Shoulder to Shoulder
We hope you enjoy this article from Antiquexplorer magazine - August 2014. Written by Margaret Gaskin.
It can be scarcely have escaped your attention that the Great War began exactly one hundred years ago this month. Less remarked by the media is the fact that this violent conflict brought an abrupt end to another one, which had been increasingly dominating headlines in Britain over the previous decade.
Considering how short a time the Suffragettes’ campaigned for Votes for Women, it is amazing how much memorabilia there is on the antiques market. Not only items produced by the movement itself, but commercially produced items showing support, showing contempt or – as with some of the German toys produced during this period – a sense of the amused observer. Market prices generally reflect the fact that collectors obviously tend towards the more supportive items. Though it is perhaps the ‘antis’ who show how far we have all – men and women – come in a hundred years!
The Women’s Social and Political Union is better known to history by the term coined for it by the hostile Daily Mail – Suffragettes. The WSPU was formed on 10th October 1903 in the Manchester home that widowed Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst shared with her three daughters Christabel, Sylvia and the often- overlooked Adela. It began as a meeting of just six women, frustrated at the slow progress of the wider suffragist movement, which had been doggedly trying to win support for the cause of votes for women for decades.
Women had never officially had the vote but when, in the 1860s, a few independent rate- paying women managed to slip through a legal loophole and cast a vote in local elections, the law was quickly changed to make it illegal. Liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill attempted to put women’s suffrage on equal terms with men into the 1867 Reform Act (which still excluded vast numbers of working people from voting). His attempt failed and, though the idea was debated in Parliament 18 times over the next three decades, it made no headway.
Queen Victoria was no fan: “I am most anxious,” she wrote, “to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights’, with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety. Lady Amberley [who had spoken on the cause at a public meeting] ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to unsex themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection.”
With the new Edwardian age, and tired of relying on male politicians, who had got them nowhere, the WSPU adopted the motto “deeds not words” and the Pankhursts and their growing body of gentlewomen supporters set out to make themselves heard. In 1905, Christabel and rare working class Suffragette Annie Kenney heckled a Government minister at a public meeting, were fined five shillings for apparently assaulting the policemen who tried to eject them, refused to pay the fine and were committed to prison.
This was the beginning of a campaign of civil disobedience that shocked and horrified the nation for two reasons – the lengths some ladies would go to in support of Votes for Women and the increasingly brutal lengths the authorities would go to in order to protect the status quo.
Christabel and Annie’s imprisonment brought two new members to the WSPU, who were to bear the brunt of both extremes. When Emmeline Pethick married Frederick Lawrence they agreed to become mutually double-barelled and in 1905 the Pethick-Lawrences joined the WSPU together. They founded the newspaper Votes for Women and their London home became the WSPU headquarters and a place for hunger-striking women to recuperate from their ordeal.
Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence went to prison six times herself. In 1912, in the wake of a new policy of shop-window-smashing – which the couple had opposed – the couple were arrested with other WSPU leaders (though Christabel escaped to France), imprisoned and force-fed twice a day. They were also held personally liable for the damage caused. In 1913, both were expelled from the WSPU for their opposition to the new policy of arson Christabel was promoting from exile in Paris. The most famous martyr to the cause, Emily Wilding Davison, had already been imprisoned nine times – and force-fed 49 times – when she died under the hooves of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. In 1999, Tony Benn revealed that he had secretly put up a plaque to her in the cupboard where she had hidden on census night so that she could legitimately enter her place of residence on the 1911 census as ‘The House of Commons’. His plaque was, he said, “one of very few monuments to democracy in the whole building”.
When the Great War broke out, Sylvia Pankhurst and the Pethick-Lawrences campaigned for peace but Christabel and her mother threw themselves behind the war effort. Christabel spoke out against the “German Peril”, suspended WSPU suffrage campaigning activity, renamed The Suffragette newspaper Britannia, supported the industrial conscription of women and the handing of white feathers in the street to young men not in uniform.
In February 1918, the Act that extended the vote to all men over 21 also included women over 30 who owned property. Ten years later, on 2nd July 1928 – just 86 years ago – women finally won the vote on the same basis as men.
The Suffragette era was very short but very dramatic and, if you want to get a good argument going, even today, try raising the question of whether Suffragette actions were a hindrance or a help to the cause of emancipation; who was right on the war question in 1914; and whether the desecration of a golf course can ever be justified, whatever the reason!