Regular Terrors

Alison Light

  • BuyRebel Girls: Their Fight for the Vote by Jill Liddington
    Virago, 402 pp, £14.99, May 2006, ISBN 1 84408 168 0

In November 1913, ‘the Headingly two’, a dark-haired woman of about twenty-five and ‘a girlish figure in green cap and sports jacket’, stood trial for attempting to set fire to a football stand in Leeds. Among the evidence produced against them were some postcards, one declaring ‘No Vote, No Sport, No Peace – Fire, Destruction, Devastation’ and another addressed to Asquith: ‘We are burning for “Votes for Women”.’ It wasn’t a joke. In the last months of peacetime, suffragettes belonging to Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, committed arson on a scale not seen since the rick-burnings of the Captain Swing riots in the 1830s. In the first seven months of 1914, a hundred buildings were set on fire, including the ancient White Kirk in East Lothian, which was totally destroyed, the refreshment room in Regent’s Park in London and houses in Liverpool and Manchester. There were other ‘outrages’, as the press called them: a railway carriage set ablaze; pillar boxes ‘fired’ with phosphorus packets which burned when exposed to air; telegraph and telephone wires cut; glass smashed in public buildings and shops. ‘Votes for Women’ was scorched in acid across golf greens in Bradford and Birmingham, and Lloyd George’s country house was attacked. In Doncaster, suffragettes tried to blow up an empty house, and a bomb went off under the Coronation Throne in Westminster Abbey; the explosion could be heard in the House of Commons.

One of the fire-raisers was Lilian Lenton, the daughter of a joiner from Leicester. She celebrated her 21st birthday by volunteering at her local WSPU office for window-breaking raids. After her first spell in prison, she graduated to arson, vowing to burn two empty buildings a week. She was arrested for setting fire to the orchid house and pavilion at Kew, went on hunger strike in prison, and was force-fed. (Kitty Marion, who set fire to the grandstand at Hurst Park racecourse, was force-fed nearly two hundred times in prison.)

Not all of those in Jill Liddington’s account of the militant years were rebel ‘girls’ – except metaphorically. Leonora Cohen, for instance, was nearly forty when she hurled an iron bar (filed down from a domestic fire-grate) at a display case in the Jewel Room at the Tower of London. Unlike Lenton, Mrs Cohen was a respectable married woman, the wife of a staunchly Liberal watchmaker in Leeds. Until she became branch secretary in 1911, she had contented herself with bringing up her son, and selling newspapers and making marmalade for the WSPU. When Asquith suddenly announced a man-only suffrage bill in November of that year, reneging yet again on a commitment to women, she turned to direct action. Her subsequent hunger strikes, and refusal to accept fluids, in Armley jail in Leeds nearly killed her. After her husband bombarded the Home Office with furious letters condemning the barbarity of her treatment, she was released under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act, passed in the summer of 1913. Hunger-strikers could now be sent home to recover and clawed back into prison once they were well enough to continue their sentences. Eventually, the Cohens were persuaded to retreat to Harrogate, where Leonora set up a guesthouse for WSPU sympathisers and offered ‘reform diets’ of vegetarian meals and salads. She sheltered Lilian Lenton when Lenton violated her parole and helped her to escape a police cordon dressed in her son’s Norfolk suit and cap. Lenton was one of many suffragette fugitives who remained in hiding until the war brought them amnesty.

Like their feminist forebears, suffrage historians have tended to take sides, for or against militancy. Jill Liddington’s influential first book, One Hand Tied behind Us, written with Jill Norris, and published in 1978, offered a corrective to ‘virtually all the books on the subject’ which told the suffrage story ‘in terms of the middle-class, London-based leaders’. Liddington and Norris uncovered a new group of women whom they called ‘radical suffragists’ and who lived and worked in the North of England, the cradle of the movement. Like the remarkable Selina Cooper, a Lancashire mill-girl from ‘Red’ Nelson, whose biography Liddington has also written, these women canvassed for the vote at the factory gate and on doorsteps, especially in the cotton towns of Lancashire. Nurtured by the Labour movement and active as trade unionists, the textile and factory workers were the only group of women with serious political clout. Some of them, like Cooper, became paid organisers for their local suffrage societies under the aegis of Millicent Fawcett’s non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies; but all continued to work through existing organisations, refusing to isolate themselves from other political campaigns. They saw universal female suffrage as one element in a full programme of measures to improve women’s lives – equal pay, birth control and child allowances. One Hand Tied behind Us was ‘people’s history’ of the most effective and original kind. In retrieving the lives of those who had disappeared from the historical record, it transformed our idea of the suffrage movement and made the histories that had concentrated on Westminster look parochial.

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