Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth

Composer and member of the suffrage movement 1911
Composed ‘The March of the Women’

‘Because I have conducted my own operas and love sheep-dogs; because I generally dress in tweeds; …because I have written books, spoken speeches, broadcast, and don’t always make sure that my hat is on straight; for these and other equally pertinent reasons, in a certain sense I am well known.’ Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth was an English composer and writer. In 1910 she was very famous and Durham University gave her an Honorary Doctorate for her musical achievements. She had also fallen in love with Emmeline Pankhurst. The women were both 52 years old.

Pankhurst had started the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). It believed in ‘Deeds, not words’. Smyth decided to stop her own work and give two years’ service to the suffragettes. The suffragette movement needed a song for their members. Ethel wrote ‘The March of the Women’ for them. It was presented to Pankhurst at a WSPU meeting.

The first performance of the song was at the Albert Hall in London on March 23, 1911. It was then sung at meetings and on marches.

The sheet music for ‘The March of the Women’
The words were by Cecily Hamilton.

She had co-founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League and wrote popular women’s suffrage plays.

The Front cover of a booklet for ‘The March of the Women’.
Picture from the Lewis Orchard Collection Ref.9180, Surrey History Centre.

The opening words of the song.
Shout, shout, up with your song!
Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking;
March, march, swing you along,
Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking

You can listen to the song online

A booklet included the words and music. People could carry it easily, and it could be given out at meetings. Designer and socialist Mary “May” Morris designed the cover. May was the daughter of William Morris. It was produced in1911 and dedicated to the WSPU.

Smyth on stage at a WSPU meeting in 1912.
Picture from The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library

In 1912 the WSPU had a new campaign. They decided to smash the windows of houses and offices of people who did not want women to vote. They chose shops, and political offices in central London. At precisely 5:30 p.m. on March 1st hundreds of women pulled hammers and rocks out of their handbags and started throwing. Pankhurst and Smyth were there too. Both women were arrested along with over a hundred other women.

Smyth was sent to Holloway Prison for two months, though she was only there for three weeks. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited her. He was Smyth’s friend. He saw suffragettes in the prison yard singing ‘The March of the Women’. Smyth put her arm out through the bars of her prison cell and conducted the music with a toothbrush. That was Ethel Smyth!

Ethel was a strong fighter for equality, whether it was equal votes for women or dealing with the men running classical music. She broke the windows of politicians who were against votes for women. She also cracked the glass ceiling of one of America’s most famous concert halls: The Metropolitan Opera. She wrote six operas! No other British composer had done that at the time. You can listen to her work online.

The writer Claire Tomalin said, ‘Ethel’s work did not stand in the way of her social activities, or her many passionate friendships. Throughout her life, she loved intensely, without regard to age or gender. She did defy – or perhaps rather ignore – all the stereotypes of her time, whether in matters of work, sex, class or even manners.’

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