A Knife to the Heart

Susan Pedersen

  • Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes by Diane Atkinson
    Bloomsbury, 670 pp, £30.00, February, ISBN 978 1 4088 4404 5
  • Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote by Jane Robinson
    Doubleday, 374 pp, £20.00, January, ISBN 978 0 85752 391 4

The wars and revolutions that took place a century ago were so vastly consequential for peoples and nations that historians have had to deal with centenaries queued up like planes coming into Heathrow: 1914, the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the Balfour Declaration, the Bolshevik Revolution, not to mention the Armistice, the Treaty of Versailles and the Spanish flu epidemic still circling overhead. Museum exhibitions, conferences and popular histories have exposed a more or less interested public to the slaughter-bench that birthed the 20th century.

Amid this catalogue of gore and suffering, one centenary lends itself to celebration. It’s true that the 1918 Representation of the People Act, through which some women in the UK gained the parliamentary vote, is a pretty ambiguous feminist landmark. Introduced to amend residency requirements so that soldiers could vote, the Act was the work of an all-male cross-party conference of 32 MPs that turned to women’s suffrage only in the last stages of its deliberations. With straw polls showing a strong majority favouring some concession to women but a narrow majority opposed to full equality, the conference cast about for grounds on which to include some women and exclude others. Ultimately, it settled on age, enfranchising women over thirty who either met, or were married to men who met, a householder qualification. This decision gave some 8.4 million women the vote (compared to 12.9 million men) but excluded precisely those young women whose war work politicians were citing as the reason for their conversion to the cause.

No one really pretends that this silly compromise, or even the 1918 election at which women first cast their votes, is the true focus of current interest. Neither of the books discussed here accords these events more than a few cursory pages. What they celebrate, instead, is the women’s suffrage movement, which at its height between 1906 and 1914 drew in many tens of thousands of women and pioneered some of the most imaginative methods of political agitation yet seen. Much of this was the work of the ‘militant’ or ‘suffragette’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), campaigning under the leadership of the volatile Pankhursts and the slogan ‘Deeds not Words’: it is the members of this group who form the collective subject of Diane Atkinson’s six-hundred-plus-page encomium. But the suffragettes’ vitality and theatricality galvanised the older ‘constitutionalist’ or ‘suffragist’ National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and other non-militant groups, enabling Jane Robinson to write a history of the constitutionalist cause in much the same vein. Robinson focuses especially on the six-week suffrage pilgrimage in the summer of 1913, when constitutionalists marched from all corners of Britain to London, propagandising as they went. Both books are works of social history and recovery, written to arouse the reader’s admiration for their subjects. Both, as a result, rather downplay the movement’s political and strategic context – a context that preoccupied the leadership of both organisations and deserves attention.

Women’s suffrage became a mass movement and a popular cause in the wake of the Liberal landslide of 1906, but it already had organisational strength and deep roots. The late Victorian suffrage movement had strong ties to liberalism but was officially non-party, not least because its two most prominent leaders – Millicent Garrett Fawcett, widow of a Liberal government minister, and Lady Frances Balfour, daughter of the Whig Duke of Argyll and sister-in-law of the Conservative politician and later prime minister A.J. Balfour – had both left the Liberal Party over its embrace of Irish Home Rule. Throughout the late Victorian period, the movement worked with parliamentary allies to introduce women’s suffrage bills on non-party lines. This seemed a sensible strategy, since supporters of suffrage were found in all parties, and sometimes the bills even passed their second readings. None was given further parliamentary time, but the signs were hopeful, and the movement took heart from a host of other measures improving women’s civic status. In 1897, more than a dozen suffrage societies amalgamated to form the NUWSS.

Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s WSPU, founded in Manchester in 1903, transformed that landscape – not immediately, but in late 1905 – with its disruption of the general election campaign. The WSPU had concluded that a private member’s bill would never deliver the vote. What was needed instead was a commitment from one of the political parties; hence the question Annie Kenney shouted at Sir Edward Grey at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester: ‘Will the Liberal government give women the vote?’ It would not: the cabinet was divided. H.H. Asquith, prime minister from 1908, was an ‘anti’, and the government was in any case preoccupied with its ambitious social reform plans and its worsening relationship with the House of Lords. It ignored and then arrested the suffragettes, who moved from disrupting meetings, to attempts to ‘rush’ Parliament, to lengthy courtroom defences, to hunger strikes in prison, a tactic that was met with the horrors of force-feeding. Theatricality paid dividends: by 1908 the WSPU had official colours (purple, white and green), badges and banners, a weekly paper, extensive London offices, a network of organisers and branches, and wealthy backers. It also had critics: another militant organisation, the Women’s Freedom League, was founded in 1907 by dissidents unable to stomach the Pankhursts’ autocracy.

One might have expected the militants’ flair to leave the constitutionalists in the dust, not least because the press found militant women excellent copy. That is not quite what happened. Mrs Fawcett refused to condemn the militants: they had, she wrote to the Times in 1906, ‘done more during the last twelve months to bring [women’s suffrage] within the realms of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years’. Instead, the NUWSS learned from their example, with Fawcett and Lady Frances Balfour leading their own procession through rainy London streets in February 1907 – it became known as the ‘Mud March’. Over the next two years, women’s suffrage became a mass movement and a popular cause.

Constitutionalists and militants also came together around the initiative known as the Conciliation Bill, a private member’s bill devised by a ‘conciliation committee’ made up of representatives from the Commons and the Lords, chaired by Lord Lytton (whose sister Betty was a constitutionalist and sister Constance a militant) and masterminded by the radical journalist Henry Noel Brailsford, who was married to a militant. The Conciliation Bill, which would have enfranchised about a million women, was much the best hope for women’s suffrage in the prewar period – which is not to say it was the best bill, just the one best crafted to balance Conservative and Liberal interests and make it through both Houses. Introduced to Parliament in three successive years (1910, 1911 and 1912), it passed its second reading twice, its way eased by the WSPU’s suspension of militant action throughout much of 1910 and by impressive joint demonstrations (particularly the forty-thousand-strong Women’s Coronation Procession) in 1911. The two 1910 elections had resulted in a hung Parliament, however, and the Liberal government was loath to allow any franchise reforms that just might – by enfranchising a small number of propertied women – benefit the Conservatives. In late 1911 Asquith announced that the government would introduce a new Reform Bill in 1912 – a bill that would enfranchise yet more men, but could be amended (so he said) to allow some measure of women’s suffrage as well.

The WSPU understandably took this as an insult, their scepticism borne out when the Speaker of the House ruled that a women’s suffrage amendment would be inadmissible because it would change the character of the bill to such a degree. By 1912, all hopes for women’s suffrage had been dashed. The Reform Bill was withdrawn; the third Conciliation Bill failed; and the WSPU, enraged, radicalised further. Christabel Pankhurst now directed the movement from Parisian exile, purging all – including her oldest friends – who disagreed with her. Her mother, Emmeline, and the other WSPU leaders were in and out of jail, and its militant members lived shadowy and clandestine lives, surfacing to break windows, bomb letterboxes or burn down buildings. All the evidence is that these attacks were deeply unpopular, and WSPU membership and branches withered. But the NUWSS kept growing: by 1914, it would count six hundred branches to the WSPU’s eighty. Now publicly very critical of militancy, the constitutionalists moved into alliance with Labour, the only party willing to put women’s suffrage on its platform, though with just forty-something MPs it was unlikely to form a government anytime soon. By the outbreak of the war, the movement was huge, but without parliamentary prospects. It had become, in effect, a women’s party – at once the culmination of a social order structured around gender difference and a knife aimed at that order’s (and thus its own) beating heart.

I am not certain that these two books, written as they are in celebratory and narrative mode, quite capture how the suffrage movement challenged and changed British politics. Instead, they tell us how the movement changed individual women’s lives. Atkinson’s book is a suffragette biographical dictionary, exploring the militants’ innovations and actions from the standpoint of the recruits who carried them out. She pays attention to the artistic, organisational and fundraising work that sustained the movement – the bazaars, the production of suffragette jewellery, the cultivation of wealthy supporters – but the lives and exploits of a hundred or so militant foot soldiers absorb most of her attention. In a sense, that is fitting: the most dramatic suffragette actions – the October 1908 ‘rush’ on the Commons, the pitched battle with police outside Westminster in November 1910, the March 1912 window-breaking raids in the West End, Emily Wilding Davison’s doomed attack on the king’s horse at the Derby in June 1913 – featured ‘ordinary’ women doing extraordinary things. Atkinson dwells on their experiences, but as a result her book rather loses sight of the thousands on thousands of women who marched in WSPU processions or sold the WSPU paper but never went to prison, as well as the ranks of organisers and office workers who kept the union afloat. Krista Cowman’s Women of the Right Spirit (2007), a much tighter book focused on paid organisers, gives a better sense of what it felt like to be sent off to, say, Doncaster with a sheaf of literature, the names of a couple of contacts, and instructions to build a branch – and emphatically to stay out of prison yourself. The movement needed the fanatics, but it needed editors and accountants and printers and public speakers as well.

Mundane work of that sort – often boring, often lonely – sustained the NUWSS too, and Robinson delves into some overlooked diaries to capture its rhythms. After spending so much time with the dedicated but sometimes humourless militants, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of the constitutionalist organiser Kate Frye, who wasn’t above using her good looks to enlist male help: she shouldn’t flirt so much, she wrote in her diary, but it did get things moving and ‘in some moods, I could flirt with a broomstick.’ Robinson pays refreshing attention to the high spirits of the movement’s young adherents – suffrage was, after all, one of the ways young women could get out from under their mothers’ eyes. There is a good account of how the suffragists went off in caravans to proselytise in rural areas – work that was the precedent for the ambitious pilgrimage of 1913. That six-week effort, in which rivulets of backpack-toting, banner-carrying suffragists, skirts a daring four inches above the ground, marched from every corner of England and Wales to gather for a mass meeting in London in late July, has never been thoroughly documented. It is nice to see it feature centrally here.

But both authors are simply too fond of their subjects to ask hard questions. Or rather, Robinson asks those questions of the militants but not of the constitutionalists, while Atkinson, mirroring the militants’ self-absorption, pretty much ignores the constitutionalists altogether. The movement deserves more hard-headed scrutiny: we should ask what it meant, for politics and for women themselves, for the claim to political equality to burst on the scene through the vehicle of a movement of women, as well as what it meant for that claim to be expressed through tropes of female purity and the performance of female lawlessness and self-sacrifice on an epic scale.

Atkinson prefers to dwell on her subjects’ motivations and experiences rather than on those intended or unintended effects, but Robinson – whose book aspires to be a general history of the movement – has plenty to say about the limitations of the WSPU. She comes down hard on the Pankhursts’ shabby treatment of the 1907 dissidents who wanted a more democratic approach, finding it ‘supremely ironic that an outfit demanding fair representation for women failed to practise what it preached’. (Atkinson has little to say about the 1907 split, but she too finds Christabel’s underhand expulsion of Frederick and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 1912 ‘a betrayal of this most magnanimous couple who had given everything to the organisation: moral and professional support, a great deal of money and countless acts of generosity’.) Robinson persuasively shows how the militants’ later actions, involving clandestine damage to property and arson, alienated supporters and made the constitutionalists’ work harder. Although the 1913 pilgrims carried banners proclaiming their ‘law-abiding’ convictions, local hooligans still saw their arrival as licence to get drunk, shout the women down, throw rats at them, destroy their banners, torch their campsites and – reading between the lines – sexually assault them. They marched in groups not only for companionship but for safety.

And yet, for all its (later) unpopularity, militancy, not reasonableness, was what made women’s suffrage a popular cause. The WSPU was a charismatic movement: it relied, as Robinson understands, ‘on creating an intensely emotional link between its leaders and its followers, on celebrity and heady sensationalism rather than the prosaic art of persuasion’. The WSPU unleashed a cult of personality around the photogenic Christabel and Emmeline in particular. Mary Richardson, after taking an axe to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery, explained that she had tried to destroy the image of the ‘most beautiful woman in mythological history’ as a protest against the government’s persecution of Emmeline, the ‘most beautiful character in modern history’. In light of such dedication, charges of autocracy rather miss the mark, for the Pankhursts, like all charismatic leaders, elicited a devotional response: new and extreme acts of militancy – self-harming, going on hunger strike, blowing up pillarboxes – were as likely to be initiated from below as dictated from the top. Take, for example, Emily Wilding Davison’s attempt to unfurl a banner while grabbing the reins of the king’s horse at the Derby in 1913, which cost her life. Davison, Atkinson tells us, was a ‘loose cannon’: no one knew about her plans, and had the WSPU leadership been aware of them, they would not have approved. But Christabel at least understood the tiger she was riding: she knew, as Lenin did, that if you cede radical ground, you’re finished. So the WSPU claimed Davison in death, giving her an extravagant funeral and a martyr’s crown. The constitutionalists were disgusted. Even if the WSPU had not planned Davison’s action, claimed an editorial in Common Cause, the NUWSS’s paper, it was responsible ‘for creating the spirit in which that attempt was conceived and carried out’, a spirit which ‘goes out to seek death, which demands martyrdom, not as a risk to be faced in the course of one’s work, but as an end in itself’. Quite so – and yet Davison is still remembered.

But the WSPU’s spirit was flavoured not only by charisma but by feminism: this was a movement of women, restricted to women, and one whose members, I wager, found it harder and harder to live with, or even tolerate, men. The NUWSS wasn’t quite a women’s movement in this way: many of its members were embedded in other kinds of public work, and it was avowedly non-party, not anti-party. The WSPU, however, billed itself as ‘an independent party of women’ and gender was the only social division it recognised: as Christabel put it in a call to arms as early as October 1907, militants must give up all class feeling and break all party ties, but should not leave ‘any of [their] womanliness behind’. This wasn’t really the way the NUWSS operated, but in this as in so many other respects, the WSPU trod a path it was forced to follow. By historic affiliation, many of the constitutionalist leaders and activists had been Liberals, but the party’s unwillingness to commit to women’s suffrage (and Asquith’s adamantine and egregious anti-feminism) bled these women out of the party. By 1914 the NUWSS would float almost as free of party as the WSPU – a position at once powerful and dangerous, should gender-based politics collapse and political women be forced to look for a home in the parties they had repudiated.

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One might make the case that the women’s suffrage movement constituted a comprehensive challenge to the political order: an attempt to substitute sex for party or class as the primordial division in political life. This could not succeed, not least because many suffragists never supported it, and dynastic and caste loyalties would re-emerge once the vote was won. But if the suffrage movement didn’t change the party system (except in so far as it sped the Liberal Party’s decline), it did foster a specifically female genre of political performance. Like a religious revival, ‘the cause’ suffused the world with meaning: it provided women with principles and purpose; it steeled them for heroism. And yet here as well we see its Janus face, for suffragette performances also drew on older identifications of female virtuosity with self-sacrifice and bodily suffering. Nowhere were these tropes more powerfully enacted than through the drama of force-feeding.

When charged with assault or disturbing the peace, the militants refused to be fined and insisted instead on appearing in court, running the risk of being sent to prison. There, they demanded to be given the status of political prisoners, and began hunger strikes to win this, just as IRA prisoners would half a century later. Unwilling to grant that request, but faced with the prospect of women dying in prison, in September 1909 the government began force-feeding – a practice that had hitherto been used only with asylum inmates who refused food. Force-feeding was a pretty horrible experience: wardresses held the suffragette down, a feeding tube was inserted through her nose or mouth, and a doctor then poured in liquid nourishment – beef tea with brandy, or milk and eggs – through a funnel. The tube could tear the oesophagus or stomach or cause infection, and the damage was made worse because the women almost invariably resisted. More often than not, they vomited the whole mess up, soiling themselves and their disgruntled attendants. Many lost a stone or more over a week of such treatment.

Neither Robinson nor Atkinson spares us these details. What they do not do, however, is try to understand the psychological mindset that courted and endured these experiences. Force-feeding was, we might say, the measure of the militant ‘virtuoso’: suffragettes disrupted meetings, attacked ministers, skirmished with the police and torched buildings in teams, but each faced the trial of force-feeding alone (at best, they could hear the screams and retching of a companion in the next cell). Alone, they girded themselves for assault: like medieval martyrs, they tested their faith by their endurance. They faced not simply bodily pain but a particularly sexualised torment. Even at the time, almost everyone who wrote about force-feeding used the language of rape: the woman held down, the alien instrument forced into the orifice, the abraded and bleeding membranes, the victim bound to resist even if this worsened her ordeal. Force-feeding made manifest women’s bodily subjection to male brutality – over and over and over again. One suffragette, Kitty Marion, was force-fed more than two hundred times; many others so often they lost count. The female militant, described by Marion’s friend Mary Richardson as ‘a new order of fanatic creation’, rose phoenix-like from these scenes of violation.

There is no denying the astonishing bravery of these women, but I doubt I’m the only feminist who finds this spectacle – and, still more, the WSPU’s exploitation of its shock value – repulsive. Militancy unabashedly drew on, indeed drew its strength from, some of the oldest tropes of female difference and abjection: tropes of women’s superior purity, their unique capacity for fleshly mortification, their willingness to bear on their bodies the stigmata of their subjection. When Constance Lytton – earl’s daughter turned suffragette – was sent to the prison’s hospital ward rather than kept with her (hunger-striking) companions, she was so ashamed that she carved a ‘V’ for ‘Votes for Women’ on her chest, rejoicing at the welling of her own blood.

In prewar Britain this self-immolation, and not the pilgrimage’s demonstration of women’s strength and capacity, elicited the most headlines and the most fervent adulation. The First World War would change that: when men were being shot to ribbons on the Western Front, the suffragettes’ penchant for exalted self-sacrifice came to look not brave but vaguely indecent, and the language of female purity suffered a swift devaluation as well. I find it hard to mourn that sudden shift in fortunes: few things are more pernicious than the tendency to equate female virtue with masochism and martyrdom. But as the suffrage movement faded, the six hundred branches of the NUWSS dwindling to a few dozen ‘equal citizenship’ societies by the 1920s, women’s bid for independent political representation vanished as well. No women would enter the Commons in 1918 (Constance Markievicz was elected for Sinn Féin but like other Irish Republicans didn’t take her seat), and even during the interwar years, the women who had spent years in the suffrage movement, their party credentials in tatters, would find it almost impossible to win seats. Together these women had envisaged a future in which their sex would no longer be a bar to citizenship but in which women, as women, would politically ‘count’. They saw the first of those two aims realised. The second proved a longer game.