Visible Women

Why did the suffragettes carve protest messages into coins?

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Harriet Hall
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The suffragettes were known for their militant tactics to secure the vote, but one item at the British Museum tells a new story. Harriet Hall heads to the archives to find out more. 

Following years of peaceful suffragist protests for women’s enfranchisement, Emmeline Pankhurst and her suffragettes advocated militant action. They infamously tied themselves to railings, smashed windows with toffee hammers and staged hunger strikes in prison.

But did you know that the suffragettes also emblazoned coins with their feminist agenda? Stylist headed to the British Museum to meet curator of modern money, Thomas Hockenhull, who took us behind the scenes to see one.

Made in 1903, the penny is stamped with the suffragette slogan ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’. It’s thought to have been branded with the radical message in around 1913 or 1914, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.

Hand-pressed and crudely off-kilter, the words run across the head of then-monarch Edward VII. The tiny letters are all individually stamped, in a style that Hockenhull likens to messages placed on coins by anarchists around the same time.

Suffragette coin, 1913-1914

It’s not known exactly how many coins like this are in existence. However, the practice of pressing the suffragettes’ message into currency would have taken time and effort, so it’s presumed that very few were made – and moreover, that they were made by just one person, in secret.

Around the same time this coin is thought to have been stamped, Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby, brandishing a suffragette flag in her desperate fight for the vote. Compared with a protest like that, an emblazoned coin might seem like a rather small act of rebellion.

But in fact, stamping coins was a direct attempt to subvert the power of the monarch and an act that would have been punishable by law. Even today, defacing currency remains a crime in the Currency and Bank Notes Act of 1928 and defacing the head of the monarch could theoretically see the perpetrator handed a hefty fine.

The marking of this coin with a political message, says Hockenhull, is a “deliberate targeting of the king, as the constitutional monarch and head of the Church of England, that could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country.”

Watch the video below to go behind the scenes at the British Museum and learn more about this unique piece of history.

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

This coin will be on display at the British Museum as part of a major exhibition exploring how people have used objects in protest and subversion. I, Object, runs from 6 September 2018 – 20 January 2019.