WOMEN’S EPIC FIGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE
This account is reprinted from the webpage formerly at http://www.cjbooks.demon.co.uk/suffrage.htm, now out of print
The fight for the right for women to vote was a violent revolution for the rights of equal citizenship led by Emmiline Pankhurst and her fellow Suffragettes. The following is a brief account of their fight for equal rights, and the women who were part of that sometimes bloody and violent fight.
In Manchester on October 10 1903, Emmiline Pankhurst’s patience finally ran out. Tired of being pleasant to MP’s in order to get them to give women the vote, she called for more militant action. ‘Deeds, not words’ was to be the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union. (W.S.P.U.) Emmiline expected a fight but little did she envisage the violent and often savage struggle that was to follow on the basis of that motto. Her movement was confined to independent women only, with no party affiliations. They were women of principle and pursued their goal with great passion, determination and fortitude.
They were going to need all these attributes and more before their struggle was over.
On May 19, 1905, a deputation of ten women went to speak to the Prime Minister. Amongst those women was Emily Davies LL.D., who was seventy-six years old. It was Emily who handed the first women’s suffrage petition to the Prime Minister. In return all they received was some advice about ‘being patient’. This was not the result they wanted. They wanted to be taken seriously.
Helen Taylor. 1831-1907 was an advocate of women’s rights. She was also a radical and agitated in seeking reforms to London’s industrial schools 1876-1884.
ARREST, IMPRISONMENT AND CHAINS
The die was cast in 1905 for a confrontation after MP’s ‘talked out’ moves to give women the vote. In a meeting held after this setback, a call for a more militant action was proposed, even if this meant breaking the law. They decided that the all-male parliament needed to be shocked out of inertia into action. It wasn’t long before their motto ‘Deeds not words’ came into effect.
In 1906, Christobel Pankhurst and her colleague attended a meeting held by Sir Edward Grey, a leading Liberal. There they assaulted a policeman, were arrested and sentenced to seven days in jail or pay a fine They could have paid the fine and gone home. Annie Kenney refused to pay the fine, as far as she and the movement was concerned; it was prison or votes for women. There were to be no easy options, this was to be a fight to the bitter end.
As time went by there were more arrests and imprisonment for member’s of the ‘Suffragettes’ as they were christened by the Daily Mail. They shouted down Ministers, protested in parliament and on the streets, but still there were no moves towards votes for women.
In 1908, Miss Nell chained herself to the railings outside the Prime Minister’s front door. She did this for a number of reasons; the Cabinet was in session so they would hear her speech, as would the crowd outside. Furthermore it would take the police time to unchain her, time she desperately needed to make her impassioned speech. She was quickly joined by Nurse Oliva Smith who followed her example and chained herself to the railings. Both were charged along with two other members with disorderly conduct. They all elected to go to jail for three weeks.
Emmiline Pankhurst had been campaigning since the 1880’s for the right of women to vote. In all this time only men were allowed to vote, but ironically not all men. Out of a population of 27.5 million men only 4.5 million men could actually vote! Years of patiently trying to get the vote for women finally came to a head in 1908. Emmiline Pankhurst was arrested for common street-brawling and sentenced to six weeks in prison. She was in solitary confinement and exercised in silence in a bitterly cold yard on her own. As a result, two days later she became ill and was sent to the prison hospital. That night she heard horrible moans and screams from the cell next door, it was a women giving birth. Emmiline was shocked and outraged that this should be happening, that a woman imprisoned by men’s laws was giving birth in a prison cell. Emmiline never forgot that terrible night.
H. Asquith became the Prime Minister that year and was an opponent of women’s suffrage and it was plain to the movement that no method of persuasion or education would work on him. Action by the Suffragettes was stepped up with more protests, more demonstrations and consequently more arrests. All this action achieved no more than vague statements about some reforms to include women’s suffrage.
In October 1906, Horace Smith, a magistrate at Rochester Row police court told ten suffragettes they were to keep the peace for six months and be fined a surety of ?10. Failure to do so would result in a prison sentence of six months.MORE DEPUTATION'S
The Suffragettes decided that another deputation following hard on the heels of the last one would keep up the pressure. To this end, volunteers for the deputation were required. Among the volunteers were four graduates: Rona Robinson and Dora Marsden of Manchester University, Emmily Wilding Davison, an Oxford graduate and Margaret Smith, a London graduate all led by Mrs Saul Solomon a sixty year old widow. They were refused an interview with the Prime Minister at Downing Street.
Meanwhile, a women at the forefront of the movement, Mrs Pethick Lawrence was to be honoured with a gift for her courageous contributions. This took the form of a new car, an Austin complete with a chauffeur, namely Muriel Thompson the 1908 winner of the Gold Bracelet for Driving.
Emily (Sarah) Davies 1830-1921. Emily organised with others a college for women at Hitchin 1869. Pioneer in Suffrage movement 1873-75.
MORE ARRESTS, AND THE HUNGER STRIKES BEGIN
It was Marion Wallace Dunlop who was the first to go on a hunger strike. She had been arrested and convicted of willful damage, caused by rubber stamping a Bill of Rights message on a wall at St. Stephen’s Hall!
She was sentenced to one month's imprisonment. Being denied political prisoner status she decided to go on a hunger strike on July 5 1909. She threw away the food brought to her. The prison authorities threatened to force feed her with milk through her nostrils. As a form of inducement (or torture) to break her fast, they left food on the table in her cell. After a fast that lasted ninety-one hours the Home Secretary set her free.
The Suffragettes decided on multiple, simultaneous attacks and demonstrations to confuse and harass the establishment, and keep their cause in the newspapers.
One group including Ada Wright was to break windows in Whitehall. To women of culture and refinement, throwing stones in order to cause damage, required great moral courage. As soon as the stone throwing began, arrests were made. Other teams made their way to the House. Onlooking crowds watched terrified, as the women stood their ground fearlessly under the harassment of the milling and rearing police horses.
By the evening, one hundred and eight Suffragettes had been arrested. They appeared the next day in Bow Street to stand trial charged with obstruction, malicious damage and assaulting the police. The police had difficulty identifying their battered prisoners as to who did what. Due to a legal point concerning one of the Acts they were being charged under, the trial was adjourned.
At the same court, the group responsible for the stone throwing were tried separately. This group was found guilty and sentenced to seven days close confinement (solitary) in Holloway Prison. Amongst those imprisoned were Gladys Roberts of Leeds, Miss Wright, Kathleen Brown and Mary Allen. They immediately went on a hunger strike and no amount of pleading by the doctors and intimidation by the authorities persuaded them to eat. Seven days later, they were released without breaking their fast. No sooner were they out than the Suffragettes staged yet another demonstration at a place called Bingley Hall in Birmingham. They were arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned in Birmingham’s Winston Green Goal. The moment they were in jail they started to protest and went on a hunger strike. The authorities decided to force-feed the fasting women.
FORCE FEEDING…AN ASSAULT ON DIGNITY
Mrs Mary Leigh had already been force fed several times before that particularly painful Sunday. As she rested in her cell two doctors and four wardresses entered to forcibly feed Mary through the nostrils. Held by the four wardresses the two-foot long tube was forced up my nostril by the doctor. The sensations of the tubes progress up my nose and down my throat was very painful. The drums of my ears seemed to be at bursting point and there was a terrible pain in my throat and chest. They pushed nearly two feet of the tube into me. Then I was forced to lie down on the bed by the four wardresses and held there. The doctor then stood on a chair holding the funnel end of the tube above my head. He then started to pour a liquid mixture of milk and egg into the funnel. After a few moments, the doctor decided that the liquid wasn’t going down fast enough so he pinched my nostril with the tube in it and squeezed my throat, causing me even more pain. When they had finished, the doctor checked my heart and they all left to force feed someone else. Afterwards I was sick and had pains in my ears, throat and chest. In additions to these problems, I developed a discomforting indigestion.
News leaked out about the force-feeding and the press was in uproar. In parliament the MP’s just laughed and the Home Secretary H. Gladstone was unmoved by the outcries.
Mrs Mary Leigh suffers the indignity of force feeding
THE SUFFRAGETTES PRESS ON REGARDLESS
The Suffragettes decided to target a visit by Lloyd George to Newcastle as a venue for holding a demonstration to further their cause. The police set up barricades and searched every building for Suffragettes. But the carefully planned demonstration called for only a dozen volunteers, among those volunteers were Jane Brailsford, Kitty Marion and Winifred Jones. The volunteers were fully briefed on the details of imprisonment and force-feeding. They were under no illusions about the ordeals they faced if they were caught and found guilty. As Lloyd George arrived he was met with a shower of stones and Mrs Brailsford attacked the barricades with an axe. The women were quickly arrested and subsequently sentenced to one month in jail. From the moment they arrived in the jail every question put to them was met with the answer ‘votes for women.’ They went on a hunger strike and consequently force fed. In addition, they were subjected to rough treatment at the hands of the wardresses. There were cases of them being hosed down with cold water for barricading themselves in their cell. Some set fire to their cell in protest at their treatment.
Parliament seemed immune to the trials and treatment of these women in their quest for equality, and would not budge an inch on the ‘votes for women’ issue.
Parliament's indifference to their cause didn’t put them off; it only helped to stiffen their resolve. This resolve manifested itself in yet more demonstrations.
A demonstration of note that epitomised the extent of their daring and planning took place at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet. Among the guests were Winston Churchill and H. Asquith and his wife. Unknown to all there, Amelia Brown and Alice Paul had infiltrated the kitchen staff, and as the opportunity arrived, they hid themselves under a bench. When all the guests were about to toast the King the atmosphere of the occasion was broken by the sound of glass shattering as it landed on the floor. Amelia Brown had thrown her shoe through one of the windows. They were arrested and sentenced to one month’s hard labour.
1910 was an election year and the Suffragettes were determined to bring their cause to the forefront of the election and keep it there. The leaders organised a deputation to the House. They set out peacefully and as they neared the House, they ran into a gauntlet of policemen. As the women tried to go forward they were pushed and beaten, thrown to the ground and trampled, had limbs broken and dislocated, some were dragged down side streets and indecent assaults were attempted. Again and again, the women rushed the police, indifferent now to the violence being dished out, there was no stopping them, their blood was up. In a part of this violent melee, Ada Wright was thrown to the ground and unknowingly photographed as she lay there in a daze. The next day the photograph appeared on the front page of the Daily Mirror under the headline: BLACK FRIDAY
The government tried to suppress the photograph in the newspaper, but it was too late, copies had already been sold. At the end of the demonstration, over one hundred women had been arrested on various charges.
Many were treated for the injuries sustained in their clash with the police. Sent to prison, they were eventually released two days before Christmas.
The Pankhurst’s held a family party on Christmas day and later on, Emmiline’s sister Mary said she felt tired and was going upstairs to lie down. A little while later Emmiline went up to see her and found her dead. The following week Black Friday claimed another victim, Henria Williams, she had died of heart failure. It was an untimely and tragic end for these courageous women who did not live to see the fruits of their struggle.
MILITANCY BREAKS OUT
In 1912, the Suffragettes applied new militant tactics as hundreds of women took to the streets of London. They attacked shops on Oxford Street and The Strand smashing windows and even threw stones at 10 Downing Street. 120 women were arrested that day as they made no attempt to hide the hammers they had used.
In Dublin, Mrs Gladys Evans was arrested in connection with an attempt to set fire to the Theatre Royal. At her trial in Dublin, she was tried alongside with Mary Leigh and Mrs Baines. Mary Evans and Mary Leigh were sentenced to five years hard labour. Mrs Baines was sentenced to seven months hard labour. Because they were denied political rights, they started a hunger strike. Mrs Baines was released a few days later in a dangerous condition. The others were released later only because the government couldn’t risk letting them starve to death and become martyrs to the cause.
WAR BOOSTS WOMEN’S RIGHT TO VOTE CAMPAIGN AND SOME MEN LOSE THEIRS
Several days after the start of the First World War all the Suffragettes who were prisoners were unconditionally released.
Emmiline Pankhurst suspended all militancy and called on her followers to help defend the country. Before long women were streaming into the factories to make arms and munitions. There were no important moves by parliament in the next few years. Nevertheless, the ever-increasing number of women working in the factories began to tell on the political front. By acknowledging the unstinting sacrifices of these women, for parliament it was the beginning of the end of no votes for women. Parliament was about to shoot itself in the foot.
In 1916, the war committee demanded a vote for every soldier. To be eligible to vote the existing laws required men to be qualified as householders, and to have occupied their house for at least a year prior to an election. A bit difficult if you have been sent to the front and have been there over a year already. The result to many men who were soldiers was, they lost the right to vote! This act certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons for millions of men at war.
Herbert Asquith, in 1916, began to face up to the fact that women were going to get the vote. With so many women aiding the war effort, he realised that circumstances had changed forever. He couldn’t see how they could prevent them from getting the vote after the war ended. In the House of Commons in June 1917, the women’s suffrage bill was debated. The idea that women were inferior to men was squashed and that women really were equal in the social, intellectual and economic fields. Finally, in January 1918, women were for the first time given the right to vote. It had taken them nearly forty years.
They were given the right to vote after more than one thousand Suffragettes had been jailed in pursuit of their just cause. They had suffered hard labour and the humiliation of force feeding in dirty prisons. They had suffered broken bodies but not broken spirits. Some had paid the ultimate price for the right in life to be free, and to be treated as equals.
This is just a short list of the many women who fought with courage and tenacity for their right to be treated as equals.
Anderson, Elizabeth Garrett (Mrs)
Anderson, Louisa Garrett (Dr.)
Baines, Jennie (Mrs)
Blathwayt, E.M (Mrs)
Brackenbury, Hilda (Mrs)
Clarke, Mary (Mrs)
Cohen, Leonora (Mrs)
Davison, Emily Wilding
Despard, Charlotte (Mrs)
Drummond, Flora (Mrs)
Dunlop, Marion Wallace
Fox, Joan Dacre (Mrs)
Garrud, Edith (Mrs)
Haverfield, Evelina. (Hon. Mrs)
Lawrence, Emmeline Pethick (Mrs)
Lytton, Constance (Lady)
Mansel Mildred (Mrs)
Marshall, Emily Katherine
Martel, Nellie Alma
Montefiore, Dora (Mrs)
Moullin-Mansell, Edith Ruth (Mrs)
Raleigh Richardson, Mary
Sanders, Beatrice (Mrs)
Sanderson, Anne Cobden (Mrs)
Smyth, Ethel (Dr.)
Soloman, Saul (Mrs)
Tuke, Mabel (Mrs)
Wilcox, Lilian Dove (Mrs)
Wolstenholme, Elmy (Mrs)