much as men, and their potential, contribution and voices need to be recognised if nations and communities are to flourish”. It encouraged us to think about how we can further that potential today, recognising that while some of us work under a relatively clear blue sky, many hold up the sky in much, much tougher circumstances, and yet they do so, and yet they continue.
Coming 100 years after some women finally received the vote, and especially when there’s still so much to do, a bit of public parading suddenly seemed like a small thing.
And having done it, I learned something else too. Walking shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers; singing a traditional suffragette song; shouting out “No. More. Unequal Pay!” just out of sync with the others and thinking about how far we’ve come, I found myself welling up. Not once, but several times. Awkward. But something about standing together, walking in the footsteps of brave and angry women, shouting out for change, was a profound and moving experience, even when it was a bit of fun.
So, I think I get it. Marching, protesting. Even if I’m well aware that dressing up in an unusual colour scheme and waving a banner is a considerable gloss on what the suffragettes felt they had to do. I’m noticing that recently people are marching again on a scale they haven’t done for some time in the UK. For the NHS, against Trump, against austerity, and even in Macclesfield later this month there’ll be our first Pride event. Of course the effectiveness of protests can be endlessly debated, and they achieve many different things varying from community fun to vicious confrontations, and everything in between. But one person’s nuisance is another person’s justice, and sometimes you have to stand with other people in order to be heard. A crowd will never be an easy place for me to be, but sometimes, I do see, you have to be prepared to make a fuss.
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