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Te Papa secures rare suffragette medal

A rare bravery medal awarded to New Zealander Frances Parker has been secured by Te Papa in an auction overnight.

Image of the Women's Social and Political Union Medal for Valour is courtesy of Te Papa.

The Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour was awarded to the suffrage activist for her courageous role in the campaign for the for the right of women to vote in Scotland. It was successfully purchased by Te Papa for approximately $40,000 from Auction House Dix Noonan Web in London.

“This bravery medal has an incredibly important story to tell, and is an exciting acquisition for Te Papa,” says Te Papa’s Head of New Zealand and Pacific Cultures Bronwyn Labrum.

“It’s a powerful memento of the ongoing struggle of women around the world for civil rights, and is especially significant for New Zealand as a tangible link to our leading role in that struggle.”

Born in Kurow Otago, 22 year old Frances Parker left New Zealand in 1896 to study at Cambridge, paid for by her Uncle, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener.

By 1908 she had become involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, eventually becoming a prominent leader of the Women’s Political and Social Union in Scotland.

Imprisoned several times for her role in violent protests and attempts to burn down prominent buildings, including the cottage of Robert Burns – Scotland’s national poet, she went on hunger strike in 1912 and 1914, and was subjected to force-feeding which involved acts of physical abuse and indecent assault.

“New Zealand women gained voting rights in 1893, three years before Frances Parker left New Zealand. As a young adult it’s highly likely this motivated her to become active in the campaign for women’s suffrage in Britain,” says Te Papa’s History Curator Michael Fitzgerald.

“This is the only medal of its kind that we know of with any New Zealand connection, we are looking forward to continuing our research into the important leadership role Frances Parker played in one of the most important movements of political and social protest in Britain last century.”

The medal, which is in its original case, is inscribed 'Presented to Frances Parker by the Women's Social and Political Union in Recognition of a Gallant Action, whereby through Endurance to the last Extremity of Hunger and Hardship, a Great Principle of Political Justice was Vindicated'.

Following her death in 1924, Frances Parker left the medal to her friend and co-suffragette Ethel Moorhead. It remained in Ethel Moorhead’s family until it was sold at auction in London on behalf of one of her descendants.

Te Papa is now working to transport the medal to Wellington.

Background

Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour

This medal is associated with the struggle of British women to win voting rights (Suffrage) in the early years of the 20th century. The militant struggle was led by the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.P.S.U), it was intense and marked by acts of violence and courage. Many suffrage activists were arrested and imprisoned, and those who went on hunger strike in protest were subjected to force-feeding.

In the recent film Suffragette, the heroine is seen receiving one of these medals on her release from prison.

Frances Parker

Frances Mary Parker was a New Zealander living in Britain who became a prominent Suffrage activist.

Born in Little Roderick, Kurow, Otago, New Zealand in December 1874, she left New Zealand in 1896 when she was 22, three years after New Zealand granted its women the right to vote, to study at Cambridge – paid for by her Uncle World War One Military Leader Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener.

By 1908 she had become involved in the British women’s suffrage movement, and eventually became a prominent leader of the W.P.S.U. in Scotland where she was involved in violent protests and attempts to burn down prominent buildings. In February 1914 she was arrested for attempting to set fire to the cottage of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet.

In prison, Frances Parker went on hunger strike and was subjected to force-feeding which involved acts of extreme violence and indecencies. Her health collapsed and she was released to a nursing home, from which she escaped.

The medal is a testament to these actions, and was awarded to Parker while she was imprisoned. The obverse of the medal is engraved with the words ‘Hunger Strike’, and the reverse features the following inscriptions: ‘Fed by Force 4/3/12’, ‘Fed by Force 8/7/14’.

With the outbreak of war in August 1914, Frances Parker offered her services to the war effort. The charges against her were dropped and she went on to play an important role in organising women’s war work.

Frances Parker died in France in 1924, following her death she left the medal to her friend and co-suffragette Ethel Moorhead.

The medal remained in Ethel Moorhead’s family until it was sold at auction in London on behalf of one of her descendants.

In the following extract Frances Parker describes her suffering at Perth gaol in the summer of 1914, as published in Votes for Women.

‘I was not fed at midday, but three wardresses came in and made what I suppose was an attempt to feed me by the rectum. I objected and protested against this indignity and struggled as best I could. The manner in which it was done was so unnecessarily painful that I screamed with agony. Later three women tried to give me an enema. Because I would not submit passively to these indignities, after everything was over, one of the women lifted me by the hair and flung me into the far corner of the bed. Another knelt on my chest to prevent me from getting up. She got off again when the first sat down heavily on my knees and said she would not get up until I promised to behave!

Thursday morning, 16th, I was fed again and held down afterwards. I was not fed at midday, but the three wardresses appeared again. One of them said that if I did not resist, she would send the others away and do what she had come to do as gently and decently as possible. I consented. This was another attempt to feed me by the rectum, and was done in a cruel way, causing me great pain.

She returned some time later and said she had “something else” to do. I took it to be another attempt to feed me in the same way, but it proved to be a grosser and more indecent outrage, which could have been done for no other purpose than to torture. It was followed by soreness, which lasted for several days … ’


Updated on 5th May 2016