Thursday, 10 January 2019

The Women’s Social and Political Union or Suffragettes

The Women’s Social and Political Union, or Suffragettes, was established in 1903. 

It was in the supercharged political atmosphere of revolution and debate that Tom Paine first published his book, ‘The Rights of Man,' in 1791 in which he attacked her hereditary government and argued for equal political rights. The following year, Mary Wollstonecraft published her book ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women,' a cornerstone for the feminist and suffragist movements which were to follow.

The issue of voting rights was on the Parliamentary agenda many times in subsequent years. The Reform Act of 1832 had begun the process of increasing the number of those allowed to vote in elections. Still, only one in seven males now had the vote, though significant in the passing of the bill was the abolition of the rotten boroughs in which the total number of electors could be counted on one hand. 

There followed, in fairly slow succession, a series of acts which increased the rights of the common man to partake in the decision making process of Government. The second Reform Act (1867) extended the right to vote to more working-class males; the Ballot Act (1872) introduced the secret ballot; the Corrupt Practices Act (1883) specified how much money each candidate was allowed to spend during an election; the third Reform Act (1884) extended voting rights to include men in rural areas; and the Redistribution Act (1885) specified the ratio of seats to the numbers of voters.

It was not until some 85 years after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act that legislation was finally passed allowing women, for the first time, to take an active role in the selection of the government (the Qualification of Women Act, 1917).

With the introduction of the Representation of the People Act the following year, limited voting rights for women were introduced onto the statute books: the battle was hard fought, the war not yet one, but suffrage have finally achieved the first step on the ladder towards political equality. 

The Sex Disqualification Removal Act, which made it illegal to exclude women from jobs on account of their sex, was introduced in 1919, and the Equal Franchise Act, giving women the vote on the same terms as men, was passed in 1928. It was not to be until almost 50 years later that legislation was introduced making it illegal to discriminate against a woman because of her sex, (Sex Discrimination Act 1976) and later still, the Equal Pay Act (1970) made it law that women working in the same or similar job to a man should be paid and equal wage. 

Suffrage, the campaign for the right to vote, was born out of the social, industrial and political upheaval of the latter part of the nineteenth century. The need for contraception and contraceptive advice for working-class women, the appalling working conditions endured by young girls and women in all fields of work, the existence and effects of the Poor Laws and the workhouse, the slow but relentless march towards social reform and the rise of the burgeoning trade union movement and the formation of the Labour Party all added fuel to the fire of the movement to gain the rights for women to vote on equal terms with men.

Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, bringing together under one umbrella the various suffrage groups throughout the country. The aim of the NUWSS was the pursuance of the right to vote by peaceful means (the Suffragists), with logical and cohesive argument. It was argued that women could hold positions of responsibility, could be employees and managers, could pay taxes, and were subject to laws they had no part in making, but they were still not allowed to vote.

Progress was slow, however, and on 10 October 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded, with an exclusively female membership. Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia together with others of similar mind, were not prepared to wait for the advances that logical argument alone might bring. They wanted change, and they were not afraid to use aggression to achieve their aims. 

Two years after the founding of the suffragettes, as the union became known, Annie Kenny and Christabel Pankhurst were forcibly injected from a political meeting in Manchester at which Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey were speakers, after they interrupted the meeting with calls for votes for women, constant heckling and finally by assaulting the speakers. Both women were arrested, but refused to pay the fines imposed, preferring a prison sentence, drawing attention to the injustices of the time.

This was the start of a long campaign during which many more meetings were disrupted, and a good many suffragettes hurt. The suffragettes refused to bow to violence, but were unafraid to employment. The church of England voiced its opposition to the concept of suffrage, the Suffragettes burnt down churches; they attacked the heart of the city of London by fire bombing Westminster Abbey and breaking windows in Oxford Street; politicians were subject to physical attack and their homes firebombed and vandalised.

Suffragettes chained themselves to Buckingham Palace because the Royal Family spoke out against the movement; golf courses were vandalised, and the business life of the capital city disrupted when telephone lines were severed and letters destroyed when chemicals were poured inside postboxes. The campaign sought to hurt influential men where it would do the most damage, and the cost to both business and private individuals mounted steadily.

The official answer was to arrest and imprison the perpetrators in an attempt to divide and waking the movement. Women were given sentences ranging from a few days to many months, depending on the severity of the ‘crime’.

In July 1909, an imprisoned suffragette, Marion Dunlop, refused to eat. The government took fright at the idea of possibly creating a martyr to the cause, and she was released. Other imprisoned suffragettes adopted the same strategy, but rather than be seen to be capitulating the decision was taken to force feed those on hunger strike. Many suffragettes died following a period of incarceration, possibly as a result of the horrific process of enforced nourishment that took place daily in the prisons. 

By 1913, the campaign of violence and destruction of both private and public property had escalated to new heights. The suffragettes were still being arrested, still being imprisoned, still going on hunger strike and still being force-fed by the authorities. But despite the public condemnation of the acts of destruction perpetuated, public opinion was rising against the barbarism of forced feeding. The government were determined that none of these women should be allowed to become martyrs, but were forced to rethink their strategy.
The Prisoners Temporary Discharge of Ill Health Act allowed for prisoners, weakened and made ill by self imposed starvation, to be released from prison for just long enough for them to be nursed back to health. The ones who had been released were in no fit state to join the struggle again and once they were deemed fit, they were re-arrested, imprisoned to complete their sentences and the whole process began again. If the prisoner died after being released this saved the government any embarrassment.

From the government’s viewpoint this was an effective way to combat the problems of a hunger strike without causing a national outrage, or capitulating to the demands of the suffragette movement. 

The legislation became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. The consequences only served to make the suffragettes all the more determined and all the more extreme. 

In June 2013, Emily Wilding Davison, a staunch WSPU activist, threw herself beneath the King’s horse, Anmer, as it took part in the Derby. Davison was killed, giving the movement its first martyr. Unfortunately, those campaigning against the right for women to vote, notably the National Anti-Suffrage League, used the incident against the movement, citing it as an example of the hysteria to which women were subject, and suggesting that women were too irrational to be allowed the vote.

The arson campaign continued to gain momentum. The house of Chancellor David Lloyd George was partly blown up in early 1913 and despite the punitive measures of the Cat and Mouse Act there was no let up in the violence and destruction. But in August 1914, Britain was plunged into WWI. Emily Pankhurst instructed suffragettes to end all hostility and offer their full support to the war effort. She successfully negotiated the release of all suffragettes from prison at this time.

The NUWSS also announced its intention to suspend or political activity until the war was over, but the Women's Freedom League, formed by those suffragists who had left the WSPU when the campaign of violence had begun, disagreed with the notion of a suspension of political campaigning and continued their campaign to secure votes for women throughout WWI.

The war itself was to have a profound effect on the lot of women. Men were leaving in droves to fight at the front. They left behind jobs which needed to be done. Women, whose chief employment prior to the onset of war had been in service were now enlisted into all manner of profession. They were needed to keep the country running smoothly. They became bus conductors, ticket collectors, post women, bank clerks, drivers, farm labourers and munitions makers. Industries that had previously excluded women now welcomed them.

As the War progressed, the vital part that women were playing was grudgingly acknowledged. It became more and more obvious that arguments that women were not fit or clever enough to vote was a total misrepresentation. Women not only held down what had been seen to be men's jobs, but continued to run homes and bring up children as well.

Following the end of the carnage across Europe, the dissenters to suffrage were swept aside. In 1918, after so many years of struggle, violence and debate, the Representation of the People Act was passed granting voting rights to women over 30. It was not to be until ten years later that women were given voting rights from 21 on the same terms as men, with the passing of the Equal Franchise Act. The struggle was last over… Women had finally won equal rights in the political arena. The suffragettes and suffragists were victorious.

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