Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The Suffragettes

The situation before 1903
The end of the 19th century saw a new emphasis on the distinctive contribution women could make to politics, while at the same time improving themselves through their participation in public life. As elective local government expanded owing to the creation of school boards, county councils and parish, urban and rural district councils, women were able to stand for office. In the first London County Council elections of 1888 Jane Cobden and Lady Margaret Sandhurst were returned while Emma Cons was nominated as an alderman by the Liberal majority on the council. Jane Cobden (daughter of Richard) sat for Bow and Bromley, where the socialist, George Lansbury had ably managed her election. However, the legality of her position was questioned in a series of actions brought against her, with the result that, while she continued to serve on the council until 1892, she faced financial penalties and was not able to vote at its meetings; only in 1907 would women acquire full rights in local government.

In December 1894 Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) (left) was elected for the Chorlton-upon-Medlock Board of Poor Law Guardians. Women were also active in the Primrose League and (from 1887) the Women’s Liberal Federation. But the vote remained as elusive as ever, and no bills or resolutions for the female franchise came before the Commons between 1897 and 1904.

In part this was because many suffragists campaigned for a limited women’s franchise in which the vote was restricted to householders, who by definition would not be married women; but these tactics played into the hands of those who saw single women as failures. They also alienated many Labour supporters who believed it was wrong to add middle-class women to the electoral register while denying the vote to so many working-class men.

In July 1889 the Women’s Franchise League was formed with a committee that included Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst. It argued that no woman should be disqualified from the franchise by marriage, but it suffered from disputes with the advocates of partial suffrage, notably Lydia Becker and Millicent Fawcett, successively Presidents of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, founded 1897) who believed that only a limited first installment offered a realistic prospect of success.

The South African War highlighted the issue of women’s participation in politics. The war stimulated discussion about the nature of citizenship, but suffragists reacted in different ways. Josephine Butler and Millicent Fawcett thought women should have a role in politics because they would seek to save black South Africans from the Boers; this drew on a gendered model of service. But pro-Boer women argued that if the government were willing to go to war over the question of political rights for the Uitlanders, then women had the right to resist a government that did not acknowledge them as citizens. Dora Montefiore, a middle-class socialist propagandist and suffrage campaigner, resisted paying her taxes, and therefore raised questions about the obligations women had to a state that governed without their consent, and whether women should be governed by laws that they did not formulate. It was the old cry of ‘No Taxation without Representation’.

The NUWSS was a thoroughly respectable body. However, during the 1890s one of its affiliated bodies, the North of England Society tried to shed its image of middle-class gentility by campaigning hard among the female textile workers of Lancashire. Two of its most striking leaders, Esther Roper and Eva Gore-Booth, came from well-to-do backgrounds. Roper was a graduate of the Victoria University in Manchester, and Gore-Booth came from an Anglo-Irish Society. Both saw the vote as a means of improving the conditions of working-class women, several of whom emerged as campaigners in their own right. In 1901 and 1902 the Society presented the Commons with a petition signed by over 66,000 women factory workers. Pressure from the Society persuaded the NUWSS Convention meeting in 1903 to sponsor to sponsor a parliamentary candidate in the next general election.

On 16 March 1904 the Commons passed a pro-suffrage resolution by the very wide margin of 184/70 – though this was merely a statement of principle and didn’t commit MPs to action. Two years later the Liberal government was returned in a landslide and Mrs Fawcett believed that this had brought into the House as many as 400 sympathetic MPs. But the government nevertheless refused to give the vote to women.

In October 1903 Emmeline and Christabel (1880-1958) Pankhurst (right) founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in Manchester. In its early days the group devoted its efforts mainly to converting ILP branches to the cause of women’s suffrage. In its early days the WSPU relied heavily on the ILP and much of its membership was drawn from the Lancashire textile workers, notably Annie Kenney, recruited in 1905, who always introduced herself as ‘a factory girl and a trade unionist’.

On 14 February 1904 Winston Churchill, the current Tory member for Oldham but in the process of deserting his party for the Liberals, was addressing a meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Christabel Pankhurst interrupted to ask about women’s suffrage:
‘the first militant step … the most difficult thing I [had] ever done’.
On the eve of the election of 1905, Christabel and Annie Kenney (left) interrupted a Liberal Party meeting addressed by Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall on 13 October by asking the question
‘Will the Liberal Government, if returned, give votes to women?’
[This was the first time the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ was used.] When the question was not answered and repeated, the two women were roughly ejected from the hall. Christabel deliberately committed the technical offence of spitting at a policeman in order to court arrest. Both were charged with obstruction and sentenced to pay fines or face imprisonment. An anxious Emmeline offered to pay the fines, a gesture that was refused by Christabel. When she and Annie Kenney refused to pay the fine they were imprisoned for a few days. This immediately put the WSPU in the public eye and the movement began to grow rapidly.

After the election, in the summer of 1906, the Pankhursts moved to London and the WSPU began to detach itself from its ILP links. Increasingly, support came from middle and upper-class women. In early 1906 the Daily Mail had coined the term ‘suffragettes’. On 23 October, following a demonstration for the opening of Parliament ten WSPU members, including Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, Annie Kenney and Anne Cobden Sanderson, were arrested after a scuffle and imprisoned in Holloway. This raised the whole profile of women’s suffrage, drawing the support of celebrities like George Bernard Shaw, something acknowledged by Mrs Fawcett in an open letter to the Times. At this stage there was considerable overlap between the WSPU and Mrs Fawcett’s National Association of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Internal disputes
The disillusionment that Emmeline and Christabel (though not Sylvia, who had become Keir Hardie’s lover) felt about the lukewarm attitude of socialists towards women's suffrage came to a head in April 1907 when both resigned from the ILP: the Labour Party now opposed extending the franchise to women if the ownership of property remained a qualification for voting. Although links between the WSPU and the socialist movement were never completely severed, especially at the individual level, the independent policy plus an autocratic style of leadership caused tensions within the union so that rumours of a coup surfaced during the summer. A group of dissenters, including Teresa Billington Greig and Charlotte Despard, formed another militant organization, later called the Women's Freedom League.
Although Emmeline Pankhurst was now regarded as the autocrat of the WSPU, in the years immediately following this split she chose to travel up and down the country speaking for the cause, rather than exercise direct personal control over the organization. The day-to-day running of the union was left to Christabel, to whom her mother always deferred. She was aided by Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, who had joined the movement in the autumn of 1906 and became joint editors of the WSPU's paper, Votes for Women, founded in October 1907. This began as a monthly publication priced at 3d in October 1907, but became weekly at 1d from May 1908. By May 1909 circulation had soared to 22,000. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence was the treasurer and such was her skill that by 1907 the WSPU annual income was over £7,000. She also designed the suffragette colours – white (‘purity in private as well as public life’, purple (dignity) and green (hope).

The growth of militancy
Mrs Pankhurst's first imprisonment occurred on 13 February 1908 when, still lame from an injury to her ankle, she led a deputation to the House of Commons and was arrested, along with her companions, for obstruction. She served a month in the second division, alongside common criminal offenders, and not in the first division where political offenders were placed.

Campbell-Bannerman had sympathised with the women’s cause, but Asquith who became Prime Minister in 1908 did not. On 21 June 1908 there was a great demonstration in Hyde Park at which it was estimated there were between a quarter and a half million present. Their methods were a continuation of the protests of Chartists and other radicals, but they did not fit with conventional ideas of female decorum, which provoked vigorous protests from male crowds. In 1908 a Women’s Anti-Suffrage League was founded by Mrs Humphrey Ward. It later combined with a male anti-suffrage committee to become the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage, led by Cromer and Curzon.

On 14 October 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst stood in the dock at Bow Street, together with Flora Drummond and Christabel, charged with incitement to disorder, based on a handbill that had been published encouraging the ‘lowest class of London toughs’ to ‘rush’ the House of Commons a tactic that disgusted Mrs Fawcett. The three accused did not employ counsel, but spoke for themselves. Christabel was especially eloquent and sub-poenaed cabinet ministers to appear in her defence. Emmeline was sentenced to three months' imprisonment and Christabel ten weeks.

The hunger strikes
By the summer of 1909 there was an impasse between the suffragettes and the government while the moderate NUWSS had dissociated itself from the tactics of the suffragettes. The impasse was broken by two new developments. On 29 June a group of suffragettes appeared outside the Home Office, the Treasury and the Privy Council and threw stones at the windows. On 5 July when on her own initiative, Marion Wallace Dunlop began the first hunger strike, in a bid to be granted political offender status and therefore be placed in the privileged ‘first division’ of prisoners. After fasting for 91 hours she was released. The hunger strike was soon adopted by 36 suffragettes, who were all released. But on 24 September two suffragettes were force-fed at Winson Green prison. This was condemned with burning indignation by Christabel (‘This is war’) and the other WSPU leaders.

The 1910 elections
January 1910 was taken up with the general election called over the peers’ rejection of Lloyd George’s budget. In the same month backbench MPs proposed a compromise bill for women’s suffrage: a vote for female heads of household and business occupiers of property worth £10 annually. But to its critics the bill appeared to allow wealthy men (Conservatives?) the opportunity to manufacture extra votes by bestowing pieces of property on their female relations; Liberals and Labour preferred to abolish plural voting altogether rather than run the risk of adding to it. The suffragette leaders cautiously accepted the Conciliation Bill and on 31 January Christabel called a truce: militancy was to end for the time being, though Liberal candidates were still to be opposed.

However the issue of women’s suffrage played only a small part in the two elections of 1910. Suffragette protest had hardened into a ritual - arrests, imprisonments, followed by release - and no longer moved the public. In the summer the government refused to support the Conciliation Bill. On Friday 18th November 1910 (‘Black Friday’) a huge demonstration was held on the reassembly of Parliament when women who attempted to rush the Palace of Westminster received rough treatment at the hands of an over-zealous constabulary. Mrs Fawcett privately railed against
‘those idiots [who] go out smashing windows and bashing ministers’ hats over their eyes’.
On 22-23 November in the ‘Battle of Downing Street’ Asquith’s car was damaged and he had to be spirited away in a taxi. On 25 November hostilities were resumed. Liberal ministers were constant targets during the election campaign in December 1910 (Churchill was horsewhipped as he got out of a railway carriage in Bristol). After the December election the vote seemed as far away as ever. But suffragette tactics were as inventive as ever: on 23 January 1911 the WSPU took over the Albert Hall for the launch of Ethel Smyth’s ‘The March of the Women’.

The escalation of militancy
By the end of 1911 internal Liberal divisions on the issue became so serious that Churchill warned Asquith that unless he took a grip soon his government
‘might come to grief in an ignominious way and perish like Sisera at a woman’s hand’.
On 7 November 1911 Asquith re-introduced his Conciliation Bill. He announced that the government would abolish plural voting and enfranchise the four million men currently excluded from the franchise; women’s amendments could be tabled as the bill went through committee stage. Millicent Fawcett later remarked that this would inevitably provoke militancy. Christabel denounced the bill as disreputable, and appealed for one thousand women to march to Westminster two weeks later. While the demonstration was taking place, however, a smaller group armed with bags of stones and hammers broke windows of government offices and businesses; 220 women were arrested. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson resigned from the WSPU in protest.

On 15 December Emily Wilding Davidson set three pillar boxes alight (a tactic that had not been authorized by the WSPU). On 1 March 1912 the suffragettes for the first time attacked private property in the West End (Emmeline Pankhurst had been taught by Ethel Smyth how to throw stones!) On 4 March suffragettes went on the rampage in Knightsbridge. On 28 March the Commons rejected a third Conciliation Bill by 208/222, chiefly because the Irish Nationalists switched sides: they did not wish to destabilize the government on the eve of the Home Rule Bill. In May Emmeline was tried for conspiracy and sentenced to nine months in the second division. The sentence was regarded as harsh but she was not forcibly fed and she was released after five weeks on health grounds. However Mrs Pethick-Lawrence was forcibly fed but suffered so much that she was released on the same day as Mrs Pankhurst. George Lansbury denounced Asquith as the man who would go down in history for the torture of innocent women.

From now on, militancy was driven further underground as widespread destruction of letters in mailboxes became common as well as arson, window breaking, and other acts of vandalism – much of it directed by Christabel from Paris. The government responded by prohibiting WSPU meetings and raiding its central offices. In October 1912 the Pethick-Lawrences were thrown out of the WSPU. After Lansbury lost the Bromley and Bow by-election in November, Sylvia began to break away from the WSPU and to campaign for universal suffrage for both men and women.

On 27 January 1913 during the committee state of Asquith’s bill the Speaker made a surprise ruling that amendments in favour of female suffrage were out of order because it fundamentally altered the purpose of the bill. This was effectively the end of efforts to enact votes for women before 1914. Instead the government withdrew the Franchise Bill and introduced a Plural Voting Bill (which had earlier been defeated in the Lords), which extended the male franchise from 7½ to 10 million, and which ended the Conservative advantage of plural voting.

The final phase
The final phase of the WSPU’s pre-war campaign took the form of a prolonged campaign of arson. In February 1913 suffragettes smashed the orchid house at Kew, set a railway carriage alight and bombed Lloyd George’s house. Emmeline boasted about it at a public meeting in Cardiffand was sentenced to three years’ penal servitude; she refused food, but was not forcibly fed and was released after a few days. In April the home secretary, Reginald McKenna, rushed through the Prisoners’ Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health Bill, nicknamed the Cat and Mouse Act. This was a very notorious measure, but arguably it worked.

On 4 June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Derby and died five days later – but most of the sympathy was for the horse, which had to be put down. The WSPU became increasingly isolated from the rest of the women’s suffrage movement and within the Society itself dissent was firmly suppressed. One in five women defected to the Women’s Freedom League; Sylvia Pankhurst was expelled because of her Socialist convictions. From Paris, Christabel wrote a pamphlet arguing that men were essentially wicked and the source of all the world’s problems. Millicent Fawcett believed that the WSPU had become a more serious obstacle than the anti-suffragists in the cabinet.
Although the suffragette tactics were counter-productive, the medium-term prospects for women’s suffrage were promising. The Liberal government had compelling reasons for ending a dispute that was tearing the party apart. Churchill:
‘It would be appalling if this strong Government and Party … was to go down on Petticoat Politics.’
A general election was due in 1915 and Asquith’s resistance to women’s suffrage was increasingly seen as a hindrance. There were fears that women Liberals were drifting to Labour and that Labour would form an alliance with the non militant suffragists. If war had not broken out, it is possible that the government would have committed itself to some form of women’s suffrage.