Friday, January 6, 2012

95. Suffragette-Defaced Penny (England, AD 1903)

Nonviolent resistance. And Women’s Rights!
For an object that’s in many ways whimsical, and certainly positive all around—is this the first object in our history whose story doesn’t involve war or hurting people or ripping people off or excluding people from a group?—it’s nice that this touches on two of the most important trends of the ultra-violent, terrible twentieth century. Nonviolent resistance went, in the century when many of us lived the majority of our years (in 2028 I’ll have lived more of my life in the 21st than I did in the 20th), from something people may have thought or talked about, particularly Christians, to being a huge political force with significant accomplishments to its credit. If you’re ever getting depressed and full of despair, remember the accomplishments of nonviolent politics in India, in the American South, and in terms of women’s rights.

This suffragette-defaced penny is an awesome object. As MacGregor points out, there’s a genius at work here. As PR and as aesthetics, whoever came up with this strategy deserves the highest possible accolades. The goal of this PR stunt was simple: get out the message, “VOTES FOR WOMEN.” (In Edwardian England, although more and more men were being given the vote, not only were women as a gender denied the vote, the entire social structure was built around women being delicate, gentle, pointless ninnies who couldn’t be asked to comprehend the issues, because that would limit their ability to command the pedestals on which they were placed. This policy prevented anyone of the male gender from being delicate et. al. and strictly limited all female behavior to an absurdly narrow compass, with consequences I suspect we’re still suffering from.) The genius simplicity of the stunt is that by putting the message on pennies, it ensures that lots of people will see the message. Posters can be torn down, newspapers can be censored, there wasn’t any radio or tv; but pennies had such little value, the government wouldn’t have wasted the money recalling them. With 13 hammer strokes (each letter was applied to each penny separately) a penny could be defaced for life, and untold zillions of people would see the message. It’s an aesthetic triumph, too, because as you can see the message is going straight into the king’s ear—on the penny, if not in real life. If you turn this penny over (I didn’t, and don’t have a photograph so you’ll have to take my word for it) on the other side you see “Britannica,” your typical figurehead-mascot Statue of Liberty-type-chick: the woman on a pedestal, fantasized right out of reality. On our side, you see a very real woman, with crude but powerful weapons, making her voice heard.

MacGregor’s podcast goes into a few details of the suffragette movement, including the time Ethyl Smythe conducted her “March of the Suffragettes” from her prison cell with a toothbrush. (I’m sorry to say he doesn’t play my personal favorite, the suffragette anthem written by the Sherman Brothers for Disney’s Mary Poppins, “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, / And dauntless crusaders for women’s votes!” And more to the point, he interviews a lawyer who asks the most important question about civil disobedience: When have you gone too far? She answers, simply, it’s all fine till someone gets hurt; nonviolent resistance should not cause harm (to others; gets a bit more complicated with martyrs like Jesus). I’m sure you can take college classes discussing the ethics of it, I wish I had, but presumably common sense can get you some ways down this road, too.


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