Meet Ethel Smyth, the 20th-century composer who was also a suffragette and political activist

25 June 2021, 11:59 | Updated: 25 June 2021, 12:07

Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth was born in 1858 and rose to become one of the most prominent composers of the time – as well as a leading figure in the movement for women’s suffrage. Today to mark the centenary of women being given the vote in the UK, we take a look at her remarkable life

When Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act in 1918, for the first time in the UK, some women were given the right to vote (though by no means all – and they had to be over 30. It would be ten more years before women were given the vote on the same terms as men).

But did you know that one of the most prominent composers of the early 20th century was also a suffragette?

Dame Ethel Smyth studied at the Leipzig Conservatory where she met composers including Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Clara Schumann and Brahms.

Among her most famous works are the opera The Wreckers and her Mass in D.

Dame Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth at a Women's Social & Political Union (WSPU) meeting, 1912. Picture: The Women’s Library collection, LSE Library

But her life also coincided with a time of great political change, and Ethel was not one to sit on the sidelines.

In 1911 she wrote ‘The March of the Women’, dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst. It became the official anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union and suffragettes around the world took up Ethel’s rallying cry. The words are by Cicely Hamilton.

Read more: Composer and political activist Dame Ethel Smyth is officially a Grammy winner

Ethel Smyth March of the Women

It opens with the forthright cry:

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

And like many activists, Ethel was herself imprisoned – for throwing a rock through a window of the Houses of Parliament. More precisely, her rock went through the window of the office of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lewis Harcourt, whose views on women Ethel and the suffragettes… took some issue with.

Read more: 21 of the greatest women composers in classical music

Thomas Beecham visited the composer in Holloway Prison in 1912 and found her conducting her fellow inmates with a toothbrush.

“I arrived in the main courtyard of the prison to find the noble company of martyrs 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”.

By the 1930s, Ethel had been made a Dame and was so well-regarded that Beecham conducted a concert to celebrate her 75th birthday at the Royal Albert Hall – and the Queen was in the audience.

Today, more than 100 years since the first steps towards women’s suffrage, why not discover the music of this remarkable composer?