Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages

How Joan of Arc Inspired Women’s Suffragists

The cover of the program for the 1913 Women's Suffrage Procession in Washington, DC. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/94507639/

This is Part 18 of The Public Medievalist’s special series: Gender, Sexism, and the Middle Ages, by Yvonne Seale. You can find the rest of the series here.

Joan of Arc statue displayed at the WSPU Summer Fair and Fete, 1913. From a postcard produced after Emily Davison’s funeral.

On an evening in June, 1913, Emily Wilding Davison stooped to lay a wreath at the foot of a statue of Joan of Arc. Armor-clad and with raised sword, the saint rendered in white plaster presided over the Suffragette Fair and Festival in the affluent London district of Kensington. The Fair gathered the supporters of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), one of the leading militant suffrage organizations in the United Kingdom in the early twentieth century.

The following afternoon, Davison was trampled beneath the hooves of King George V’s horse. A few days later, she was dead.

She had been trying to stop the horse during the Epsom Derby. She was trying to attach a suffragette flag to its bridle.

Davison’s death drew international press coverage. She was swiftly hailed as a martyr by other militant suffragettes. Thousands gathered to form an honor guard for her coffin on its journey from Victoria Station to the funeral service. One of them, Elsie Howey, rode in costume as Joan of Arc. Many others wielded banners of purple silk on which were stitched words attributed to the medieval saint:

“Fight On, and God Will Give the Victory.”

Elsie Howey as Joan of Arc, 1909.

This was far from the first time that feminists had rallied under the banner of Joan of Arc—whether literally or metaphorically—and it would not be the last.

Joan of Arc: A Useful Saint

Photographic postcard of women and suffragette banners. From Mary Lowndes Album, ca. 1907-1922.

It might seem strange that a prominent suffrage activist like Christabel Pankhurst would  describe Joan of Arc as the “militant woman’s ideal.” After all, Joan died in 1431, many centuries before the idea of extending voting rights to even a small number of well-off white women—let alone working-class white women or women of color—became widely popular. Joan never argued in favor of women’s suffrage. She seems to have been an ardent supporter of the supremacy of the Catholic Church and of the French monarchy. It is doubtful that Joan would have readily sympathized with the suffragists’ democratic ideals.

Still, Joan’s life and legend made her a useful patron saint for the suffragists. A young woman from a peasant background with no military training or connections, she led the force that lifted the Siege of Orléans in 1429, and helped ensure the coronation of Charles VII at Reims a few months later. She was captured by the English, and subjected to a politically motivated trial by a pro-English church court. Famously, she was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake in 1431. Within a generation, an inquisitorial court would revisit her case and reverse the conviction. It would take more than 400 more years for Joan to be formally made a saint by the Catholic Church. She was beatified, the first step in that process, in 1909, with the ultimate canonization taking place in 1920.

The drama of Joan’s short life quickly became fodder for storytellers. They crafted a Joan who was a chaste, virtuous patriot, a martyr for her beliefs, a selfless symbol of national unity and devotion to duty. How much this legend bears any resemblance to the historical Joan has been a matter of significant debate. But once reduced to these broad brushstrokes, Joan became an obvious role model for women. Her adoption as a patron saint of the suffragette movement helped to provide legitimacy to their movement. And at the time this was important; though women’s suffrage is widely celebrated today, at the time many ridiculed and despised the movement.

Even in her own lifetime, Joan attracted the admiration of other women. Christine de Pizan—one of the earliest professional women writers—wrote a poem called Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc in praise of Joan’s patriotism and deeds of arms. This tradition carried on over the generations. Her position as a heroine among women intensified with the growth of the women’s suffrage movement in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1867, the American abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Moore Grimké translated a French biography of Joan and prefaced it with a laudatory introduction. Joan, she wrote, was “superhuman”, “a being sent from a higher sphere to allure and buoy us upward.” And while Joan was herself French and fought the English, Joan rose to particular prominence with British suffragettes.

Joan as a British Women’s Suffrage Icon

During the Victorian era in the mid to late 19th century, British national self-confidence was ever-burgeoning. The sun famously “never set” on an empire that expanded across the globe through bloody wars, maintained itself through fierce colonial oppression, and sent a steady supply of money and resources back to Britain. Many British people embraced a romantic nationalism which was expressed through a nostalgic longing for the Middle Ages—or maybe better put, a fantastical version of the Middle Ages which never really existed. But others used this medievalism not to fuel their nationalistic celebration of Empire, but to fight for political reform.

British suffragettes were therefore primed to seize on Joan as a symbol. True, she had fought against English troops and been killed because of English political pressure; true, she was a French Catholic and not a British Protestant. But for feminist activists, Joan was a woman who uniquely combined Christian idealism with effective militancy.

And so Joan adorned British suffragette banners and pins; became the namesake of the feminist Catholic organization, the St. Joan’s Alliance (founded in London in 1911); and frequently appeared at the head of women’s marches.

Marjorie Annan Bryce dressed as Joan of Arc at the Women’s Coronation Procession, London, 1911

The WSPU-organized Women’s Coronation Procession took place just before George V’s formal accession to the throne in 1911. One of the largest of all the suffrage marches, it brought together some 40,000 women from almost thirty separate suffrage organizations across the Empire. It was headed by Marjorie Annan Bryce, costumed as Joan. The WSPU hoped the procession would gain the king’s approval and galvanize support for a bill then before parliament which would have granted a limited franchise to a small number of wealthy, property-owning women.

It did neither of those things. But, the suffragettes were not deterred. In 1913, three WPSU protestors interrupted a gala opera performance at Covent Garden. The show was, by all accounts, not very good (the Times reviewer wrote scathingly that “a drama with the characters singing and an orchestra to accompany them is not necessarily an opera”). However, it had at least two virtues: one, it was called Joan of Arc, and two, that performance was to be attended by King George and Queen Mary. That made it a prime PR opportunity.

The WPSU members barricaded themselves into a box and, addressing the audience through a megaphone, calling for women’s suffrage and denouncing the so-called “Cat and Mouse” Act which tried to nullify the effects of imprisoned suffragettes’ hunger strikes. They declared that, like Joan, militant suffragettes were being “tortured and done to death, in the name of the King, in the name of the Church” and with the government’s “full knowledge and responsibility.”

Bernard Partridge, “At Last!”. Punch, 23 January, 1918.

This comparison was made by many suffragettes. While on hunger strike herself, WSPU member Mary Richardson wrote that she had “been thinking of Joan of Arc to-day—How marvellous she was all alone, with vile men night and day so tormented.”

British women would not receive even a limited right to vote for several more years. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act gave the vote to many women over the age of 30. That said, some two million working class women were still denied a political voice. It was fitting, though, that the satirical magazine Punch—which had long mocked the suffragettes—greeted the Act’s passage with a cartoon of Joan raising a standard that read “Woman’s Franchise.” Beneath her, a caption read “At Last!”

Even they could see which way the wind was blowing.

Joan as a Rebel…

The qualities which attracted British suffragettes to Joan also drew many other groups of women from across the political spectrum and across the globe. Some of them shared the British suffragettes’ feminist convictions, but chose to emphasize different aspects of Joan’s mythos.

Irish feminists—most of whom were also Irish nationalists—tended not to share their British counterparts’ pride in Empire. Instead, they stressed Joan’s love of country, linking women’s freedom with Ireland’s freedom from British colonial occupation. Maud Gonne, a founder of the nationalist women’s organization Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”), positioned herself as an “Irish Joan of Arc”, feeling that the anti-feminist views of many male nationalist leaders were setting back the cause of Irish independence. In 1914, Constance Markiewicz—later known as the “Rebel Countess” and the first female cabinet minister in Europe—appeared in costume as Joan at a fundraiser for the Irish Women’s Franchise League.

Women in the United States often emphasized Joan’s role as a leader of men and her defence of virtue. Labor leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the organizers of the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 and a founding member of the ACLU, was known in the press as the “East Side Joan of Arc” or the “Joan of Arc of the Wobblies” (a nickname for members of the labor union Industrial Workers of the World). Virginia Brooks Washburne was likewise referred to as the “Joan of Arc of West Hammond” “for her struggle to rid Chicago and its suburbs of graft and vice.”

Many American suffragists employed similar tactics to their British sisters. Social reformer Inez Milholland relied on popular cultural awareness of Joan when she rode at the head of more than 8,000 suffragists in a March for the Vote held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 presidential inauguration. She did not explicitly compare herself to the saint—she was called “the Herald” or “the Woman on a Horse”—but the resonances were clear.

Like Emily Wilding Davison, Milholland would live to see neither old age nor a women’s right to vote. She collapsed while giving a speech in 1916 and died shortly afterwards, only 30 years old. In death, Milholland was still associated with Joan. A posthumous poster depicted her in her “Herald” outfit, with the caption stating that she “Died For the Freedom of Women.”

… And As a Reactionary

But not all women who drew Joan’s example were on the political left, particularly in France. There, Joan’s popularity as a national symbol grew enormously during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s and later during the two World Wars. She was a potent symbol of resistance against foreign invasion. But she was, and is, increasingly associated with a xenophobic, racist vision of an ethnically and religiously “pure” Catholic France.

The women who joined the conservative, anti-Republican Ligue des Femmes Françaises (1901-1933) published songs about responding to Joan’s “clarion call” in defense of a France defined by Catholicism, family, and monarchy. Today, tourists take selfies in front of the famous golden statue of Joan on horseback in central Paris. But, it was a rallying point for anti-Semitic monarchists in the late nineteenth century. The spot retains its allure for the far-right. Marine Le Pen, leader of the extremist political party the Front National, rallies her supporters in front of the statue every May Day.

This racist championing of Joan makes it no surprise that when Mathilde Edey Gamassou, a teenager of mixed Beninese and Polish descent was chosen to play Joan in an annual commemoration in the French city of Orléans in 2018, she was the subject of fierce racial abuse. In an interview, Gamassou’s father defended his daughter by drawing parallels between her treatment and that of Joan:

“Jeanne d’Arc was treated in her day as a ‘foreigner’ by her opponents […] We are living the same story.”

But for Front National supporters, Joan can only stand in defense of a fantastical long-ago France—no matter how different from the France of the twenty-first century, and no matter how imaginary.

Joan of Arc and the Liberations of Today

The fight for women’s suffrage was a long one. Despite the United States’ ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Asian American women did not gain the right to vote until 1943. African American and Native American women were not guaranteed voting rights until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In France, women could not vote until 1944; in Switzerland, not until 1971. Women in Bhutan gained the vote in 2008, while Saudi women were first permitted to vote in municipal elections in 2015.

Politically active women continue to inspire comparisons with Joan, such as the Belarusian Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. A fellow opponent of the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko claims to have told her, “You need to go into history as Belarus’s Joan of Arc. You’re the flag.”

But, perpetually malleable saint that she is, Joan’s legend invites new interpretations that bring together politics, culture, and gender. Some of these are riffs on traditional feminine glamor. Pop singer Zendaya attended the 2018 Met Gala as a high-fashion version of Joan: tousled, cropped red wig, custom silvery Versace gown, and towering heels. Her stylist stated that he “wanted it to feel like textbook Joan of Arc had walked off the page” and that he chose the gown because he was inspired by “strong women who had a connection to religion.”

Other interpretations, like that of pop duo AJ & Aly, stress Joan as a self-empowerment role model who makes people “feel like they could be warriors” while embracing their “best, most authentic selves.” The video for their recent single, “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor”, brings together visual references to the silent film classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and clips of prominent Republican men, all to a lyric that urges the listener not to “stop until mascara’s on the dance floor.”

Others again tap into the long history of Joan as a queer icon. Last summer, Madonna released a music video to accompany her single, “Dark Ballet”. Partly shot in the medieval Portuguese monastery of Batalha, it barely features the singer. Instead it focuses on a Joan of Arc played by queer Black musician Mykki Blanco. Blanco’s genderfluid Joan sweats and weeps, suffers and prays, their strength derived from their insistence on their own identity.

Joan may be poised to become an icon for a generation invested in a different kind of liberation—one that doesn’t so much ask for boundaries to be expanded as ask why they exist in the first place.

Paul B. Sturtevant

The author Paul B. Sturtevant

Paul B. Sturtevant is Editor-in-Chief of The Public Medievalist. He is a researcher and historian for the Smithsonian Institution, where he helps the institution better understand its visitors and itself. He is an author, a medievalist, and a consultant, and has completed research projects as diverse as exploring the Caliphates of Muslim Spain, the history of American health care reform, and the peculiarities of American-style barbecue. He is unabashedly passionate about the place history has in current conversations.