Professor of Literary History and Women's Writing remembers an extraordinary musical episode

Published: 16 September 2009 at 13:23

Mary Joannou, Professor of Literary History and Women's Writing at Anglia Ruskin University, celebrated her inaugural professorial lecture last week in style by conducting Ethel Smyth's The March of the Women with a toothbrush to a packed audience at Anglia Ruskin University’s Mumford Theatre in Cambridge.

Her lecture, Resources of Hope: the Cultural Legacy of the Women’s Suffrage Movement focused on a specific moment in history when, in 1912, Sir Thomas Beecham found the composer Ethel Smyth, imprisoned in Holloway for throwing a stone through the window of Lewis Harcourt, the Colonial Secretary, for saying that he would have no objection to women having the vote if they were all as well-balanced as his wife.  Beecham found England’s best-known woman composer, conducting the suffragette anthem, The March of the Women, from her prison cell using her toothbrush as an improvised baton. Smyth was one of 1000 women imprisoned in a campaign that mobilised unprecedented numbers of artists, musicians, playwrights, authors, actors and intellectuals in its support. Ninety years after women’s suffrage was achieved in 1918, Professor Joannou reflected on its significance for the arts using  illustrations drawn from art, photography, film, music, dance, literature and drama before inviting her audience to ‘put our sophisticated postmodernists selves to the side for a moment’ and enjoy  a little fun.  

Wearing the suffragette colours of purple, white and green to re-enact the celebrated performance Professor Joannou explained:

"l believe in new ways of remembering, commemorating and memorialising.' l wanted to raise the symbolic amount of five hundred pounds that Virginia Woolf mentions in A Room of One's Own but am delighted to have raised twice that much for the Cambridge Women's  Resources Centre’s  bursary fund.  The centre has been a room of their own for countless women in Cambridge for over twenty-five years."