As I’m fond of reminding people 🙂 , I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters Sylvia and Adela. We used to have Speech Days in the Free Trade Hall, the iconic building where, in 1905, Christabel and her friend and fellow suffragette Annie Kenney heckled politicians at a Liberal Party rally, whereupon they were arrested and carted off to Strangeways. (Strangeways was unisex in those days.) I’m trying and failing to resist making the old teenage jokes about how being carted off to Strangeways would have been preferable to having to sit through school Speech Day, which, in my day, was usually held on the first Monday in July, generally very hot and stuffy and often fourth round day at Wimbledon. We so did not want to be there!
Sorry. Back to the point. The Free Trade Hall incident in 1905 marked a turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage, and it was the starting point for Monday night’s hour and a half long programme on the suffragettes, presented by Lucy Worsley. It also summed up the suffragette movement very well. The brilliant PR machine run by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), founded in 1903: Christabel, as a law graduate – although, as a woman, she wasn’t allowed to practise – knew that spitting at the police would get them arrested on charges of technical assault, and that that would get them far more publicity than just being dragged away. The contempt shown to campaigners for women’s suffrage by the Establishment. The wide range of backgrounds amongst the suffragettes: Christabel was from a middle-class family from the city of Manchester, Annie from a working-class family from one of the semi-rural mill villages of Saddleworth. And the extent to which women were prepared to go to – at this stage, arrest and imprisonment. Later, it would be what can only be described as torture; and, whilst I honestly don’t think Emily Wilding Davison meant to lose her life, women did say that they were ready to die for The Cause.
I do find Lucy Worsley’s bossy prefect style of presenting a bit irritating, and her obsession with dressing up rather infantile. However, that’s become quite a clever PR machine as well: every time one of her programmes is on, it’s all over the TV reviews as pundits argue over whether her dressing up is entertaining or just plain silly. She certainly gets attention. It’s unlikely that, had anyone else been presenting this programme, it would have been on BBC 1 rather than BBC 2 and in a prime time slot straight after EastEnders. So take a bow, Lucy. You might be annoying, but you get the media talking about history, and that can only be a good thing!
It was presented in docu-drama style. That again can seem quite infantile sometimes, but in this instance it worked extremely well. Seeing women with the clothes and hairstyles of the period, reading out the suffragettes’ own words, especially about the horrors of force-feeding and of sexual assault by the police, was very evocative and very effective. The roles assigned were those of Annie Kenney and several other leading suffragettes who were… well, most of the names were familiar, but they were certainly far less well-known than those of the Pankhurst women, and the idea was to show that it wasn’t all about the big names. I would have thought that was rather obvious, TBH. With any sort of movement, you’re always going to have the big names, but surely everyone realises that the big names didn’t do it all by themselves. But, OK, it made the point that there were a lot of people involved.
Lucy also made the point that this was an effective home-grown terrorist organisation. I’m not very comfortable about the use of that expression to describe the WSPU. OK, yes, they were. They used violence. But the word “terrorism” has come to mean the murder of innocents. Slashing paintings, smashing windows, setting fire to empty houses, and even letter bombs, vandalising public buildings and attacking politicians with catapults can hardly be compared to that. So may we stick with “militant” rather than “terrorist”, please?
Just wandering off topic a bit, it’s interesting that the campaign for universal male suffrage at this time was so low profile, compared with the campaign for female suffrage. Despite the reforms of 1832, 1867 and 1884, millions of British men did not have the right to vote until 1918. So why weren’t they doing all this militant campaigning as well? This never gets asked. It wasn’t mentioned at all in Lucy’s programme. Well, those who still didn’t have the vote were those at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale, who wouldn’t have had the time or funds for campaigning – but you could say the same about a lot of the men, and women, who’d attended the large-scale rallies of the first half of the 19th century. Think Peterloo. Think the Chartists. There were major developments taking place in trade unionism at this time, so were the blokes putting their attention into that, rather than into campaigning for the right to vote? I wish someone would do a programme on that. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the T.U.C. – in Manchester, of course!! – but that hasn’t had even a fraction of the attention that “Vote100” has. Hmm.
Back to the subject of PR. It’s a modern term, but the suffragettes were bloody good at it! As Lucy pointed out, the image of women chained to railings is one that everyone knows, the iconic image of the suffragette movement – but it’s not something that actually happened very often. It just got brilliantly publicised. And then there are the suffragette colours – white for purity, green for hope, purple for dignity. Everyone knows those colours. Theresa May wore those colours on the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act – a day which she marked by visiting Manchester, of course (just had to get that in!). And this was turning the tables on the mockery shown by the Establishment, including sections of the media, which presented suffragettes as unfeminine, and made fun of them. Being criticised, you can take. Being made fun of, not being taken seriously – that’s horrendous. It still happens now, with the so-called “liberal elite” and the scorn which they pour on anyone who doesn’t agree with them, but it was even worse at the time of the suffragettes.
What summed it up brilliantly was a bazaar featured as part of the docu-drama –selling the sort of things which Edwardian ladies were supposed to make, and sell, but also featuring a mock-up of a prison cell, so that visitors could see what suffragettes who’d been imprisoned for their activities were having to endure. What a superb juxtaposition. And a lot of women were being imprisoned, even before the really militant period of the campaign began – but, as Lucy explained, this actually boosted the movement. What does the suffragette song in Mary Poppins say? “Take heart! For Mrs Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again”. Lucy used the word “radicalised” – and that’s another modern term which fitted the events of the time perfectly. Suffragettes bonded with each other during their time in prison. When they were released, they were greeted by cheering crowds. We’ve all seen the pictures of that. Less well-known are the huge banquets which were held afterwards, to honour the suffragettes who’d done their stints in prison, and the medals – “For Valour”, the words used to accompany the Victoria Cross – presented to them.
It wasn’t all of the media. One photographer hid in a cupboard so that he could jump out and take a photo when policemen came to arrest Emmeline Pankhurst (again) – another clever PR coup for the WSPU. It wasn’t all of the Establishment, to be fair. But it was enough of them. The suffragettes tried doing things peacefully, in the tradition of those who attended the rally at St Peter’s Fields – and look how they were treated – and the Chartists. They held huge rallies. And even the more militant activities, such as the planned “rush” on Parliament, over which the arrest with the photographer in the cupboard took place, weren’t violent. 60,000 people attended that. Sixty thousand. Still, nothing was done. And this wasn’t some sort of ultra-conservative government. This was the reforming government which introduced Old Age Pensions and National Insurance. And showed some sympathy for Irish Home Rule.
And this same government, the great Liberal reforming government, was the one which force-fed women on hunger strike. Marion Wallace Dunlop, who deserves to be better-known than she was, was the driving force behind hunger striking – and it was really the first time that this tactic had been used. It’s used a lot now, but it was new then. And it’s horrible, but it’s very clever. What do the authorities do? Let people die? Create martyrs? Be seen as murderers? They didn’t want to do that, so, instead, they fed them by force. The descriptions of this, and they’re pretty well-known even if the name of Marion Wallace Dunlop isn’t, are horrific. The bravery of the women who endured it, some of them over and over again, was incredible. Doctors protested. Public sympathy for the suffragettes increased.
And a truce was called. At last, Parliament addressed the subject of women’s suffrage. In came the first Conciliation Bill, which would have granted some women the vote. It passed its first reading. It passed its second reading. But that was as far as it got. Asquith refused to allow it any more parliamentary time. Lucy said that it got lost amid all the chaos of the People’s Budget. Two general elections in one year. Reform of the House of Lords – and what a great shame that they didn’t just abolish it. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that, though.
Yes, there was a lot going on at the time. Social reform. The Irish Question. Concerns about Germany. But many of the leading Conservatives and Liberals just weren’t prepared to give women the vote, and that wasn’t just about misogyny – that women weren’t intelligent enough to understand politics, or were ruled by their emotions and couldn’t make sensible decisions, or were so soft that they’d oppose declaring war if it came to it -, it was also about self -interest and both parties believing that they’d lose out if women got the vote. The Liberals had won by an absolute landslide in the “free trade” election of 1906. After the second of the two elections in 1910, they could only hold on to power by forming a coalition with the Irish Nationalists, but they were still the biggest single party. Some Conservatives, believing that women would vote as their husbands or fathers told them (seriously), thought that giving the vote to women would just double the Liberals’ advantage. Some Liberals, on the other hand, thought that women were “conservative” by nature and that giving the vote to women would boost the Conservatives. And some amongst both the Liberals and Conservatives thought that giving the vote to women would lead to universal male suffrage and boost the rise of the Labour Representation Committee.
Whatever the reason, the bill got chucked out – but it had got a lot of support from MPs. That was the first bill, in 1910. The second Conciliation Bill, introduced as a Private Members’ Bill, in 1911, passed its first reading. Asquith tried to change things by proposing a bill to introduce universal male suffrage, and the whole thing got dropped. In 1912, the third Conciliation Bill was narrowly defeated, and this seems to’ve been because the Irish Nationalists voted against their Liberal coalition allies because of fears that it’d take attention and parliamentary time away from the issue of Home Rule.
So what was going on? Did MPs think that other issues were more important? Or were they just making excuses because they weren’t prepared, when push came to shove, to see any women get the vote. A bill to introduce universal male suffrage was also introduced in 1912, but got nowhere either. But the first two Conciliation Bills did get passed, as far as they were allowed to, and the third one came close.
Was it all about Asquith? The WSPU certainly seem to have blamed Asquith. Whatever the truth of it, and it’s hard to assess, the mood turned more militant – especially after the disgraceful events of “Black Friday”, in November 1910, when, after the abandonment of the first Conciliation Bill, hundreds of suffragettes protesting outside Parliament were “kettled” – a controversial procedure still in use – and treated very brutally by police brought in from the East End. There were tens of serious injuries. Two women, including one of Emmeline Pankhurst’s sisters, died as a probable result of their injuries – which the programme didn’t actually mention. Others were sexually assaulted by policemen who pulled their skirts up and twisted their breasts. There were calls for a public inquiry. They were ignored. It’s beyond appalling that something like this should have happened in Westminster, and it says so much about the attitude of men towards women who defied convention, and about the attitude of the Establishment towards those who challenged their authority. It’s well-named “Black Friday”: it’s a very black day in British history.
Is it any bloody wonder that the suffragettes turned militant after that? You’re supposed to make your feelings known at the ballot box. But how do you do that if you aren’t allowed to vote? Peaceful protests hadn’t worked. Even with support from MPs, no progress had been made. But violent protest is wrong. It has to be. Smashing shop windows might not have hurt anyone, but it caused thousands of pounds’ worth of damage to the property of people who had nothing to do with the government. Vandalising letterboxes and telegraph wires caused widespread disruption, and, again, most of those affected had nothing to do with the government. And it swung public opinion against the suffragettes. It also lost the support of many MPs – it’s a problem that existed then and a problem that continues to exist, that you do not want to be seen to be giving in to violence. And it split the WSPU: some of its members thought that things had gone too far.
But else was there to try? It was an impossible situation. It is an impossible situation, when those excluded from power are treated in such a way – and it’s why lack of reform has so often led to civil war and or revolution, when that hasn’t been the original aim of those calling for reform. There aren’t really any answers. Just the arrogance of the Establishment – towards women, towards working-class men, towards nationalists in Ireland and India. Sorry, but it’s hard not to go on a rant when you think about all this! As Lucy said, the militant phase of the suffragette campaign – and she did use the word “terrorism”, and she justified doing that, but I just don’t like it – was wrong, but you can see, and how understand, how it came to that. Especially the attacks on property, given that the society at the time seemed to value property more than it valued women.
The next part was the phase of the suffragette campaign which is best known. Arson attacks, letter bombs, vandalism, and, of course, Emily Wilding Davison dying under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Derby. By this time it was 1913. Then came the Great War, and then, finally, in 1918, some women were given the vote. Only in 1928 were women given the vote on equal terms with men. How long would it have taken for women, and for all men, to be given the vote, had war not come? We’ll never know.
Lucy summed it all up brilliantly at the end of the programme, saying what an important chapter in British history this was, and how the violence cannot be excused but how it raises crucial questions about who should have a say in running society, how far you should go to get that say, and to what extent does the end justify the means. Those questions apply to a lot of struggles for civil rights. They aren’t easy questions. This programme really made the viewer think about them. Very, very well done.