Rise Up, Women!
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Rise Up, Women!

The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-1914

Andrew Rosen

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eBook - ePub

Rise Up, Women!

The Militant Campaign of the Women's Social and Political Union, 1903-1914

Andrew Rosen

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About This Book

The suffragette movement shattered the domestic tranquillity of Edwardian England. This book is an original and searching study of the formidable organization which led this campaign: the Women's Social and Political Union.

With the use of previously unpublished correspondence of Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, her colleagues and such political leaders as Asquith, Balfour and Lloyd George, the author views the development of ever more extreme and violent forms of militancy not as a series of amusing exploits and incidents but as the carefully calculated political strategy the suffragettes intended it to be. He examines the reasons for the remarkable effectiveness of militant tactics in making women's enfranchisement a political issue of central importance, and shows why militancy failed to secure this right prior to the outbreak of war in August 1914. He assesses, too, the influence of the vast social and political changes wrought by the war on the ultimate success of the campaign in 1918.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2013
ISBN
9781136247545
Edition
1

1 Antecedents

DOI: 10.4324/9780203104002-ch-1
In mid-Victorian Britain, a woman of the middle or upper class was not expected to earn her own living; she was supposed to remain forever dependent upon a man – first as a daughter and then as a wife. After she married, her economic dependency was enforced by law, for prior to the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1874 and 1882, a married woman was not permitted to own property in her own right – her estate passed to her husband on marriage.* Victorian women could not easily change the property laws, or any other laws affecting their lives, since they could not vote in parliamentary elections, and thus were governed by laws made by men alone.
* The harshness of the common law was mitigated, however, for the daughters of the rich. W. L. Burn has written, ‘Among the upper classes it was customary for an elaborate settlement to be executed in anticipation of marriage. Such a settlement was likely to give the wife a right to a specified amount of pin-money and, broadly speaking, to separate her property in law from her husband’s... . The fact that, as Dicey put it, “the daughters of the rich enjoyed, for the most part, the considerate protection of equity” while “the daughters of the poor suffered under the severity and injustice of the common law” may well have delayed legislative intervention’ (W. L. Burn, The Age of Equipoise, p, 252).
During married life, the middle-class wife was expected to provide her husband with a domestic sanctuary, a peaceful haven to which he could repair from the world in which he earned his family’s living. She was expected to be what Coventry Patmore called ‘the Angel in the House’, a creature unsullied by intimate involvement in the competitive arena in which money was made and affairs of state decided upon.1 She was not expected to perform even the work of her own household, for during the 1850s and 1860s maintenance of middle-class status increasingly came to require the keeping of several domestic servants,2 with the result that the household duties of the middle-class wife became limited to what 0. R. McGregor has referred to as ‘supervising, and complaining about, her servants’.3 The Saturday Review of 15 February 1868 claimed that:4
the usual method of London housekeeping, even in the second ranks of the middle-classes, is for the mistress to give her orders in the kitchen in the morning, leaving the cook to pass them on to the tradespeople when they call. If she is not very insolent, [sic] and if she has a due regard for neatness and cleanliness, she may supplement her kitchen commands by going up stairs through some of the bedrooms; but after a kind word of advice to the housemaid if she is sweet-tempered, or a harsh word of censure if she is of the cross-grained type, her work in that department will be done, and her duties for the day are at end... . Many women boast that their housekeeping takes them perhaps an hour, perhaps half an hour, in the morning, and no more.
Some part of the rest of the day might be devoted to music, reading, or to varieties of sewing which Geoffrey Best has aptly described as ‘ornamental, strictly useless needle-work for the most part; the useful stuff, the men’s shirts and women’s dresses and underwear, was done by working women.’5 The number of hours devoted to sewing was no doubt increased by the frequency with which pregnancy and, thus, confinement occurred: whereas the average number of live births to women who married in Great Britain between 1925 and 1929 was 2·19, the average number of live births in England and Wales to women who had been born between 1841 and 1845 was 5·71.6 Eight or more children were born to fully 53 per cent of marriages taking place ‘about 1860’.7 We will never know the inner feelings of more than a comparative handful of Victorian women regarding the frequent child-bearing so many of them went through. In 1841, one perhaps not completely atypical Victorian woman – the Queen – wrote to the King of the Belgians:8
I think, dearest Uncle, you cannot really wish me to be the ‘maman d’une nombreuse famille’, for I think you will see with me the great inconvenience a large family would be to us all, and particularly to myself; men never think, at least seldom think, what a hard task it is for us women to go through this very often.
Outside her home, and beyond the concentric circles of family life, the scope of a middle-class married woman’s activities was severely limited. She might venture abroad to pay morning calls, play whist, perform works of charity, and attend tea-parties, yet whatever the scope of such activities, she rarely worked for remuneration, because almost no suitable careers were open to women whose social class precluded factory work or domestic service. A middle-class woman could not enter medicine, engineering, the clergy or the army, her chances of becoming an architect or accountant were negligible, and the worlds of finance and big business were equally impenetrable. The bars that prevented her entering either the professions or business, on any scale larger than shopkeeping, were kept securely bolted by the widely accepted belief that women were by nature unfitted for most serious occupations, being innately inclined to be unworldly, impractical, and, unlike men, led by their emotions rather than by reason. Effectively prevented by both lack of education and lack of opportunity from acquiring competency in worldly pursuits, many Victorian middle-class women were indeed as helpless as Respectable Opinion expected them to be.
Though mid-Victorian laws and practices affecting middle-class women appeared at the time to be fairly stable, those laws and practices were based on the fallacious assumption that virtually all women had husbands. In fact, a large number of Victorian women did not have husbands. Of the 10,380,258 women of all ages resident in England and Wales in 1861, there were 1,537,314 unmarried women aged 20 and over and 756,438 widows aged 20 and over.* The source of financial support of the 2,293,752 adult women without husbands varied considerably, since among these women were employed working-class women, girls in their early twenties living at home, and elderly women living on funds bequeathed by deceased husbands. Nevertheless, among the over two million adult women without husbands were a great many women whose economic and psychological needs were simply not catered to by the pitifully few varieties of gainful employment open to them – the few careers that were open to the unmarried middle-class woman carried extremely limited potential either for monetary gain or for intellectual development, and entailed a social status that was uncertain at best.* For example, according to the 1861 census, 72·5 per cent of teachers were women-but teaching was ill-paid, low in social status, and offered no chance of advancement.9 A spinster could also become a governess, but being a governess was fraught with all the disadvantages of teaching, and had other marked disadvantages of its own.10 If, as one contemporary commentator wrote, women were driven to become governesses ‘by great pecuniary necessity’,11 it was because the handful of other careers open to the unmarried middle-class woman – writer, artist, and actress – required special abilities possessed by few women. In the 1850s and 1860s, there was simply no career offering any degree of intellectual scope, pecuniary reward, and social respectability open to an unmarried middle-class woman, unless she happened to have special artistic talent. It was primarily as a reaction against the manifest lack of opportunities for unmarried middle-class women that organized feminism began in Britain.
* Census of England and Wales for the Year 1861, vol. 1, p. 5; and vol. 2, p. xx. That a society which exalted marriage as a social norm included a singularly large body of unmarried women seems to have been the result of at least two basic factors: first, whereas there were 10,380,258 women resident in England and Wales in 1861, there were only 9,825,246 men, a discrepancy that resulted from the higher mortality rate of men (and of male children in particular), from preponderantly male emigration overseas, and from males’ serving abroad in the armed forces. Second, as J. A. Banks has pointed out, in mid-Victorian England maintenance of genteel status required a newly married couple to achieve a standard of living considered appropriate to their social station. Hence, many young gentlemen of limited means postponed marrying until their finances permitted beginning married life with the approved standard of living. The consequence was that ‘the average age of those clergymen, doctors, lawyers, members of the aristocracy, merchants, bankers, manufacturers, and “gentlemen” generally, who married between 1840 and 1870 was 29·93 years’ (J. A. Banks, Prosperity and Parenthood, p. 48). See also pp. 30 and 45. Banks cites C. Ansell, Jr, On the Rate of Mortality at Early Periods of Life, the Age at Marriage ... and Other Statistics of Families in the Upper and Professional Classes, 1874, p. 45.
* The problem of ‘surplus’ or ‘redundant’ middle-class women was treated by a number of mid-Victorian commentators: W. R. Greg wrote that there was a ‘disproportionate and quite abnormal’ number of single women in the nation, and that these ‘redundant’ women were ‘chiefly to be found in the upper and educated sections of society’ (W. R. Greg, ‘Why are women redundant?’ National Review, April 1862, as reprinted in Literary and Social Judgments, pp. 276 and 288). Greg portrayed unmarried middle-class women without satisfactory employment as ‘beautiful lay nuns, involuntary takers of the veil, who pine for work, who beg for occupation, who pant for interest in life’ (ibid., p. 277). Far from advocating wider employment opportunities for such women, however, Greg wrote (ibid., p. 302):
those wild schemers – principally to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, where a young community revels in every species of extravagant fantasies – who would throw open the professions to women, and teach them to become lawyers and physicians and professors, know little of life, and less of physiology... . The cerebral organization of the female is far more delicate than that of man; the continuity and severity of application needed to acquire real mastery in any profession, or over any science, are denied to women, and can never with impunity be attempted by them; mind and health would almost invariably break down under the task.
The chief solution for female ‘redundancy’ was, Greg proposed, female emigration overseas to the colonies, where an adequate supply of potential husbands was, he believed, to be found.
In 1865, a small group of London women with a common interest in higher education began to meet regularly in a discussion group called the Kensington Society. Most of its members were young, intelligent, middle-class and unmarried. Of the eleven members of the society named in H. Blackburn’s Record of Women's Suffrage, nine were unmarried.12 That the society consisted of a specially gifted group of women is attested by the achievements of many of its members: Mrs Barbara Bodichon (who was already well-known as the editor of the Englishwomen's Review) and Miss Emily Davies went on to found Girton College. Miss Frances Mary Buss founded the North London Collegiate School, and Miss Dorothea Beale founded the Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Miss Jessie Boucherett led the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. Miss Elizabeth Garrett (later Dr [Mrs] Garrett Anderson) became famed as one of the first recognized woman doctors in England. And the outspoken stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, Miss Helen Taylor, also belonged to the Kensington Society.
Mill was elected MP for Westminster in 1865, the same year that the Kensington Society was founded. He mentioned women’s enfranchisement in his election address, and on 28 April 1866 three members of the Kensington Society, Mrs Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Jessie Boucherett, drafted a petition – the first of its kind – asking for the enfranchisement of ‘all householders, without distinction of sex, who possess such property or rental qualification as your Honourable House may determine.’13 The petition implicitly excluded married women, for married women could not be householders, since all property rights belonged to their husbands. The petition was signed by 1,499 women, including Harriet Martineau and Mrs Josephine Butler, and was taken to Mill at Westminster. On receiving the petition, Mill exclaimed, ‘Ah, this I can brandish with effect’, and he and Henry Fawcett presented the roll to the Commons on 7 June 1866.14
The small group of women who circulated the first enfranchisement petition for signatures was succeeded by a provisional committee which, in November 1866, issued a petition asking for the vote on the existing rental and property qualification. The committee tried to persuade women householders to sign the petition. On 5 January 1867, Emily Davies wrote to Lydia Becker of Manchester, a forty-year-old spinster who was president of the tiny Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society, and had written a paper in favour of women’s suffrage,*
* Archives, Manchester Public Library, box M/50, E. Davies to L. Becker, London, 3 January 1867. I have found no evidence to support the claim of Sylvia Pankhurst (in The Suffragette Movement, p. 30) that a women’s suffrage society was formed in Manchester in 1865 or 1866. Were such a society already in existence, Emily Davies surely would have mentioned the fact in her correspondence with Lydia Becker.
We have received the signed Petitions ampentity I send you by this post some more copies ... a Committee is in...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half Title Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. Figures
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Introduction
  10. 1 Antecedents
  11. 2 Enter the Pankhursts
  12. 3 The Founding of the WSPU
  13. 4 Militancy Begins
  14. 5 To London
  15. 6 Rapid Growth
  16. 7 The Split
  17. 8 To Hyde Park!
  18. 9 Frustration Mounts
  19. 10 Violence Begins
  20. 11 The Trace
  21. 12 The Trace Renewed
  22. 13 Violence, Flight, and Divided Counsels
  23. 14 The Pethick-Lawrences Depart
  24. 15 Bromley and Bow, and its Aftermath
  25. 16 The Arson Campaign
  26. 17 The Great Scourge
  27. 18 The Arson Campaign, Continued
  28. 19 The End of the Militant Campaign
  29. 20 Epilogue: The Vote, and After
  30. Notes
  31. Selected Bibliography
  32. Index