Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Suffrage since 1903: Militancy and constitutionalism: some sources

Militancy and constitutionalism?

Source 1: Jane Marcus (ed.) The Young Rebecca. Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917, Virago, 1982, pages 257-8, originally printed in 1933

A new side of her [Mrs Pankhurst] implacability then showed itself. Her policy has meant a ruthless renunciation of old ties. She cut herself off entirely from the Labour Party; she was even prepared, in these later years, to attack it as a component part of the Liberal Party’s majority. She had silenced her younger daughter, Adela, as a speaker because of her frank socialist bias and her second daughter Sylvia afterwards left the Union to form societies that were as much Labour as suffragist in the East End. She had been merciless in her preservation of party discipline. There was no nonsense about democracy in the Women’s Social and Political Union. Teresa Billington had long been driven out for raising the topic. Mrs Pankhurst, Christabel and the Lawrences exercised an absolute dictatorship. But now the Lawrences had to go. They opposed further prosecution of militancy and Christabel and Mrs Pankhurst quietly told them to relinquish their positions in the Union. There was more than appears to be said for the Pankhurst’s position from their point of view. They knew that the Government intended to strip the Pethick-Lawrences of their fortune by recovering from them (as the only moneyed officials of the Union) the cost of all the damage done by the militants; and they knew that in actual act Christabel settled the policy of the Union, they saw no reason why the Pethick-Lawrences should stay on to the embarrassment of all persons concerned. But the Pethick-Lawrences were heart-broken. Not for a moment did the crisis appal Mrs Pankhurst. Letters were burned in pillar-boxes; houses -- but only empty ones -- went up in flames; riot was everywhere....

Source 2: Sylvia Pankhurst The Suffragette Movement, Virago, 1978, first published in 1931, pages 412-13

The Union was an autocracy: none of the four most concerned thought it necessary to consult its membership...My thoughts flew back to the abolishing of the original democratic constitution in 1907, which had left the decision wholly to the small group of four, and ultimately to one, and had made possible the present impetuous course. The breach [with the Pethick-Lawrences] was deplorable, I thought, and wished both sides might have surrendered some points. They differed less with each other, I thought, than I had often differed in view from them.... At the great Albert Hall meeting of welcome -- to one leader only, as it turned out -- Mrs Pankhurst propounded the new policy, declaring that the Government must be made to realise that property would henceforth be as gravely endangered by the Suffragettes as by the Chartists of old. If she were prosecuted for incitement, she would not remain in prison, “First Division or no First Division”, whilst the militant men of Ulster were at large. That was her special contribution to the new policy: the hunger strike, not for political treatment, but for release....

Source 3: Roger Fulford Votes for Women, Faber, 1957, pages170-171

The developments of September and October 1907 were a mortal blow to the strength of the Union -- not perhaps obvious on the surface because it was to wax in ardour and fighting zeal -- but henceforth its exertions (though they were to be intensified) were confined to a narrower field. Under the virtual dictatorship of the Pankhursts and of the Pethick-Lawrences, the Union became enormously more efficient, but it missed the driving power of the more diverse supporters of the early days. As was clearly illustrated in the case of Parnell there are tactical advantages in a political movement attaching itself to an individual, but the danger of narrowing the effectiveness of the movement stands out no less clearly. The members of the Union were not unlike Napoleon’s Old Guard at Waterloo: those veterans were to fight with fortifying devotion but they lacked the feeling that the people of France were behind them -- a feeling that had impelled them to victory in earlier days. In the women’s movement, adoration for the leader and complete subordination to her ‘word of command’ were not enough: they might lead to triumph but they could not lead to victory...

Source 4: Antonia Raeburn The Militant Suffragettes, Michael Joseph, 1973, pages 39-40

By the autumn of 1907, there were already seventy branches of the WSPU. The movement had become so popular that many members of the old-established politically affiliated suffrage societies joined the militants while still involving themselves in party activity. This allowed for the infiltration of policy alien to WSPU tactics and, in spite of every effort on the part of the leaders to maintain unity, destructive criticism of their methods led to disruption within the branches. The Pankhursts and the Pethick-Lawrences acted on their own decisions without consulting delegated or anyone else, and although these means were vital for the growth of the movement, they met with disapproval from many members who saw them as undemocratic. For this reason, and because all branches subscribed to the WSPU funds, the members were most anxious that their representatives should be heard at the annual conference which had been agreed to when the constitution was drafted in the previous year [1906]. It had become increasingly clear to the leaders that it would be impossible to run the movement on a representational basis as it was originally conceived, and a month before the conference was due Mrs Pankhurst dramatically tore up the constitution and announced that she had decided to reorganise the Union. A new committee was to be selected and the annual conference abandoned. The national WSPU under the control of Mrs Pankhurst was not to be responsible for the entire organisation and the union branches would become local WSPU’s subject to direction from headquarters....

Source 5: David Mitchell The Fighting Pankhursts. A Study in Tenacity, Jonathan Cape, 1967, pages 28-30

It was useless, she [Christabel] argued, to rely on private members’ bills, ever at the mercy of the Government, which could always plead a press of other priorities, a lack of urgency, an absence of massive support. It was useless, too, to expect serious backing from the Labour movement. It would be years before Labour was a force to be reckoned with in Parliament, and the prospect of Labour Government seemed infinitely remote. In any case it was clear that.... the movement was not willing to make a firm commitment about women’s suffrage. How could a working-class movement be expected to show enthusiasm for the enfranchisement of about two million middle- and upper class women householders (who would presumably vote either Liberal or Tory), which was all that any suffrage agitation could realistically demand? The Conservative Party, though it was widely predicted that a limited female electorate would be predominantly Tory, was solidly, if illogically, opposed to opening the sluice gates even a crack. The political tide, moreover, was turning for a Liberal victory in the general election of 1906. The obvious strategy was to continue to attempt to win support from working class women, pointing out that ‘ladies’ would use the vote to improve women’s position throughout society...the use of forcible feeding, with its overtones of sexual brutality, screwed the tragic-comic, sado-masochistic spectacle, avidly reported in the press, to a new pitch of intensity...In 1907 Mrs Charlotte Despard, disapproving of the autocratic methods of the Pankhursts, split off with some sympathisers to form the more ‘democratic’ Women’s Freedom League. Then in 1912 Mr and Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, critical of attacks on property, parted company with Emmeline and Christabel...

Source 6: Constance Rover Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics in Britain 1866-1914, Routledge, 1967, pages 75-76, 90-91

The Pankhursts brought courage, imagination and enthusiasm to the cause of women’s suffrage; they also brought an element of fanaticism which is perhaps necessary in those who are to make an imprint on history. On the debit side, Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel ruled the movement by a dictatorship and, at times, their actions may be thought to have out-stripped the bounds of reason. They also may be thought to have dropped too easily their association with working-class groups when fashionable support came to their movement. Criticism, although easy, seems carping in view of the Pankhursts’ dedication to the women’s cause.... The policy of all-out attack on the government was a departure from that of the older suffragists and an acknowledgement of the way in which the constitution was developing, that is to say, the decline in the influence of the private member of parliament and the increasing strength of government. In effect, the suffragettes were saying to the government, “We shall give you no peace until our demands are met”. This policy of attack upon the government, even though it represented the party, which gave their cause most support, appears to have been in imitation of the Irish under Parnell.... While there are marked differences of opinion about the value of militancy to the movement, there is a fair amount of agreement that it was positively helpful in its early days...The militants kept the movement before the public eye and much of the credit must be given to them for Parliament dealing seriously with the question from 1910 onwards, in welcome contrast to the facetiousness of earlier years.... This policy was likely to be effective so long as it was looked upon as political protest. If, however, militant activities were put down to hysteria and fanaticism, they largely defeated their own object and gave ammunition to those who contended that women were unfit to have the vote.

Source 7: Brian Harrison ‘The Act of Militancy. Violence and the Suffragettes 1904-1914’, printed in Peaceable Kingdom. Stability and Change in Modern Britain, OUP, 1982, pages 26-27

The suffragettes have been amply surpassed by subsequent protest movements in the destructiveness and ruthlessness of their acts of militancy. Suffragette leaders explicitly ruled out taking the lives of others; they risked only the health of their own members. Martyrdom, not murder, was their style. Yet their militant acts were extensive and escalating; 1911 saw 176 false fire alarms and 22 convictions; 1912 saw 425 calls and 27 convictions and there were still more in 1913.... So shocking did these events seem at the time that non-militant suffragists tried to protect themselves against the political discredit of being associated with them by frequently repudiating militancy and by trying to rivet in the public mind a clear distinction between the militant ‘suffragette’ and the non-militant ‘suffragist’.... Suffragettes too were shocked; acts of militancy were not lightly committed by respectable Edwardian middle-class women...Militancy risked not only reputation and professional success but success in what was then seen as woman’s most important trade, marriage. Violent public hostility or clumsiness in the prison-doctor during forcible feeding could destroy woman’s greatest asset, her looks...


Source 1: Ray Strachey The Cause. A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain, Virago, 1988, first published 1928, pages 307-310

There were two kinds of effort in the suffrage world, inspired by differing ideals and carried on by rival systems of organisation. The constitutional societies, which were united in the National Union and led by Mrs Fawcett, carried on the regular tradition of the whole movement. They did not regard their work as an attack upon men, but rather as a reform for the good of all and the next step in human progress. Their newspaper, which existed to promote Women’s Suffrage only, was called The Common Cause, and it was in these terms that they say their aim. Their chief effort was the conversion of public opinion and they felt that this conversion was as important and as much a part of their object as the gaining of the vote itself. Mrs Fawcett, their leader, had seen the whole movement grow; she know and she taught her followers to know, that their Cause was part of a development wider even than the change in the position of women 1910 it [the NUWSS] had grown to be an amazingly powerful and important political instrument. The militant society was entirely different. Its propaganda, though directed towards the same end as that of the National Union, rang with quite other notes, with defiance, antagonism and suspicion. “Deeds not Words” was the motto of the organisation and its deliberate policy was to seek sensational achievement rather than anything else. Its leaders did not scruple to brush aside the ordinary niceties of procedure and they did not care whom they shocked or antagonised. They distrusted everyone who was not a militant and laughed at all talk of persuasion. What they believed in was moral violence. By this force and by the driving power of their own determination, they hoped to drive the Liberals out of office and to coerce whoever succeeded them into granting their demand. The whole atmosphere of their work was thus aggressive and headlong; it resounded with charges of the treachery and ill will of their opponents and was sharpened by sarcasm, anger and excitement...The policy of sensational public protest was not one which left much time for the tasks of self government, nor was democracy much to their taste. The Women’s Social and Political Union adopted, therefore, a purely autocratic system and entrusted all decisions to their leaders -- Mrs Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. These people alone decided what wads to be done; the others obeyed and enjoyed the surrender of their judgement and the sensation of marching as an army under discipline.

Source 2: Leslie Parker Hume The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies 1897-1914, Garland Publishing Inc, 1982, pages 225-7

The NUWSS, through its work at Westminster and in the constituencies, was responsible for winning both public and parliamentary support for women’s suffrage. In the process of taking its demand to the British public, the NUWSS created a network of suffrage organisations throughout Britain, and for the first time in the history of the British women’s suffrage movement, it made a concerted, national effort to attract the support of workers and to disabuse the populace of the notion that the women’s suffrage issue was the exclusive property of the middle and upper classes.... At a time when the activities of the militants threatened to vitiate the women’s suffrage cause and engender hostility to the very mention of women’s suffrage, the work of the NUWSS succeeded in keeping women’s suffrage alive as an issue. The WSPU’s progression from demonstrations to violence spelled potential disaster for the suffrage movement. The NUWSS was able to counter the militants’ influence and, despite the efforts of the WSPU, to win support, both public and parliamentary for the cause. The fact that there was, in August 1914, still a movement for women’s suffrage, is perhaps the greatest accolade that can be given to the NUWSS...Despite the many changes, which the NUWSS underwent between 1897 and 1914, the organisation still retained an aura of Victorian middle class respectability. This static quality was as essential to the organisation’s success in winning support for the women’s cause as were the innovations of the NUWSS in terms of its argument and its political policy...It may have been the WSPU that first attracted the attention of the country by flouting the staid convention of Victorian womanhood, but it was the suffragists of the NUWSS who created sympathy for the cause of women’s suffrage by outwardly conforming to the very image that the Pankhursts and their colleagues rejected. In this respect the militants were a valuable foil for the suffragists and made the adherents of the NUWSS appear deceptively reasonable and moderate.

Source 3: David Rubinstein A Different World for Women. The Life of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Harvester, 1991, pages 168-169, 172-173

The period between 1909 and the outbreak of the Great War was the most intense and dramatic in the history of the women’s suffrage movement. As president of the largest suffrage organisation Mrs Fawcett was at the centre of events, her prestige as a veteran of the movement whose experience dated almost from its start unique and unchallenged...Her main problems were the increasingly violent and uncontrolled actions of the supporters of the WSPU and negotiations with politicians whose commitment to women’s suffrage could not be relied upon however blandly sympathetic their words. Between the adoption of its new constitution in 1907, when it was still a small organisation looking back to its Victorian roots, and 1914 the NUWSS built itself up into a formidable fighting machine.... By 1912, it employed 32 full-time organisers; by the end of 1913, it had 52,336 members and almost as many affiliated supporters and by 1914 it claimed 602 affiliated branches and societies. These local bodies like the national office and executive committee became much stronger and more effective over the years and it needed tactful leadership and a winning personality to persuade collections of talented and determined women committed to the suffrage cause to work with reasonable harmony through the problems and pitfalls of the period. It is difficult to imagine that any other leader could have carried out the task so successfully...Mrs Fawcett’s influence in persuading such ardent personalities to work together was based not on an authoritarian temperament but partly on ignoring the details of many of the quarrels, partly on distracting the participants by anecdotes and other irrelevancies and partly by the personal loyalty she inspired. This, not the charisma of Mrs Pankhurst, was her great gift...Her most important function outside the union was to present an intellectually impressive and personally attractive case for women’s suffrage. She must have grown weary both of the ritual tributes interspersed with personal attacks paid to her by opponents of the cause and the repetition of her name by suffragists as a kind of talisman. It may be true that while the militants antagonised the wider public by violence, a leader grown old in the movement, universally respected and widely known in the worlds of politics and journalism was taken for granted and hence sometimes ignored. This was the accusation of militant suffragettes who despaired at the lack of passion, which marked her speeches.... It is hardly possible to state with confidence whether Mrs Fawcett’s respectability, privileged contacts and lack of charisma were a ‘frost’ on the movement. The growth of the NUWSS’s numerical and financial support, however, does not suggest that she was a leader out of touch with her time....

Source 4: Les Garner Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty. Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Suffrage Movement 1900-1918, Heinemann, 1984, pages 26-27

The NUWSS’s struggle for the vote had raised many feminist and political issues, particularly in the years leading up to the War. There was a closer relationship with the Labour movement and a more progressive feminist analysis. Millicent Fawcett may have supported the Election Fighting Fund on strategic grounds only, but this further associated the NUWSS with the problems of working class women. And while some arguments may now appear limited, given the contemporary pressure on women, they were still remarkable in their identification of many aspects of women’s oppression. Even those suffragists whose arguments rested on an acceptance of ‘woman’s sphere’ at least could argue that they were calling for a choice...Politically, the National Union’s demand for the vote implied that emancipation could have come through a reform of the political structure, rather than through its complete emancipation. Although some women, both in and out of the suffrage movement, were critical of either position, such ideas certainly appeared to be central to suffragist thinking...

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