Dame Ethel Mary Smyth(1858-1944)overcame the constraints of her middle-class English background by open rebellion. Taught piano and theory as ladylike accomplishments, she became so concentrated in her studies that her family deemed them unsuitably intense, and stopped her lessons. The teenaged Ethel went on a protracted and progressively more severe strike, finally confining herself to her room and refusing to attend meals, church, or social functions unless her father would send her to Leipzig to study composition.
After two years the embattled Mr. Smyth gave in, and Ethel went to Leipzig, where her larger-than-life personality found an aesthetic outlet in the development of a Brahmsian idiom. She gained some recognition in England with the performance of her Mass in D for chorus and orchestra in 1893, and struggled to get her operas performed.
In 1910, Smyth met Emmaline Pankhurst, the founder of the British women’s suffrage movement and head of the militant and extremely well organized Women’s Social and Political Union. Struck by Mrs. Pankhurst’s mesmerizing public speeches, Smyth pledged to give up music for two years and devote herself to the cause of votes for women.
Laggard Dawn and The March of the Women were written in 1911 and premiered by a chorus of Suffragettes at a fundraising rally at the Albert Hall in London on March 23, 1911. The latter tune became the battle cry of the suffrage movement, and was published in arrangements for mixed voices and unison singing.
Its most famous, though least public perfomance occured in Holloway prison in London in 1912: over 100 suffragists, including Mrs. Pnkhurst and Ethel Smyth, who had smashed windows of suffrage opponents’ homes in well-coordinated simultaneous incidents all over London, were arrested, tried, and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. Ethel Smyth found her time in prison an exalting experience of communal determination and sacrifice by women of all ages and classes. One day, while the prisoners were taking their outdoor exercise, Ethel Smyth appeared at a window overlooking the prison yard, and conducted their singing of the suffrage battle anthem by waving her toothbrush.