Women's suffrage: a short history of a great movement/Chapter 6
THE MILITANT SOCIETIES
"It is a calumny on men to say that they are roused to heroic action by ease, hope of pleasure—sugar plums of any kind. In the meanest mortal there lies something nobler. Difficulty, abnegation, martyrdom, death, are the allurements which act upon the heart of man."—Thomas Carlyle.
In Chapters II. and III. an outline was given of the Parliamentary history of women's suffrage between 1867 and 1897. In those thirty years the movement had progressed until it had reached a point when it could count upon a majority of suffragists being returned in each successively elected House of Commons. In 1899 came the South African War, and the main interest of the nation was concentrated on that struggle till it was over. A war almost invariably suspends all progress in domestic and social legislation. Two fires cannot burn together, and the most ardent of the suffragists felt that, while the war lasted, it was not a fitting time to press their own claims and objects. The war temporarily suspended the progress of the suffrage movement, but it is probable that it ultimately strengthened the demand of women for citizenship, for it has been observed again and again that a war, or any other event which stimulates national vitality, and the consciousness of the value of citizenship is almost certain to be followed by increased vigour in the suffrage movement, and not infrequently by its success. For instance, suffrage in Finland in 1907 followed immediately upon the great struggle with Russia to regain constitutional liberty; women as well as men had thrown themselves into that struggle and borne the great sacrifices it entailed, and when Finland wrung from the Czar the granting of the Constitution, women's suffrage formed an essential part of it, and was demanded by the almost unanimous voice of the Finnish people. Again, when suffrage was granted to women in Norway in 1907, it was immediately after the great outburst of national feeling which led to the separation from Sweden, and established Norway as an independent kingdom. Upon the rights and wrongs of the controversy between the two countries it is not for us to enter, but the intensity of the feeling in Norway in favour of separation is undoubted. The women had shared in the national fervour and in all the work and sacrifices it entailed. The Parliamentary Suffrage was granted to women as one of the first Acts of the Norwegian Parliament.
In the Commonwealth of Australia almost the first Act of the first Parliament was the enfranchisement of women. The national feeling of Australia had been stimulated and the sense of national responsibility deepened by the events which led to the Federation of the Independent States of the Australian Continent. It is true that South Australia and Western Australia had led the way about women's suffrage before this in 1893 and 1899, but up to the time of the formation of the Commonwealth there had been no such rapid extension of the suffrage to women as that which accompanied or immediately followed it.
The fight for suffrage in the United Kingdom is not won yet, but it has made enormous progress towards victory, and this, in my opinion, is in part due to the quickened sense of national responsibility, the deeper sense of the value of citizenship which was created by the South African War. The war in the first instance originated from the refusal of the vote to Englishmen and other "Uitlanders" long settled in the Transvaal. The newspapers, therefore, both in this country and in South Africa constantly dwelt on the value and significance of the vote. The Spectator once put the point with great brevity and force when it wrote, "We dwell so strongly on the franchise because it includes all other rights, and is the one essential thing." Now this is either true or untrue; if true it applies to women as well as to "Uitlanders." After thinking of the war its causes the first thing in the morning and the last thing at night for nearly three years, there were many thousands of Englishwomen who asked themselves why, if the vote to Englishmen in the Transvaal was worth £200,000,000 of money and some 30,000 lives, it was not also of great value and significance to women at home. Why, they said to themselves and to others, are we to be treated as perpetual "Uitlanders" in the country of our birth, which we love as well as any other of its citizens?
Therefore in the long run the war, though it temporarily caused a suspension of the suffrage agitation, nourished it at its source, and very shortly after the declaration of peace it became more active than it had ever been before. Ever since 1897, when Mr. Faithfull Begg's Women's Suffrage Bill had been read a second time by 228 to 157, the enemies of suffrage in the House of Commons had managed to evade a vote on a direct issue. The days obtained for Suffrage Bills were absorbed by the Government or merged into the holidays. One or other of the hundred ways of burking discussion open to the experienced Parliamentarian was used. Nevertheless women's suffrage resolutions were brought forward in 1904 and 1905; that of 1905 was "talked out."
At the end of 1905 the general public first became aware of a new element in the suffrage movement. The Women's Social and Political Union had been formed by Mrs. and Miss Pankhurst in 1903, but the "militant movement," with which its name will always be associated, had not attracted any public notice till the end of 1905. Its manifestations and multifarious activities have been set forth in detail by Miss Sylvia Pankhurst in a book, and are also so well known from other sources that it is unnecessary to dwell upon them here. It is enough to say that by adopting novel and startling methods not at the outset associated with physical violence or attempts at violence, they succeeded in drawing a far larger amount of public attention to the claims of women to representation than ever had been given to the subject before. These methods were regarded by many suffragists with strong aversion, while others watched them with sympathy and admiration for the courage and self-sacrifice which these new methods involved. It is notorious that differences of method separate people from one another even more acutely than differences of aim. This has been seen in the history of religion as well as in politics:—
"Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That the apostles would have done as they did."
It was a most anxious time for many months when there seemed a danger that the suffrage cause might degenerate into futile quarrelling among suffragists about the respective merits of their different methods, rather than develop into a larger, broader, and more widespread movement. This danger has been happily averted, partly by the good sense of the suffragists of all parties, who held firmly to the sheet anchor of the fact that they were all working for precisely the same thing, the removal of the sex disability in Parliamentary elections, and, therefore, that what united them was more important than that which separated them. The formation of the anti-suffrage societies was also from this point of view most opportune, giving us all an immediate objective. It was obvious to all suffragists that they should turn their artillery on their opponents rather than on each other. Therefore, while recognising fully all the acute differences which must exist between the advocates of revolutionary and constitutional methods, each group went on its own way; and the total result has undoubtedly been an extraordinary growth in the vigour and force of the suffrage movement all over the country. The most satisfactory feature of the situation was that however acute were the differences between the heads of the different societies, the general mass of suffragists throughout the country were loyal to the cause by whomsoever it was represented, just as Italian patriots in the great days of the Risorgimento supported the unity of Italy, whether promoted by Cavour, Garibaldi, or Mazzini.
The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies endeavoured to steer an even keel. They never weakened in their conviction that constitutional agitation was not only right in itself, but would prove far more effective in the long run than any display of physical violence, as a means of converting the electorate, the general public, and, consequently, Parliament and the Government, to a belief in women's suffrage. But the difficulties for a long time were very great. A few of our own members attacked us because we were not militant; others resigned because they disapproved of the militantism which we had repudiated. On one such occasion a high dignitary of the Church of England, who is also a distinguished historian, wrote to resign his position as vice-president of one of our societies because he highly disapproved of the recent action of the members of militant societies. The honorary secretary replied, asking him if he was also relinquishing his connection with Christianity, as she gathered from his writings that he strongly disapproved of what some Christians had done in the supposed interests of Christianity. It is to the credit of both that the threatened resignation was withdrawn. We tried to comfort and help the weak-hearted by reminding them, in the words of Viscount Morley, that "No reformer is fit for his task if he suffers himself to be frightened by the excesses of an extreme wing."
Personally it was to myself the most difficult time of my forty years of suffrage work. I was helped a good deal by recalling a saying of my husband's about the Irish situation in the 'eighties, when he was heard saying to himself, "Just keep on and do what is right." I am far from claiming that we actually accomplished the difficult feat of doing what was right, but I believe we tried to. But the brutal severity with which some of the militant suffragists were treated gave suffragists of all parties another subject on which they were in agreement.
Minor breaches of the law, such as waving flags and making speeches in the lobbies of the Houses of Parliament, were treated more severely than serious crime on the part of men has often been. A sentence of three months' imprisonment as an ordinary offender was passed in one case against a young girl who had done nothing except to decline to be bound over to keep the peace which she was prepared to swear she had not broken. The turning of the hose upon a suffrage prisoner in her cell in a midwinter night, and all the anguish of the hunger strike and forcible feeding are other examples. All through 1908 and 1909 a dead set was made upon law-breakers, real or supposed, who were obscure and unknown; while people with well-known names and of good social position were treated with leniency, and in some cases were allowed to do almost anything without arrest or punishment.
The militant societies split into two in 1907, when the Freedom League was formed under the Presidency of Mrs. Despard. Shortly after this both the militant groups abandoned the plan upon which for the first few years they had worked that of suffering violence, but using none. Stone-throwing of a not very formidable kind was indulged in, and personal attacks upon Ministers of the Grown were attempted. These new developments necessitated, in the opinion of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the publication of protests expressing their grave and strong objection to the use of personal violence as a means of political propaganda. These protests were published in November 1908 and October 1909. The second, and shortest, was as follows:—
"That the Council of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies strongly condemns the use of violence in political propaganda, and being convinced that the true way of advocating the cause of Women's Suffrage is by energetic, law-abiding propaganda, reaffirms its adherence to constitutional principles, and instructs the Executive Committee and the Societies to communicate this resolution to the Press."
To this was added:—
"That while condemning methods of violence the Council of the N.U.W.S.S. also protests most earnestly against the manner in which the whole Suffrage agitation has been handled by the responsible Government."
The National Union has not thought it necessary publicly to protest against every individual act of violence. Having definitely and in a full Council, where all the societies in the Union are represented in proportion to their membership, put upon record that they "strongly condemn the use of violence in political propaganda," it appears unnecessary to asseverate that they condemn individual acts of violence. There is a remarkable passage in one of Cromwell's letters explaining why that which is gained by force is of little value in comparison with that which is conceded to the claims of justice and reason. "Things obtained by force," he wrote, "though never so good in themselves, would be both less to their honour and less likely to last than concessions made to argument and reason." "What we gain in a free way is better than twice as much in a forced, and will be more truly ours and our posterity's." The practical example of male revolutionists is often cited to the contrary; but with all due respect to the other sex, is not their example too often an example of how not to do it? The Russian revolution, for instance, seems to have thrown the political development of Russia into a vicious circle: "we murder you because you and your like have murdered us," and thus it goes on in an endless vista like one mirror reflecting another. I admit fully that the kind and degree of violence carried out by the so-called "suffragettes" is of the mildest description; a few panes of glass have been broken, and meetings have been disturbed, but no one has suffered in life or limb; our great movement towards freedom has not been stained by serious crime. Compared with the Irish Nationalist movement in the 'eighties, or the recent unrest in India, the so-called "violence" of the suffragettes is absolutely negligible in degree, except as an indication of their frame of mind.
Far more violence has been suffered by the suffragettes than they have caused their opponents to suffer. The violence of the stewards at Liberal meetings in throwing out either men or women who dared to ask questions about women's suffrage has been most discreditable. It may be hoped it has been checked by an action claiming damages brought on at the Leeds Assizes in March 1911 on behalf of a man who had had his leg broken by the violence with which he had been thrown out of a meeting at Bradford by Liberal stewards, in the previous November. The judge ruled that his ejection from the meeting was in itself unlawful, and the only question he left to the jury was to assess damages. The jury awarded the plaintiff £100; this decision was appealed against, but the appeal was withdrawn in October 1911.
Mark Twain once wrote of the women suffragists in his own country, "For forty years they have swept an imposingly large number of unfair laws from the statute books of America. In this brief time these serfs have set themselves free—essentially. Men could not have done as much for themselves in that time without bloodshed, at least they never have, and that is an argument that they didn't know how."
Perhaps the mild degree of violence perpetrated by the suffragettes was intended to lower our sex pride; we were going to show the world how to gain reforms without violence, without killing people and blowing up buildings, and doing the other silly things that men have done when they wanted the laws altered. Lord Acton once wrote: "It seems to be a law of political evolution that no great advance in human freedom can be gained except after the display of some kind of violence." We wanted to show that we could make the grand advance in human freedom, at which we aimed without the display of any kind of violence. We have been disappointed in that ambition, but we may still lay the flattering unction to our souls that the violence offered has not been formidable, and that the fiercest of the suffragettes have been far more ready to suffer pain than to inflict it. What those endured who underwent the hunger strike and the anguish of forcible feeding can hardly be overestimated. Their courage made a very deep impression on the public and touched the imagination of the whole country.
Of course a very different measure is applied to men and women in these matters. Women are expected to be able to bear every kind of injustice without even "a choleric word"; if men riot when they do not get what they want they are leniently judged, and excesses of which they may be guilty are excused in the House of Commons, in the press, and on the bench on the plea of political excitement. Compare the line of the press on the strike riots in Wales and elsewhere with the tone of the same papers on the comparatively infinitesimal degree of violence shown by the militant suffragists. No one has been more severe in his condemnation of militantism than Mr. Churchill, but speaking in the House of Commons in August 8, 1911, about the violent riots in connection with Parliamentary Reform in 1832, he is reported to have said: "It is true there was rioting in 1832, but the people had no votes then, and had very little choice as to the alternatives they should adopt." If this is a good argument, why not extend its application to the militant suffragists?
The use of physical violence by the militant societies was not the only difference between them and the National Union. The two groups between 1905 and 1911 adopted different election policies. The militants believed, and they had much ground for their belief, that the only chance of a Women's Suffrage Bill being carried into law lay in its adoption by one or other of the great political parties as a party question. The private member, they urged, had no longer a chance of passing an important measure; it must be backed by a Government. Hence they concluded that the individual member of Parliament was of no particular consequence, and they concentrated their efforts at each electoral contest in endeavouring to coerce the Government of the day to take up the suffrage cause. Their cry in every election was "Keep the Liberal out," not, as they asserted, from party motives, but because the Government of the day, and the Government alone, had the power to pass a Suffrage Bill; and as long as any Government declined to take up suffrage they would have to encounter all the opposition which the militants could command. In carrying out this policy they opposed the strongest supporters of women's suffrage if they were also supporters of the Government.
The National Union adopted a different election policy—that of obtaining declarations of opinion from all if they had not been thrown into a violent rage by what they considered an unfair attack upon their own party. To this it was replied that only the Liberals were enraged and that the Conservatives would be correspondingly conciliated. It did not appear, however, that this was actually the case. The Conservatives were not slow to see that their immunity from attack was only temporary; when their turn came to have a Government in power the cry would be changed to "Keep the Conservative out." And then having profoundly irritated one half of the electorate, the militants would go on to irritate the other half. What the National Union aimed at was the creation in each constituency of a Women's Suffrage society on non-party lines, which should by meetings, articles, and educational propaganda of all kinds create so strong a feeling in favour of women's suffrage as to make party managers on both sides realise, in choosing candidates, that they would have a better chance of success with a man who was a suffragist than with a man who was an anti-suffragist.at each election and supporting the man, independent of party, who gave the most satisfactory assurances of support. In the view of the National Union this policy was infinitely more adapted to the facts of the situation than that adopted by the militants. What was desired was that the electorate should be educated in the principles of women's suffrage, and made to understand what women wanted, and why they wanted it; and electors were much more likely to approach the subject in a reasonable frame of mind
The whole Parliamentary situation was altered when in November 1910, and again more explicitly in June and August 1911, Mr. Asquith promised on behalf of the Government that on certain conditions they would grant time for all the stages of a Women's Suffrage Bill during this Parliament. This removed the basis on which the militant societies had founded their election policy; it no longer was an impossibility for a private member to carry a Reform Bill, and it became obvious that the road to success lay in endeavouring, as far as possible, to promote the return of men of all parties to the House of Commons who were genuine suffragists. The Women's Social and Political Union and the Freedom League appreciated the importance of this change, and early in 1911 they definitely suspended militant action, and abandoned their original election policy. There was thus harmony in methods as well as unity of aims between the Suffrage Societies until this harmony was disturbed by the events to be described in the next chapter.
- See p. 89.
- See The Suffragette, by Miss E. Sylvia Pankhurst (Gay and Hancock, 1911).
- See Garibaldi and the Making of Italy, by G. M. Trevelyan, p. 3.
- Morley's Life of Gladstone, vol. iii. p. 371.
- I have in my possession positive proof that orders were given to the police not to arrest a particular lady whose name is well known and highly respected in every part of the country.
- I am requested by the Women's Freedom League to state that they have never resorted to stone -throwing or to personal assaults.
- A third protest was published in December 1911.
- Morley's Life of Oliver Cromwell, pp. 232-3.
- See Summing up of Mr. Justice Avory in Hawkins v. Muff case. A Warning to Liberal Stewards, published by the Men's Political Union, 1911.
- More Tramps Abroad, by Mark Twain, p. 208.