Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament, the major, free exhibition at the Houses of Parliament, follows the story of women’s suffrage through the very building it inhabits. It gathers together objects and documents, often for the first time, alongside interactive displays and recreations of parts of the house many visitors won’t even have heard of
Parliament is in recess, but Voice and Vote continues to 6 October. Don’t be fooled by Big Ben’s silence or the scaffolding around the famous clock tower – you can still get in to see the exhibition.
The sinister-sounding ‘Ventilator’, way up in the loft, was originally built as a way of bringing air to the stuffy chamber below. Women were banned from the public galleries, even for debates they were actively campaigning for, such as the abolition of the slave trade. Visitors can, like generations of women before, stick their heads through the air vents to hear what was going on in the house.
Charles Barry’s new Houses of Parliament, built in 1834 after a devastating fire that, thankfully consumed the Ventilator, was more enlightened and included a Ladies’ Gallery. It was still stuck up high above the Speaker’s Chair and closed off by grilles, in case MPs’ attention was diverted by the presence of women. It was hot and airless, and the women soon nicknamed it the Cage.
The exhibition takes the visitor through all the big-hitter names, such as Millicent Fawcett’s suffragists and Mrs Pankhurst’s suffragettes, but it also covers another group of women less talked about in this year’s commorations – those who fervently believed women shouldn’t have the vote.
Arranged in roughly chronological order, events are examined through documents, objects and photos, some of which, especially those relating to the treatment of suffragette prisoners, can be disturbing.
One of the most famous moments of direct action in the entire women’s suffrage campaign was the night of the 1911 Census when agitator Emily Wilding Davison contrived to spend the night in a basement broom cupboard so she could honestly say she ‘lived’ at the Houses of Parliament. The cupboard’s not accessible to the public, so the replica here is worth experiencing.
The Houses of Parliament are, for obvious reasons, subject to heavy security, so it’s best to book a time-slot online. Do still allow time to clear security however; the process is efficient but busy.