“The March of the Women” was a song composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton. It became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and more widely the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Activists sang it not only at rallies but also in prison while they were on hunger strike. Smyth produced a number of different arrangements of the work.
Ethel Smyth composed the song in 1910, as a unison song with optional piano accompaniment, with words by Cicely Hamilton. Smyth based the melody for on a traditional tune she had heard in Abruzzo, Italy. She dedicated the song to the WSPU. In January 1911, the WSPU’s newspaper, Votes for Women, described the song as “at once a hymn and a call to battle”.
“The March of the Women” was first performed on 21 January 1911, by the Suffrage Choir, at a ceremony held on Pall Mall, London, to celebrate a release of activists from prison. Emmeline Pankhurst introduced the song as the WSPU’s official anthem, replacing “The Women’s Marseillaise”. The latter song was a setting of words by WSPU activist Florence Macaulay to the tune of the La Marseillaise.
On 23 March 1911 the song was performed at a rally in the Royal Albert Hall. Smyth was ceremonially presented with a baton by Emmeline Pankhurst, and proceeded to conduct the whole gathering in singing it. Smyth was active in promoting the performance of the song throughout the WSPU’s membership. It became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement throughout the United Kingdom.
The ‘March’ was sung by suffragettes in prison, most famously in 1912, at Holloway Prison, after many women activists were imprisoned as a result of a window-smashing campaign. Smyth had been arrested as part of this action, having broken the window of Lewis Harcourt, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. The conductor Thomas Beecham visited Smyth in prison and reported that he found the activists in the courtyard “…marching round it and singing lustily their war-chant while the composer, beaming approbation from an overlooking upper window, beat time in almost Bacchic frenzy with a toothbrush.”
While imprisoned in April 1913, Emmeline Pankhurst undertook a hunger strike which she did not expect to survive. She told Smyth that at night she would feebly sing “The March of the Women” and another of Smyth’s compositions, “Laggard Dawn”.
Words to The March of the Women
Under the title of the song is the subtitle,
“Dedicated to the Women’s Social and Political Union.”
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.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! they call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells,
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!
Long, long—we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong—stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these—beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.
Comrades—ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned—nought have ye cared,
Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail—victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!
Life, strife—those two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on—that ye have done
But for the work of today preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.
Ethel Smyth was a prolific writer of both music and words. Born on April 23, 1858 in England in Rectory (Middlesex), London, or Foots Gray (Kent), depending on the source, she lived an exciting and productive life as an independent woman who actively pursued her many talents.
A prolific composer, Ethel Smyth composed a wide variety of music including chamber music, chorals, instrumental music, and operas, as well as orchestral, piano, and vocal pieces. She conducted much of her music and even broadcasted some of it. Ethel Smyth also wrote many books, plays, librettos (some in German), articles, and essays.
An activist in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900’s, Smyth also composed the song used as the anthem for this suffrage movement, March of the Women. She developed deep friendships with many influential figures of her day including Virginia Woolf, Empress Eugenie, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Vita Sackville-West.
More on Ethel and her music and life at:
Actress, writer, journalist, suffragist and feminist, Cicely Mary Hamilton supplied the lyrics of “The March of the Women”. She is now best known for the play How the Vote was Won.
Born in Paddington, London and educated in Malvern, Worcestershire. After a short spell in teaching she acted in a touring company, wrote drama, including feminist themes, and enjoyed a period of success in the commercial theatre.
In 1908 she and Bessie Hatton founded the Women Writers’ Suffrage League. This grew to around 400 members, including Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sarah Grand, Violet Hunt, Marie Belloc Lowndes, Alice Meynell, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Sharp, May Sinclair and Margaret L. Woods. It produced campaigning literature, written by Sinclair amongst others, and recruited many prominent male supporters.
In the days before radio, one effective way to get a message out into society and to have it discussed was to produce short plays that could be performed around the country, and so suffrage drama was born. Elizabeth Robins’s Votes for Women and Cicely Hamilton and Christopher St. John’s How the Vote Was Won are two predominant examples of the genre. Hamilton also wrote A Pageant of Great Women, a highly successful women’s suffrage play based on the ideas of her friend, the theatre director Edith Craig. Hamilton played Woman while Craig played the painter Rosa Bonheur, one of the 50 or so great women in the play. It was produced all over the UK from 1909 until the First World War. Hamilton was a member of Craig’s theatre society, the Pioneer Players. Her play Jack and Jill and a Friend was one of the three plays in the Pioneer Players’ first production in May 1911.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online