It’s no secret that I like historical comics; my first piece for What’cha Reading was a review of a comic biography about Ben Franklin. I come from a family that devours biographies like candy, and two degrees in history give me more than a touch of professional curiosity, no matter the historical subject. So when I come across a historical title in the releases for a week, I’m more than likely to review it. This was the case with Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, published in the US by Dark Horse Comics.
I’ve always considered myself a feminist and have a deep respect for the women who came before me and fought to get me the right to vote. As the title would suggest, Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is about exactly that, albeit across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom. Following the title character, who is involved in the suffrage movement for a large portion of her life, we learn that the British struggle for women’s suffrage was every bit as difficult as the American one. Sally begins as a servant in the home of Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the major names in the suffrage movement. When the Pankhursts move to London, Sally goes too and ends up working as a seamstress at a dressmaking co-op run by Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, a key member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.), the organization Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters were also associated with. These two Emmelines followed very different paths in their quest for women’s suffrage: Pankhurst took a more militant approach, especially after World War I broke out, and Pethwick-Lawrence stayed true to the original pacifist beliefs of the W.S.P.U. The character Sally Heathcote tries both approaches during the years of struggle, giving a picture of the movement as a whole.
A lot happens in the decades this book covers. There were years of disappointment for the suffragettes as they tried various approaches to getting the vote and were denied at every turn by Parliament. They were viciously punished for their attempts to get a voice in government: thrown in prison as criminals, denied political prisoner status, and force-fed when they tried hunger strikes to make themselves heard (as a side note, the term “force fed” has lost some of its meaning to a modern audience, I think—these women had tubes forced up their noses or down their throats, in some cases puncturing the esophagus, or resulting in infection, and liquified food was poured down the tube—the creative team brought this vividly to life). There was also the so-called “Cat and Mouse Act,” where prisoners weakened by hunger strikes were released on license and could resume their normal lives until they were arrested for actively participating in the suffrage movement again; the basic idea was that the prisoners would go out, get healthy and eat normal foods again, only to be brought back into prison and tortured with force feedings when they were arrested again. A truthful and not-very-flattering portrait of the government and politicians of the time emerges as a result.
One of the things I’ve always disliked about election days in the US is that so many women just don’t turn out to vote, completely disregarding what earlier generations went through to get us this right. Sally Heathcote has a nod to this; the end of the book has a flash forward to Sally’s nursing home in 1969, where she is discussing that the government is lowering the voting age to 18 with her granddaughter, who will thus be able to vote. Her response is sure to surprise, and give even more weight to the plight of the suffrage movement.
See the rest of the preview at darkhorse.com
Sally Heathcote is really well-done social history that I think should be on the required reading list in schools everywhere, and should be read by adults as well. The artwork, black and white drawings with pops of color to draw attention to certain things such as Sally’s red hair, or the purple, white, and green banners of the W.S.P.U., is a nice reminder that although we tend to imagine the events of the early 1900s in black and white, the people who lived then and the issues they faced were as vibrant as we are today, and we still have a lot in common with them. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a timely reminder that so-called “rights” weren’t given freely, they had to be fought for. It’s a fight that’s still going on. I give Sally Heathcote 4.5 out of 5 Lightning Bolts.
SALLY HEATHCOTE: SUFFRAGETTE
Writer: Mary M. Talbot
Artists: Kate Charlesworth, Bryan Talbot
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: September 24, 2014
Format: Graphic Novel
Cover Price: $19.99