Who was Frances Parker?

Discover more about suffragette Frances Parker – the recipient of the Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour in our collections.

Frances Parker's role in women's suffrage

Frances Parker is escorted from Ayr Sheriff Court, Scotland, 1914. National Records of Scotland, (HH16/43/58)

Frances Mary Parker was born in 1875 to Harry Rainey Parker and Frances Emily Jane in Waimate, South Canterbury.

In 1896, Frances left New Zealand to attend Cambridge University at the expense of her very well placed uncle, Lord Kitchener.

No doubt spurred on by New Zealand’s ground-breaking position as the first self-governing country to grant women the vote in 1893, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1908.

Described by fellow suffragette and friend Ethel Moorhead as having ‘an exquisite madness – daring, joyous, vivid, strategic’, Frances was a perfect candidate for the WSPU who promoted ‘Deeds not Words’.

Dangerous deeds, imprisonment, and hunger strikes

Frances was first imprisoned, along with over 200 other suffragettes, in March 1912 for her involvement in a window-smashing campaign in London. Following four months in Holloway Prison, she was locked up again for five days in December, and went on hunger strike.

While living in Scotland, Frances carried out her most infamous ‘deed’ on behalf of the WSPU. In July 1914 she attempted to blow up the cottage in which Robbie Burns, Scotland’s much loved poet, was born. Caught before she could do any real damage, Frances was remanded in Perth prison for attempted arson. She went on hunger strike, and was forcibly fed.

Writing under her alias, Janet Arthur, Frances vividly described her ordeal in an article the suffragette newspaper, Votes for Women.

“Six wardresses held me down, and one of them reached forward and slapped my face ... As [the prison doctor] was unable to open my mouth he called for the nasal tube … He succeeded in forcing it down … and left it hanging there while he went out of the room. It was extremely painful, I asked the assistant to remove it, but he only laughed.”

– Frances Parker, 1914

What WWI meant for the suffrage movement

Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the WSPU suspended its militant activities and the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners. Many suffragettes, including Frances Parker channelled their energies into the war effort.

By 1917, Frances had become the Deputy Controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In an astonishing contrast to her earlier years, when she was considered a shameful embarrassment to her family, especially Lord Kitchener, she was awarded a military Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Did Frances live to see full suffrage?

Sadly, Frances did not live to see women in Britain gain full suffrage.

While married women, female householders and university graduates, aged 30 or over, were granted the right to vote in 1918, women were not granted suffrage equal to men until 1928.

Frances died in Arcachon, France in 1924 at the age of 49.

See Frances’ bravery medal

Frances Parker's bravery medal, 2016. Te Papa

Awarded to Frances Parker in 1912 The Women’s Social and Political Union Medal for Valour was awarded in recognition of a 'Gallant Action, whereby through Endurance to the last Extremity of Hunger and Hardship, a Great Principle of Political Justice was Vindicated’.

Frances Parker left her Suffrage medal to her friend Ethel Moorhead (1870-1955). Purchased by Te Papa in Feb 2016, the medal is a symbol of the ongoing struggle of women around the world for civil rights, and as a tangible link to New Zealand’s engagement in that struggle.

Frances' medal will be on display 15 Sep – 12 Dec 2016 on the Level 4 promenade in front of Slice of Heaven.