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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright

| 4 June 2017 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Miss Muriel Matters by Robert Wainwright
ABC Books
April 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction/Biographies & True Stories

Muriel Matters is a name we should all know but probably don’t. She was an inspiring woman, activist, and social re-former who played a vital role in the suffrage movement. Journalist and author Robert Wainwright has penned her biography, Miss Muriel Matters, and it’s a book that should restore Muriel’s name to the history books as it celebrates the stuff that truly, ahem, matters.

Robert Wainwright is no stranger to writing biographies about famous Australians. In recent times his focus has been on lost chapters of Australian history. So while readers may be familiar with the work of suffragettes like Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison they may not know about an Adelaide born actress turned activist named Muriel Matters or her work in the movement.

Miss Matters left Australia in 1905 to pursue an acting career in London. In time she developed a following and a reputation as a fine elocutionist. Women living in South Australia had been granted the right to vote in 1894. But over a decade later Matters was shocked to discover that her English counterparts had still not received this basic right.

For months she had been attending meetings at Caxton Hall, a red-brick and pink-sandstone building in Westminster which would become the headquarters of the women’s suffrage campaign. For the most part she had been a silent observer – ‘drinking in rebellious sentiments, longing with all my heart to be with you’, as she would later write – but as the demands grew louder and the street protests more raucous, Muriel Matters was ready to add her own voice to the campaign.

The history and details of the different suffrage groups are described by Wainwright, including Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the Women’s Freedom League (or WFL, which was founded by former members of the WSPU). In 1908 the WFL had a motto, manifesto, and campaign ready but they were lacking in supporters and funding. The group decided to enlist two of its members to ride a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside to canvas new members. It was not an easy job, venturing into the unknown and risking the comfort and safety of home. Matters would reveal that she wore a raincoat in order to be prepared just in case rotten eggs and fish were thrown by protesters. But the work of Matters and her colleague, a 55-year-old veteran suffrage campaigner named Lilian Hicks, proved to be a resounding success.

The wooden van, painted bright green and emblazoned with the white slogans Women’s Freedom League, Votes for Women and Women’s Suffrage, was spartan inside: two camp beds, a writing table and small stove, and a tiny bookshelf stuffed with guides and maps.
But this was not about comfort. There was a message of hope and optimism to be delivered, friends to be found and brought into the fold. Personal sacrifice was a necessary part of the journey.

This work by Matters was pretty remarkable in and of itself, but it was also just the tip of the iceberg. Later that year she would stage a peaceful protest in the House of Commons. Matters chained herself to a grille that separated the women’s viewing area from where the main debates took place. In doing so, she became the first woman to speak in the UK’s lower house of parliament.

Muriel’s commanding tones rang out across the great hall in what history would mark as the first speech ever by a woman in the House of Commons, her words instinctive rather than rehearsed, but the message loud, clear and effective:
“Mr Speaker, members of the Il-Liberal government. We have sat behind this insulting grille for too long. It is time you ceased to legislate merely on effects, it behoves you to deal with primary causes. You are discussing a domestic question, and it is time that the women of England were given a voice in legislation which affects them as much as it affects men. We demand the vote.”

The following year the WFL were banned from distributing leaflets in the streets, which called for “Votes for Women.” So Matters risked life and limb by flying into the skies in a blimp decorated with the same slogan. When this aircraft was flown off-course she dropped the leaflets from the sky instead.

As we could not get a footing on earth we thought we had better secure on in the heavens. Accordingly, I went up in an airship and, needless to say, I was quite unmolested by police as their regulations do not extend up there. You see, there are still some limitations to man’s authority.

Miss Muriel Matters is a detailed look at the extraordinary life of this remarkable activist. It is by no means a definitive work because some questions remain unanswered, as some of the information has been lost in the passage of time. Hopefully the next work to star Miss Matters is a fictional story inspired by her life so that some of the gaps can be filled.

Robert Wainwright has ultimately done a great job of piecing together lost history and constructing a rather engaging and chronological look at Matters’ life thanks to research and gathered information contained in contemporary newspapers and suffrage publications. The result is no mean feat and this book is a rather detailed portrait of one complex and astonishing character who need not be lost to the annals of history anymore.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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