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100 years of voting: British marches celebrate suffragettes

LONDON (AP) — Thousands of women gathered Sunday to turn British cities into rivers of green, white and violet to mark 100 years since the first U.K. women won the right to vote.

Part artwork, part parade, “Processions” will see women march through London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast clad in the colors of the suffragette movement that fought for women’s right to vote.

The London march was set to weave through the heart of the city, turning Piccadilly and Trafalgar Square into rivers of color before ending at Parliament, the seat of political power in Britain.

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act granted property-owning British women over 30 the right to vote. It would be another decade before other British women won the same voting rights as men.

The event was organized by the arts group Artichoke, which specializes in large-scale, participatory events. It asked 100 artists to work with women’s groups around the country on banners inspired by the bold designs of the suffragettes, who led a decades-long campaign of protests and civil disobedience to get the vote for women.

The London march featured banners from Brownie packs and arts groups, an organization for female ex-prisoners and the Worshipful Company of Upholders, an upholsterers’ guild. Some marchers dressed as Edwardian suffragettes, or wore sashes in green, white or violet.

Artichoke director Helen Marriage said enthusiasm for the project was infectious.

“A craft shop in London told us they’d run out of purple and green tassels, and they didn’t know why,” she said.

The mood was celebratory but Marriage said the event aimed to draw attention to what remains to be done to achieve equality, from closing the gender pay gap to ending workplace sexual harassment.

It also hoped to erase any notion of the suffragettes as prim campaigners from a more polite age. They defied the law, went on a hunger strike, broke windows and even set off bombs in pursuit of their goal.

“They were really extraordinary people,” Marriage said. “A thousand of them went to prison. They were force-fed in prison. In today’s terms they would be described as terrorists.”

Votes for British women were won through a combination of the militant suffragettes and their more law-abiding sisters, the suffragists. A statue of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett was recently erected in Parliament Square, the first on the site to commemorate a woman.

The suffragettes and their legacy remain more controversial.

“They were really quite anarchic,” said artist Quill Constance, standing with a riotously colorful banner from the group Bedford Creative Arts. “They had to really fight. And we still have to fight.

“I think they’re here today in spirit, and we’re giving them high fives,” she said.

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