Why you should care
Because Mary Richardson was one of the leaders of British women’s suffrage, but her violent strain of activism and controversial politics kept her out of the spotlight … until now.
One hundred years ago today, with the shadow of war looming over 1914 London, a small woman dressed in gray entered the National Gallery. She moved quietly through the crowd, unrecognized as the woman who had been shouting slogans and protesting violently for women across Britain.
With an ax under her coat, Richardson approached Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, a painting of the goddess of love admiring herself in a mirror, and started stabbing it.
“I dashed up to the painting. My first blow with the ax merely broke the protective glass…” she later recounted in her autobiography, Laugh a Defiance.
Richardson was responding to the forced removal of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst from a public meeting. “This made me act,” she wrote. “Regardless of the immediate risk, I went out to spend my last shillings on an ax … I had to draw the parallel between the public’s indifference to Mrs. Pankhurst’s slow destruction and the destruction of some financially valuable object.”
My first blow with the ax merely broke the protective glass.
She proceeded to hack at the painting with four blows of her ax before being tackled — and guaranteeing with each slash that her name would live on in infamy.
Mary Richardson was one of the most radical women’s rights activists of her era, and 100 years on, she’s still unrecognized. Violence in the women’s rights movement — from Femen members throwing Molotov cocktails to Pussy Riot being beaten at the Sochi Olympics — has always been controversially understated. What Richardson did that day at the National Gallery, however, would banish her from the history books altogether.
Drawn into the British suffragette movement by her work as a freelance journalist, Canadian-born Richardson was no stranger to violence. Starting from the turn of the century, women hurled rocks through Buckingham Palace windows, burned castles and even set off a bomb in Westminster Abbey — because the British government continued to deny them voting rights. Richardson’s art attack, though, was seen by the press as a personal, mystifying attack.
A year before Richardson attacked the painting, her friend Emily Davison died after running in front of the king’s horse with a suffragette banner at the Epsom Derby. Richardson was there as well and was beaten by men angry with “militant suffragettes” for disrupting the race. In the 1910s, being a women’s rights activist was a dangerous, thankless game.
Even 100 years ago, no one was a black-and-white hero in politics.
But suffrage had a happy (if belated) ending: In Britain, women gained voting equality with men in 1928, eight years after the U.S. passed the 19th Amendment. So why isn’t Mary Richardson a celebrated hero?
The short answer is that well-meant activism doesn’t guarantee sound political morals. Even 100 years ago, no one was a black-and-white hero in politics.
Richardson joined the Labour Party in 1919 as a socialist. She ran for several elected offices with Labour but never got a seat. Later, in 1934, she joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF), an organization set up by Sir Oswald Mosley to promote Nazi-style politics in Britain.
“I was first attracted to the Blackshirts because I saw in them the courage, the action, the loyalty, the gift of service and the ability to serve, which I had known in the suffrage movement,” she wrote in a BUF magazine.
More ’ladylike’ women have dominated our understanding of the early women’s rights movement.
Richardson also represented the less glamorous side of activism, one we still don’t like to acknowledge even several generations later. To advocate the suffragettes’ cause, she was arrested nine times, went on hunger strike, committed several acts of arson and destroyed an expensive national treasure. The press painted her as a crazy militant — a legacy that still haunts Richardson and women’s rights activists today.
Consequently, the history of the suffrage movement often focuses on more moderate women — or, if they didn’t turn the other cheek, their resistance is often edited out in favor of their diplomacy. More “ladylike” women, in other words, have dominated our understanding of the early women’s rights movement.
But Richardson’s political intention and anger still rings through to the present. In taking an ax to Rokeby Venus, she was criticizing the hypocrisy of a culture that valued female beauty over female voices.
“Yes, I am a suffragette,” she declared defiantly to the police who took her away. “You can get another picture, but you cannot get a life, as they are killing Mrs. Pankhurst.”
Perhaps Richardson is a good place to start in reworking our understanding of how radical women can be.