The Lessons of the British Women’s Fight for the Vote

The often violent struggle of women for their rights is overlooked today, but Frances Osborne writes that the suffragists and suffragettes in early 20th-century Britain are important to remember. Her new novel, Park Lane, explores the era.

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June 1913, England. Women are protesting against their second-class treatment in education, healthcare, and, above all, in suffrage. In no region of Britain do women yet have the right to vote for the government. At the Derby—the most prestigious horserace in the country—a protestor, Emily Wilding Davison, throws herself under the King’s racehorse mid-race. Davison has a track record of arson, stone-throwing, and violence, including a frenzied attack on a man she mistook for a politician.

This is how women campaigned for their rights a century ago. As women’s rights are at risk of being eroded today, we should not forget their powerful example. Nowadays we think of suffragettes as glamorous ancestors. Instead they fought to the extreme for their rights as women and their activities were startlingly gritty. It was the drama of this struggle that inspired me to write my new book, a novel called Park Lane.

Davison died of her injuries four days later. Born in 1872, she had been a fearsomely intelligent woman, obtaining First-Class Honors at both London and Oxford universities, though the latter did not award her a degree because she was a woman. She then obtained a teaching post with a family: one of the limited range of careers, as opposed to menial work, that a woman could pursue then. In 1908, at the age of thirty-six, she decided to dedicate herself full-time to fighting for the vote for women in the militant and confrontational way - that she and her fellow members of the radical WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) saw as necessary for change. She became a “suffragette.”

A month ago, almost exactly ninety-nine years after Davison’s death, I went to vote in the London regional elections in a building in which my great-great-grandmother, Muriel De La Warr, waged a very different campaign for women’s suffrage at the same time that Davison was throwing stones. Muriel was the scion of a dying railroad dynasty and lived in a house on Park Lane that was a hotbed of political activism for both women’s and workers’ rights in the Edwardian era. That house, the tumultuous changes for women at that time, and the bitter rivalry between the suffragettes and suffragists, are all key drivers in the plot of my new novel.

Muriel was a member of the opposing suffrage organization to Davison: the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). She believed that woman suffrage could only be achieved by peaceful demonstrations and rallies, and negotiation within the existing political system. Members of the NUWSS were known as “suffragists” or, sometimes, “constitutionalists.” Nonetheless when, after Wilding’s death in 1913, the NUWSS organized a six-week series of rallies across Britain, culminating in a march through London, a single local suffrage society’s rally descended into a violent clash with anti-suffrage protestors: the branch which Muriel led.

The president of the NUWSS was a woman called Millicent Garrett Fawcett. She had already played a part in the repeal of the misogynistic Contagious Diseases Act, which determined that prostitutes and suspected prostitutes should be (often painfully) examined to see if they had venereal diseases. If so, or if they did not consent to examination, they could be imprisoned.

Fawcett was not without sympathy for the suffragettes. She admitted that their all-too-visible activities had undoubtedly attracted women to join her own, more moderate, movement and, in 1906, she had arranged a banquet at the Savoy to welcome a group of suffragettes home from their two-month jail sentences. And in that inspirational house on Park Lane, Muriel De La Warr introduced the future leader of Britain’s Labour Party, George Lansbury—whom she supported financially—to Emmeline Pankhurst. However, it was only after this that the suffragettes, frustrated by the government’s continuing failure to pass a suffrage bill through Parliament, fully embarked on their violent campaign.

In the years leading up to World War One, the suffragettes disrupted British daily life and many went to jail. The initial reasons for arrest arose when police tried to move noisy protestors on and fights broke out between suffragettes and police. However their charismatic leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, was sentenced for obstruction when she tried to enter Parliament to deliver a petition to the Prime Minister.

Smashing windows was their next tactic. Suffragettes raged along the main shopping streets, hurling stones through the glass panes—they even went to 10, Downing Street, to hurl rocks at the Prime Minister’s home. And they chained themselves to railings, most famously outside Buckingham Palace.

Then they turned to arson. Churches and public buildings were burned down across Britain and one politician’s (fortunately empty) house was bombed. A lone suffragette even smuggled a hatchet into the National Gallery and slashed one of the great nude paintings—Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus. As a result several London museums and galleries banned women for several months.

Once imprisoned, suffragettes in both Britain and the United States went on hunger strike. Several died as a result of force-feeding, which involved prisoners being held down by up to a dozen warders while rubber tubes were inserted into their throats. This did not however necessarily succeed in preventing the hunger strikers steadily moving towards death. As one of the last things the British government wanted were martyrs on their hands in 1913 they introduced the Prisoner’s (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, known colloquially as the Cat and Mouse Act. The suffragettes readily adopted the term ‘mice’ for their members who, once released, were evading re-arrest. One supporter’s home, that of Mrs Hilda Brackenbury, in Kensington’s Campden Hill Square, was even known as Mouse Castle.

The most famous “mouse” was Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette’s WSPU herself. She spent much of her time evading re-arrest by living in Paris but would be smuggled back into England—often lying on the back seat of a car, covered with rugs—to preach to her supporters. And “preach” is an apt term. Rallies would be announced in the press that morning and, hours in advance, hundreds would gather outside the designated house, into which she had been smuggled.

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The first to arrive were the police who, unable to enter, surrounded the exits. Mrs Pankhurst would then emerge onto a first floor balcony, backlit by the light of the room behind and, in the manner of a prophet, raise her arms to silence the crowd. She would proceed to list a stream of violent New Testament references before asking her listeners to lay down their lives for the Cause. “Can you keep your self-respect any longer?...[if you have not] struck a blow for the freedom of our sex…against subjection…against the vicious conditions into which the majority of our sex is born.”

After she withdrew, suffragettes wielding Indian clubs (a then fashionable exercise aid) would enter a pitched battle with the police with blood spilt and heads broken.

All this militant activity was regarded by the suffragists as hindering rather than helping the argument that women should have the vote. For which members of Parliament, they argued, would grant the vote to women if women were behaving like this? Far from making the point that women were as rational and intelligent as men, these women appeared at times, in the view of the suffragists, to be acting like lunatics.

The suffragists instead lobbied politicians and were successful in managing to have suffrage bills presented before the British parliament. However on the occasion one bill saw some success, Prime Minister Asquith informed the People’s Suffrage Federation that he had abandoned it. The issue had so split the Cabinet it was threatening the Irish Home Rule Bill—which the government needed to have passed in order to stay in power. It is worth noting that the government had no such problem in passing the Cat and Mouse Act.

However the suffragists remained convinced their way was the only way forward. They allied their cause to that of universal suffrage. This was the campaign to grant the vote to all men, too, and not just those wealthy enough to own or rent property of a certain value and, by including men, they gained a far wider group of supporters. The suffragettes meanwhile had banned men from any involvement with their activities.

The rallies of the NUWSS were calmer affairs than those of Mrs. Pankhurst. Banners were waved and speakers were both cheered and jeered—opponents commonly turned up to heckle. But, save Muriel’s branch’s outbreak, they were peaceful affairs.

What was striking about them was the sheer weight of the numbers of their protestors. The march through London after Wilding’s death drew 100,000 demonstrators from all over Britain: some on horseback, most on foot, and many, many banners. But it didn’t work. At least not by the time that, a year later, Britain found itself drawn into what would become known as World War One.

Women, some of them, won the vote in February 1918, along with all men over the age of 21. So what was it that turned the politicians around? Many people believed the move was forced by the way in which women had, extremely effectively, stepped into men’s shoes during the war. Indeed, it was thought impossible not to give all men the vote after they had fought their way through the horrors of the war.

However, far from all women had been given the vote. Only women who paid enough rent or owned enough property to be on the local government register—or were married to a man who was—could vote. And they had to be over the age of 30, which precluded most of the women who had taken on the men’s tougher jobs—including driving ambulances and nursing at the Front. There is a theory that suggests this age limitation was to prevent women from being in the majority after the death of so many men during the war. Others put the point that, back then, older women were thought to have a greater chance of understanding the intricacies of politics (yes, really).

Still, although it took another ten years for women in Britain to be given the vote on the same terms as men, a breakthrough was made in 1918. Some argued that this would not have happened but for the protests the suffragettes had made—and the potential return of militancy as and when the war ended. And by this stage in the fighting, the US had joined the war, bringing the end in sight.

The suffragists claimed that quite the opposite was true and that militancy had hindered rather than helped women win the vote. Indeed by early 1918, there had only been minimal suffragette violence since the outbreak of war, when Mrs Pankhurst called a suspension to the WSPU’s campaigning. It was now time, she said, for women to rally around and do what jobs they could for the war effort. Many suffragettes felt deserted by her in this. Nonetheless, most had followed her instructions.

In truth, just as it required hundreds of individual members of parliament to decide to vote for woman suffrage (and by now most of them knew that the local associations which had elected them were in favor of women having the vote), so the decision to present the bill to the British parliament is far more likely to have been made for a combination of reasons. There can be no doubt that during the war women had proved themselves to be just as capable as men. Nor can there be any doubt that, even if the violence of the suffragettes had held Parliament back from giving the vote, those very actions brought public attention to the issue in a way that could not be ignored.

So what should women today do to make their case? Admittedly, in the US, the most prominent debate of the moment is not how to win more women’s rights –but to stop them being rolled back state by state. But holding onto hard-won rights is as important as winning them in the first place.

I am not, however, going to exhort women to violence but we should learn the lesson from the women of a century ago—our forebears—that change, or prevention, will not happen unless a great deal of noise is made. Happily, today, at least in the Western world, women no longer have to prove that they are capable of understanding politics. Equally happily, increased and mass communication, not least on the internet, enables campaigning groups to network, realize they are not alone, and come together as a single, loud voice—even gather together—though perhaps leaving the Indian exercise clubs at home. This voice has to be loud enough for our daughters (and hopefully, sons) to realize that, if you sit back and do nothing, it is not just that the state of affairs will not progress, but it may turn against you. Keep paddling or you will find yourself sinking. Hopefully novels like Park Lane will remind them to.