On June 4th 100 years ago Emily Wilding Davison stepped out in front of the galloping horses at the Derby and attempted to grab the reigns of the King’s horse, Anmer. She died from her injuries four days later. There has been much press and media interest in the suffragettes over the last couple of weeks, for example, Deeds not Words by Val McDermid on BBC Radio 4, Clare Balding’s Channel 4 programme, Secrets of a Suffragette, Up the Women, a new comedy by Jessica Hynes, and The Independent’s New Suffragettes, to name a few, and there are many more events yet to come, including The Wilding Festival, Kate Willoughby’s To Freedom’s Cause, Dreadnought South West’s production of Oxygen, and our own project, Fight for the Right: the Birmingham Suffragettes. A new book has also been published, March, Women, March, by Lucinda Hawksley with foreword by Dr Helen Pankhurst, grand-daughter of Sylvia (Andre Deutsch, 2013).
Hawksley’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in women’s history and the suffrage campaign, from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, to the so-called ‘flapper election’ of 1929, when, finally, all women over the age of 18 were entitled to vote. It is told through individual stories and through literature, art and fashion as well as political and social history.
Hawksley begins by taking us back to a time when women were treated as juveniles, perceived as incapable of engaging with politics. During the 1820s and 30s, however, the issue of entitlement refused to go away, although it focused primarily at this time on increasing male suffrage. Nevertheless, the debate had been raised and the book explores the many women who refused to let the cause go. The 1843 Report of the Poor Law Commissioners of the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture supported the notion that women should be sacrificed for the sake of men and for the family as a whole. Caroline Norton’s ill-fated marriage and subsequent endurance of domestic abuse, both physical and mental, is also discussed and it was her fight to change the law to allow women custody of children following divorce that massively advanced the rights of women in the nineteenth century. Norton’s experience is cleverly set against Florence Nightingale’s story, whose desire to be useful and contribute to the world in a meaningful way contrasted dramatically with the society in which she grew up.
Hawksley’s discussion of the legal aspects of marriage enforces how much women had to fight against – the notion persisted of a woman as her husband’s property, adultery by women was not seen in same way as male adultery, earnings had to be handed over to a husband, and women lacked any rights over the custody of their children. In 1867 Lydia Becker wrote: ‘I think that the notion that the husband ought to have the headship or authority over his wife, is the root of all social evils… Husband and wife should be co-equal. In a happy marriage there is no question of “obedience”’ – the tide was slowly beginning to turn.
The Garrett sisters, Elizabeth and Millicent, herald the beginnings of the suffrage campaign that led to the ‘suffragettes’, although the term ‘suffragist’ is now less familiar to the general public. Hawksley explores the legal ramifications of the suffrage campaign, the slow chipping away in order to achieve equality. Both male and female belonged to the suffrage societies of the 1860s and 70s; London, Edinburgh and Manchester were the early strongholds, later joined by Birmingham and Bristol, but 1871 saw the first split within the movement, and this awarded opponents an excuse to ridicule the movement as well as giving rise to lampooning in periodicals of the female members of suffrage societies as ugly and lacking womanly “charms” (this reminds me of similar accusations levelled at today’s feminist movement as divisive and the old-fashioned view of feminists as man-hating and humourless).
The 1884 Reform Bill once again saw political betrayal – the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone thought that women who gained the vote, those who were wealthy and land-owning, would naturally lean towards voting Conservative, although the same year did see some positive progress with the new Married Women’s Property Act which declared that women were no longer defined as “chattel”. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, sworn in as head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1890, had given a speech in 1886 where she remarked that 20 years was a long time to fight for the vote – it would take another 42 years before full suffrage. 1887 saw the first examples of unrest: during a Social Democratic Federation march a riot ensued. The accounts of police behaviour sound uncannily similar to today’s tactic of ‘kettling’ as protestors were blocked in against shop fronts while the police protected the properties of wealthy taxpayers. Indeed, the tragic incident of Alfred Linnell echoes the shocking death of newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson in 2009; like Tomlinson, Linnell was a bystander, in this case, trampled to death by a police horse.
The initial aim of the Women’s Social & Political Union, formed by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia in Manchester in 1903, was to work alongside the NUWSS, although they felt that bold action was now essential. Initially they targeted Liberal party meetings (in 1909 Prime Minister Asquith was attacked at the budget meeting in Birmingham). However, not all women agreed that they should have the right to vote and anti-suffrage organisations, often headed by women, were set up in response to the suffrage campaign. It is particularly difficult today to understand the position of the anti-suffragists; Hawksley quotes Mrs Arthur Somerville who remarked in a speech that only married women should be considered for the vote, and in her opinion ‘adult suffrage would …enfranchise a large number of ignorant and incompetent people’, while Margot Asquith, second wife of the Prime Minister, pronounced suffragettes ‘wombless, vicious, cruel women’. While the presence of the anti-suffragists did help unite the various suffrage organisations, by 1907 there were serious rifts within the WSPU and some prominent members left to form the Women’s Freedom League.
Hawksley does a fantastic job of acknowledging the contribution of the many different groups and women who came from different social backgrounds – the ‘army of women – and men – who spent all their spare time composing letters, handing out leaflets, attending the marches and swelling the ranks at rallies’, and there’s a great quote from Hannah Mitchell, who fought in the campaign while working, ‘no cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us’. In addition to the NUWSS, the WSPU and the WFL, many other political organisations were established at the time, some with male and female members, perhaps the most intriguing of which is the Barmaids’ Political Defence League!
Given the endless duplicity of politicians, is it any wonder they turned to militancy? 1908 saw yet another betrayal when the Liberal Government blocked a bill introduced by MP Henry Stanger on women’s suffrage. This was met, understandably, with outrage and renewed determination to fight, and ultimately led to a campaign of window smashing. As militant activity increased the treatment of protestors by police intensified and forcible feeding was introduced for those suffragettes on hunger strike in prison. Although Hawksley does discuss a wide range of organisations and gives a sense of what was happening nationally, it’s a shame that Winson Green prison in Birmingham was not mentioned as one of the first sites of forcible feeding in England (Birmingham Archives & Heritage holds the prison minutes). She does, however, discuss male prisoners who were also forcibly fed – an aspect of the story that is probably unfamiliar to most people. Arguably the worst incident of police brutality occurred on November 18th 1910, ‘Black Friday’, set against the backdrop of yet another Liberal betrayal: Asquith had refused to allow the facilities for making the Conciliation Bill law, which had been introduced by pro-suffrage MPs. Here we gain a real sense of just how deplorable Herbert Asquith and Winston Churchill were – afraid of the threat these women posed, they ordered police to use violence, often sexual, and the police in turn encouraged anti-suffrage protestors who were there to join in the abuse. The reports make for extremely disturbing reading. One elderly woman, who had been assaulted by a policeman, died a few weeks later of a heart attack. The subsequent return to militancy advocated by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst was possibly a miscalculation however – many supporters now turned against them and it led to accusations of terrorism. The humour behind many of the protests is impressive however – flags on Balmoral Golf Course in Aberdeenshire were replaced overnight with ones of suffragette colours, while after Northfield Library in Birmingham was burnt down one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s books was found left behind with a note ‘this is for your new library’. Dangerous tactics were now being employed, for example, empty properties were bombed, and the nature of the campaign had clearly changed. The fight was now seen as war and targets were no longer restricted to government.
It is especially poignant to read about Emily Wilding Davison on the 100th anniversary of her death and to realise that she was the same age that I am now. Would I have fought as hard as she did? Could I have endured repeated force feeding? It is understandable that she was claimed by the others as a martyr for the cause – the shockingly public death caught on film, her own back story, the simmering tensions and violence. (The researcher and writer Elizabeth Crawford has published a huge amount of invaluable research on the wider subject and more recently on Davison, see her blog ‘Woman and her Sphere‘). Emily’s companion that day was Mary Richardson, the subject of physical attack following the incident (she had to hide from the angry mob in Epsom train station), and Hawksley discusses the subsequent incident which brought Richardson herself into the public eye, when she slashed the National Gallery’s Rokeby Venus (subject of an earlier post in this blog, ‘Slashing the Rokeby Venus’). The idea that Richardson returned to the Gallery in the years after the vote had been won and admired the slash marks is especially fascinating.
By 1914 a huge number of militant acts had been committed but the outbreak of war in August meant a cessation of activity as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and the WSPU firmly backed the war effort. Fawcett, meanwhile, continued to lobby for change. In 1917 a clause for women’s suffrage was accepted into the Representation of the People Bill and the Act was passed in February 1918. Now all women aged over 30 who met the minimum property qualification could vote. The WSPU rather ungraciously claimed victory but this is hard to justify; they did not have backing of the public before war, indeed, many were against them because of their militancy, while Fawcett had quietly continued the campaign. The 1920s saw a period of rapid change for women, the discussion of expanding the franchise and increasing women’s rights, legally, socially, and sexually, was never far from the surface. (It struck me that the arguments used then against giving the vote to women aged under 30 echo those used today against allowing 16- and 17-year-olds the vote). Sadly, Emmeline Pankhurst died just a few months before the law passed while Millicent Garrett Fawcett died the following year. It is significant that the last word of Hawksley’s brilliant book is given over to Fawcett, with a quote from a speech she gave in 1913: ‘Other movements towards freedom have aimed at raising the status of a comparatively small group of class. But the women’s movement aims at nothing less than raising the status of an entire sex – half the human race – to lift it up to the freedom and valour of womanhood’.
This is a marvellous book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in women’s history and the fight for equality and I will definitely encourage the girls I’ve worked with on Fight for the Right to read it. It gives the reader an acute appreciation of the length of time it took for change to occur and the persistent and determined campaigning that ultimately led to the militant activity, born of frustration and anger and a reaction against the endless betrayals of politicians. The tales Hawksley recounts have much relevance and resonance for women today. Yesterday an article appeared in the Guardian titled ‘What would you fight for?‘ While women may indeed now have equal voting rights, in the UK at least, the fight is most definitely not over.