The Suffragette Bombers
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The Suffragette Bombers

Britain's Forgotten Terrorists

Simon Webb

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eBook - ePub

The Suffragette Bombers

Britain's Forgotten Terrorists

Simon Webb

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About This Book

In the years leading up to the First World War, the United Kingdom was subjected to a ferocious campaign of bombing and arson. Those conducting this terrorist offensive were members of the Women's Social and Political Union; better known as the suffragettes. The targets for their attacks ranged from St Paul's Cathedral and the Bank of England in London to theatres and churches in Ireland. The violence, which included several attempted assassinations, culminated in June 1914 with an explosion in Westminster Abbey.Simon Webb explores the way in which the suffragette bombers have been airbrushed from history, leaving us with a distorted view of the struggle for female suffrage. Not only were the suffragettes far more aggressive than is generally known, but there exists the very real and surprising possibility that their militant activities actually delayed, rather than hastened, the granting of the parliamentary vote to British women.

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Year
2014
ISBN
9781473838437
Chapter One
Suffragettes and Suffragists
The Women’s Social and Political Union are NOT asking for a vote for every Woman…
(Outline of the aims included in all WSPU publications)
One of the commonest and strangest misconceptions about the suffragettes is that they were struggling for the right of all women in the United Kingdom to be able to vote in parliamentary elections. In fact, as they made very clear in the booklets, newspapers and pamphlets they published, most suffragettes wanted the vote to be limited only to middle and upper-class women, those who owned property, paid rates or who had attended university. Gaining the vote for working-class women was never their intention. Some socialists at the time, who were working to gain the vote for every adult in the United Kingdom, regardless of gender or social class, remarked that the suffragette slogan should have been not ‘Votes for Women’, but rather ‘Votes for Ladies’!
In the front of their publications the Women’s Social and Political Union, whose militant members were known as suffragettes, printed a brief outline of their aims. This began with the firm declaration that ‘The Women’s Social and Political Union are NOT asking for a vote for every woman, but simply that sex shall cease to be a disqualification for the franchise’.
This could hardly be plainer. The suffragettes were not interested in extending the franchise to working-class women who did not fulfil the property qualifications necessary at that time to be included on the electoral register, they simply wished for those within their own social class to be allowed the vote. To understand why, we must look at who the suffragettes actually were and how they began. We will also need to examine the difference between suffragettes and suffragists.
During the final 30 years or so of the nineteenth century, there was a good deal of agitation in the United Kingdom for political reform which would enable women to vote in parliamentary elections. Those who worked towards this end were known as ‘suffragists’, this term being formed from the word ‘suffrage’, the right to vote in elections. These campaigners achieved considerable success, although progress was being made in small increments, rather than in leaps and bounds.
Some women were not content with what they saw as the slow and halting pace of change resulting from the constitutional efforts of the suffragists. In 1903, the middle-class widow of a radical lawyer founded a new group called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst, aged 45 at the time, had already been involved in an organisation called The Women’s Franchise League and had fallen out with many of the more moderate suffragists as a consequence of her militant ideas. From the beginning, the motto of her WSPU was ‘Deeds, not Words’. It was also the WSPU that came up with the most famous political slogan of the Edwardian Era: ‘Votes for Women’.
Members of the WSPU were far more vociferous in their demands than any suffragists had previously been and they were prepared to engage in direct action, instead of merely working patiently behind the scenes. Their demand was for immediate change, not gradual, haphazard and piecemeal progress. The change they wanted was nothing radical, such as the right of all working-class people to vote. It was simply that women should be able to vote on the same terms as men. Many men and women, those in positions of authority, as well as the general public, regarded the predominantly young, women activists of the WSPU as being wild and irresponsible.
On 10 January 1906, the popular newspaper the Daily Mail coined a new word to describe this type of campaigner. They called them ‘suffragettes’, a diminutive term that was meant to be patronising and even faintly insulting; but the women themselves seized upon it and claimed it for their own. In the years following the end of the First World War, the suffragists were almost forgotten and all those who had fought for the right for women to vote in general elections during the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914 became known as suffragettes. For many people today, any woman who campaigned for the right of women to vote in Edwardian Britain must, by definition, have been a suffragette. This is in spite of the fact that the vast and overwhelming majority of women working peacefully for a change in the law were not suffragettes at all, but suffragists, people who restricted themselves to lawful and constitutional methods.
Before we examine further the story of the struggle for female emancipation, let us look at some of the many misunderstandings that have emerged. The following is typical of the narrative that is widely accepted by most people in this country today:
At the beginning of the twentieth century men in the United Kingdom had the vote and women did not. The government and parliament were opposed to the idea of women voting and refused to listen to reason. Many brave women were therefore forced to take action to call attention to the injustice of the situation. These people were called suffragettes. Their actions included breaking windows and going on hunger strike. One dedicated woman, Emily Davison, even gave her life for the cause of women’s suffrage. Eventually, the movement for change became so widespread and powerful that it could no longer be ignored. As a consequence of the suffragettes’ actions, together with the work that women did during the war, the vote was granted to women in 1918. We have Emmeline Pankhurst and her suffragettes to thank for this.
The above account is a pretty standard one and may be found not only in schoolbooks but also in many modern reference books. Here is a random example, taken from The Oxford Dictionary of English, second edition, revised in 2005:
Suffragette – a woman seeking the right to vote through organised protest. In the UK in the early 20th century the suffragettes initiated a campaign of demonstrations and militant action, under the leadership of the Pankhursts, after the repeated defeat of women’s suffrage bills in Parliament. In 1918 they won the vote for women over the age of 30 and 10 years later were given full equality with men in voting rights.
There is no doubt here who is responsible for women gaining the vote in this country – it was all down to the Pankhursts and their supporters, the suffragettes. Perhaps if we work our way methodically through some of the confusion which has grown up around the struggle for women’s suffrage in this country, it will help us to understand what motivated them. It might also enable us to find out why they felt compelled, unlike all the other women fighting for the franchise, to resort to terrorism. Indeed, no other women’s suffrage movement, either in this country or anywhere else in the world, ever felt the need to plant bombs in theatres or to set fire to people’s houses in order to gain their ends. This lack of militant action did not appear to harm the prospects for female enfranchisement in those other countries, some of which gave women the vote much earlier than the United Kingdom. Violent action undertaken for this cause was a purely British phenomenon.
It is sometimes assumed that men in this country had the vote at the beginning of the twentieth century, while women did not. In fact, the situation with regard to voting in this country at the time that the WSPU was founded in 1903 was not at all straightforward. Following the Reform and Redistribution Acts of 1884–1885, the right to vote in parliamentary elections had been granted to some men in the United Kingdom – those who fulfilled certain property and residence qualifications or those who had attended university. What this meant in practice was that when the Pankhursts set up the WSPU over a third of men in England and Wales did not have the right to vote in general elections. In Scotland, the proportion unable to vote in general elections was higher – around 40 per cent. The state of affairs in Ireland was worst of all, with only half of male citizens entitled to vote.
Although women could not vote in general elections, some had been able to vote in local elections since the passing of the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act. The following year, women became eligible to vote for and serve on the new School Boards. From 1875, women could be Poor Law Guardians and when County Councils were established in 1888, women were also able to vote in those elections. In 1892, it was ruled that women could be elected to County Councils, with the word ‘man’ in the relevant legislation being interpreted to refer also to women.
By the turn of the century in 1900, around 1,500 women held elected office in England and Wales, 1,000 as Poor Law Guardians, 300 as members of school boards and perhaps 200 district councillors.
As can be seen, the position regarding the franchise was far more complicated than is often thought. Some women were able to vote and hold office, while conversely over a third of men were unable to do so. Actually, the voting system contained even more startling anomalies than those which denied over a third of men, as well as all women, the vote in parliamentary elections. While many men had no vote, others had two! Plural votes were not finally abolished in this country until after the Second World War. Take the MPs for the older universities, for instance. Oxford and Cambridge universities each returned two MPs and those who had attended the universities were able to vote there, as well as in the constituency in which they lived. This meant that a man might be able to cast two votes and be represented by no fewer than three MPs. Plural voting of this sort lingered on until 1950.
The electoral system was a mess during the Edwardian period and nobody denied that it needed to be reformed. The debate centred partly around the most just and equitable way to go about doing so and partly upon how the different political parties could gain the greatest advantage from any change in the franchise. There was also the little matter of getting a change in the law through parliament which, before 1911, was not always easy.
Actually, the legislation around voting and elections was so confusing and unclear that it was not even certain until relatively late in the nineteenth century that women didn’t have the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This led to a series of extraordinary events in the late 1860s. It is customary to claim that women were first permitted to vote in general elections in 1918, after the end of the First World War, but this is not true. As a matter of fact, the first woman to vote in a parliamentary election in this country did so over half a century earlier, in 1867!
In the autumn of 1867, Mrs Lily Maxwell was the proprietor of a kitchenware shop in Manchester. Because she was a ratepayer, an unusual circumstance at that time for a woman, she found herself placed on the electoral register. She duly voted in the by-election held on 26 November 1867. This was before the introduction of the secret ballot, at a time when voters had to declare their vote publicly and there was some uncertainty as to how a woman voter would be received. In the event, Mrs Maxwell’s spoken vote for the Liberal candidate was received with cheers and applause from all the men present. Nobody suggested that she should not be voting and everyone at the hustings appeared perfectly content with the situation.
This was very encouraging for those interested in women’s suffrage and before the General Election of 1868, a number of female ratepayers had their names placed on the electoral register. Women voted openly during the election, both in Manchester and London, once again with nobody raising any objection. It began to look as though the franchise might have been won for women. However, an official decided to seek a ruling on women voters and on 9 November 1869, the Court of Common Pleas declared the practice illegal. It very nearly came off though, and for a few months it looked as though women had indeed gained the vote.
It is curious to note that there was no large-scale movement in the United Kingdom for male suffrage during the early years of the twentieth century. Most of the men who lacked votes belonged to the working class. They looked to trade unions to represent their interests and were more concerned with such practical matters as working conditions and pay than with being able to vote for this or that MP. In any case, the MP of the constituency in which they lived also represented the interests of those who had no vote.
Many, perhaps most, working-class women had much the same attitude towards suffrage as did the men who lacked the parliamentary vote. They were keener to have something done about the length of the working day and safety measures in the factories and mills in which they worked than they were to obtain the franchise. Women’s suffrage was an issue of concern mainly to the middle and upper classes. The reason for this was simple. If the law was changed in the way that the WSPU wished it to be and sex was no longer a bar to voting in general elections, then it would make no difference at all to most working-class women. They would still not be able to vote, because they did not fulfil the property and residence qualifications that were needed for them to be on the electoral register. Only the middle- and upper-class women who were agitating for the change in the law would benefit.
It must always be borne in mind that the sort of people who joined the WSPU and became suffragettes, particularly after 1907, tended to be those who hoped to benefit from a simple change in the law, which would give them the same rights as male householders and university graduates. This meant that suffragettes were more likely to come from well-to-do families. For instance, once suffragette militancy was under way, the police complained that they were often outwitted by the suffragette bombers and arsonists because they were using fast cars and high-powered motor bikes. Quite a few of the police reports on bombings and fires mention that motor cars had been heard roaring away from the scene. A hundred years ago, only the very wealthy were likely to have access to a car. Special Branch detectives said that sometimes suffragettes were evading pursuit by switching from one car to another. That teams of bombers could be operating with multiple motor vehicles suggests that money was no object to some of those involved.
There is also the matter of the way in which the WSPU was funded. In 1908, the Labour Party, which was beginning to take off politically, had an annual income of just £9,674. This money was raised from working men and women, who paid small subscriptions. The WSPU, by comparison, had an income in 1909 of £21,213 – over twice as much as the Labour Party. On the whole, this did not come from the shilling payments of those who joined, but was given in the form of large donations by wealthy sponsors. This was an organisation financed by the rich and powerful. A glance at the list of major subscribers to the WSPU is revealing: Lady Wolsely; Viscountess Harberton; Lady Sybil Smith; the Hon. Mrs Hamilton Russell; Muriel, Countess de la Warr; Princess Sophia Dhuleep Singh; the Hon. Mrs Haverfield; Lady Barclay; and Lady Brassey. These were the kind of women who subsidised the WSPU and upon whom the very existence of the suffragettes depended. A number of these rich women were giving over £1,000 a year, equivalent today to an annual donation of perhaps £80,000.
We have dealt with one widespread misconception – that in Edwardian Britain all men could vote and women could not. Another popular and mistaken idea is that neither the government nor parliament would listen to the perfectly reasonable demands for women to be allowed to vote in general elections and that this obstinacy justified the militant actions of the suffragettes. The argument runs that, having seen the more moderate suffragists exhaust constitutional means, all that remained was direct action. Once again, the facts do not bear out this view. When considering such a proposition, it is important to remember that by the time the twentieth century began, the argument in favour of female suffrage had largely been conceded. A majority of MPs were in favour of women being enfranchised and only the fine details needed to be worked out.
By the 1890s, 340 MPs, a comfortable majority, had pledged their support to enfranchising women. In 1897 the House of Commons passed a women’s suffrage motion by a majority of 71 votes. This was not the first time that parliament had indicated its approval of the principle of women’s suffrage. Nevertheless, no progress was made in getting any legislation on to the statute book in the next six years. It was this lack of solid results which led Emmeline Pankhurst to found the Women’s Social and Political Movement, with the aim of forcing change. Despite the combined efforts of the suffragists and the activities of the WSPU, by the outbreak of war in 1914, women still did not have the right to vote in general elections. Even so, it was fairly plain that women would soon be voting in parliamentary elections; it was only a matter of time.
It must be also borne in mind that women were not in the same state of subjugation in Edwardian Britain as they had been for much of Victoria’s reign. There had been dramatic changes in the position of women in this country during the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, a traditional excuse in mid-Victorian Britain for denying women the parliamentary vote was that their brains were in some way inferior to those of men and they would be unable to follow the complex business of politics. Developments in higher education during the latter part of that century militated strongly against such a belief and indeed, in some cases, suggested that the opposite was true and that women could outperform men intellectually. The situation in universities during the final decades of Victoria’s reign is interesting in this respect.
London University began accepting women on degree courses in 1878, followed in 1879 by Oxford, with Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville colleges opening in that year. In 1869, a college offering university level tuition for women opened at Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Five years later, it moved to Girton, just outside Cambridge. Students were able then to take Cambridge University examinations. In 1887, a student at Girton College called Aganata Ramsey scored so highly in the Cambridge classical tripos that she was awarded a first class degree. It just so happened that no male student at Cambridge that year managed to get better than a second. This triumph was widely reported and was even the subject of a cartoon in Punch.
Nor was Aganata Ramsey the only female student at Cambridge to excel to this extent. In 1890 Phillipa Fawcett, a student at Newnham College whose mother Millicent was to become one of the most prominent suffragists, came top in the mathematical tripos at Cambridge, beating all the men. With women shining at the highest academic levels in this way, it was no longer possible to pretend that the female brain was somehow intellectually inferior and unsuited either to academic study or politics.
As the new century began, even the most die-hard and reactionary politicians probably realised that the world was changing and that the time was approaching when it would no longer be possible to exclude women from the parliamentary franchise. The best that such people could hope for was to fight a rearguard action, delaying women’s suffrage and ensuring that when it did appear, it was on the most advantageous grounds for whichever political party they supported.
By the end of Edward VII’s reign, women had not only shown that they could compete on equal terms at universities, they were also beginning to make their mark in traditionally male-dominated careers. In 1911 there were, for example, 477 women doctors, with some women also qualifying as dentists, surgeons and architects. In 19...

Table of contents

  1. Front Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright Page
  4. Contents
  5. List of Plates
  6. Acknowledgements
  7. Introduction
  8. 1. Suffragettes and Suffragists
  9. 2. The Edwardian World
  10. 3. An Undemocratic Organisation
  11. 4. The Use of Terror and the Need for Martyrs
  12. 5. Emily Davison – Portrait of a Terrorist
  13. 6. Bombing and Arson
  14. 7. The Terrorist Campaign Gathers Pace
  15. 8. Winter, 1913
  16. 9. Dead End – Saved by the War
  17. 10. The Plot to Kill the Prime Minister
  18. 11. How the Vote was Won
  19. 12. The Birth of a Myth
  20. Bibliography