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If ever there was a black sheep it’s Ethel Smyth.
Born in 1858, she made up her mind at the age of 12 to devote her life to music. She overcame her father’s vehement opposition to go to Germany in 1877 to study composition in the classical tradition. In 1890, she debuted her Serenade in D. In 1893 her Mass in D was performed at the Royal Albert Hall. Ethel wrote no less than six operas and in 1922 she was made a Dame of the British Empire (B.D.E.), the female equivalent of knighthood, for her services to music.
By then, however, her hearing had failed her. She turned to writing. She wrote ten books in all, most of which are memoirs, including dealing with the difficulty of getting published and performed as a female artists.
She was also an accomplished sportswoman. She played cricket and tennis and golf to a high standard at a time when men believed exercise was bad for women. She was also a horseback rider, avid hiker, and mountain climber.
And through it all, Dame Ethel Smyth was an activist and champion for women’s rights, in particular, for their right to vote. The story goes that when in 1910 Ethel heard Emmeline Pankhurst speak for the first time, she suspended her musical activities for two years — right then and there — to devote her energies to the movement.
She and her fellow suffragettes got the attentions they desired one evening in 1912. At precisely 5:30pm, a relay of women all over London simultaneously pulled hammers from their muffs and handbags and smashed up windows along all the big thoroughfares, buoyed by the knowledge that Mrs Pankhurst was then aiming a stone at the home of Prime Minister Asquith, 10 Downing Street. Sadly, “Emmeline was no cricketer,” said Ethel. “Her stone fell harmlessly in the area” of the PM’s address. But Ethel’s stone met its mark, crashing through the window of an anti-suffrage politician living at Berkeley Square.
Nearly 200 women were arrested that evening. Ethel was sentenced to two months in prison where she wrote and rehearsed, forming a ready chorus among the other detainees, The March of Women. Dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), It would become the battle cry of the suffragette movement. When her friend, the conductor Thomas Beecham, visited Ethel in prison, he saw her leaning out the window of her cell, conducting the suffragettes as they practiced their anthem in the exercise yard with nothing by a toothbrush for a baton.
On 21 November 1918, the UK Parliament granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities — about 8.4 million British women benefited.
They would have to wait until 1928 to be able to vote at the same age as men: 21. Dame Ethel Smyth worked hard for that success too.
During WWI, Ethel trained and was deployed as a radiographer. That’s she first started writing her memoir, as it was impossible to compose music while at war. It was literature that would eventually propel her into the world of Virginia Woolf.
Smyth had several romantic passions, mostly with women, and described her sexuality as an “everlasting puzzle.” She once told her friend and beau Henry Brewster that it was “easier for me to love my own sex passionately, rather than yours.” Ethel rejected Henry’s offer of marriage, while maintaining it was the most important relationship of her life. But Ethel like women and made no secret about it. She frequently wore male attire, and at the tender age of 71 fell in love with Virginia Woolf.
Dame Ethel Smyth is an LGBT history icon. An author, athlete, musician, and activist, she was above all brave for throughout her lifetime in Britain, it was illegal to be gay or lesbian.
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