International Women’s Day: Dame Ethel Mary Smyth

Thursday 8 March 2018

In celebration of International Women’s Day, here’s a follow up to last year’s post on Trailblazing Women and the recent series on the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Dame Ethel Smyth waiting to conduct the Metropolitan Police Band in ‘The March of the Women’, at the unveiling of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in 1930 (Women’s Library, LSE)

90 years ago composer and suffragette Dame Ethel Mary Smyth (1858-1944) received the honorary degree of L.L.D from the University of St Andrews, in her 70th year.

Letters written by Dame Ethel Smyth to Mabel, Lady Irvine and her husband, between April 1928 and June 1929 (UYUY250/Irvine/2/9f)

Within the papers of Principal Sir James Irvine given to the University by his granddaughter, there is a series of letters written by Dame Ethel Smyth to Mabel, Lady Irvine, between April 1928 and June 1929 (UYUY250/Irvine/2/9f). It seems that the invitation to come to St Andrews to receive the honorary degree had been extended by both Lady Irvine and the Principal.

Letter from Smyth to Lady Irvine, 6 April 1928

Smyth wrote to Sir James on 19 June, accepting his invitation to events on graduation day:

“I can say with emphasis that I shall be delighted to join the smoking party at luncheon & don’t a bit mind being the only woman present!”

Letter from Smyth to Irvine, 19 June 1928

She was squeezing in her visit to St Andrews after medical treatment on her throat in Bath and a visit to London where “I shall be broadcasting about my dear friend, Mrs Pankhurst”. She clearly enjoyed her visit: in her note postmarked 5 July 1928 she says: “I am still in the dream of St Andrews’ beauty – of your kindness – so perfect, so like the place.” Her enthusiasm remained, as she asked to visit the Irvines again, while she was on a visit ‘to Edinburgh to conduct mass’ (the mass which she had composed in 1891). ‘You do not know how the place tugs at my heart’. She was reading about the town and was enthusiastic about the writing of Andrew Lang:

‘I think Socrates on the Links by A Lang one of the perfect things in life!’ and ‘I have learned A Lang’s superbest poem (Almae Matres) by heart! It sums up for me the spell of St Andrews.’

As she joined the procession of the honorary graduands in June 1928, she hummed ‘The March of the Women’, the anthem of the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose music she had written for the movement, to words by Cicely Hamilton. In the University House Visitors’ Book (University Collections), she inscribed a snatch of the tune:

Ethel Smyth’s signature and musical notation in University House Visitors Book (UYUY875/Irvine)
The March of the Women, known as “the Marseillaise of the suffrage movement”.

The song can be heard here:

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.
Song with its story, dreams with their glory
Lo! they call, and glad is their word!
Loud and louder it swells,
Thunder of freedom, the voice of the Lord!

Long, long—we in the past
Cowered in dread from the light of heaven,
Strong, strong—stand we at last,
Fearless in faith and with sight new given.
Strength with its beauty, Life with its duty,
(Hear the voice, oh hear and obey!)
These, these—beckon us on!
Open your eyes to the blaze of day.

Comrades—ye who have dared
First in the battle to strive and sorrow!
Scorned, spurned—nought have ye cared,
Raising your eyes to a wider morrow,
Ways that are weary, days that are dreary,
Toil and pain by faith ye have borne;
Hail, hail—victors ye stand,
Wearing the wreath that the brave have worn!

Life, strife—those two are one,
Naught can ye win but by faith and daring.
On, on—that ye have done
But for the work of today preparing.
Firm in reliance, laugh a defiance,
(Laugh in hope, for sure is the end)
March, march—many as one,
Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend.

Dame Ethel was a formidable woman, pioneering in pursuit of her musical career in a male-dominated sphere, and a writer and active suffragette between 1911-13. She was jailed for participating in the mass riot of 1 March 1912 and throwing a rock through the window of the home of politician Lewis Harcourt. She is reputed to have conducted, with a toothbrush through her cell window, women singing her suffragette anthem while parading in prison.

“Smyth herself was energetic, opinionated, and warm-hearted. She spoke her mind and often acted as impulsively as she spoke. Her dressing was idiosyncratic—she was renowned for her tweed suits and battered masculine hats—and she smoked until 1899. She was also known for her love of large dogs” (ODNB)

Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, 1927 (NPG x18840 © National Portrait Gallery, London)

The caricatures of Smyth’s suffragette activities and forthright manner have proved more memorable than her music, which merits re-evaluation. Recent research, both by scholars of the English musical renaissance and by feminist scholars, has begun to reclaim her position as a composer of worth who stood out from her generation. (ODNB)

For more details on the life of this remarkable woman, see Lucas Reilly’s article at

Rachel Hart
Keeper of Manuscripts and Muniments

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