The Rebel Suffragette
eBook - ePub

The Rebel Suffragette

The Life of Edith Rigby

Beverley Adams

  1. 168 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Rebel Suffragette

The Life of Edith Rigby

Beverley Adams

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About This Book

The suffragette movement swept the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by the Pankhurst’s, the focus of the movement was in London with demonstrations and rallies taking place across the capital. But this was a nationwide movement with a strong northern influence with Edith Rigby being an ardent supporter. Edith was a controversial figure, not only was she was the first woman to own and ride a bicycle in her home town but she was founder of a school for girls and young women. Edith followed the example of Emmeline Pankhurst and her supporters and founded the Preston branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was found guilty of arson and an attempted bomb attack in Liverpool following which she was incarcerated and endured hunger strike forming part of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ system with the government. During a political rally with Winston Churchill Edith threw a black pudding at a MP. There are many tales to tell in the life of Edith Rigby, she was charismatic, passionate, ruthless and thoroughly unpredictable. She was someone who rejected the accepted notion of what a woman of her class should be the way she dressed and the way she ran her household but she was independent in mind and spirit and always had courage in her own convictions. As a suffragette, she was just as effective and brave as the Pankhurst women. This is the story of a life of a lesser known suffragette. This is Edith’s story.

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Chapter One

The Early Campaigns

On 14 December 1918, women over the age of 30 who met the voting criteria of either owning property, or having a husband who did, were finally allowed to cast their vote in a General Election in the United Kingdom. They had been granted the vote when the Representation of the People Act was passed by the government earlier that year. This meant that over 8.5 million women were now eligible to vote, and when the time came they went to the polling stations with smiles on their faces and a spring in their step, for they could hardly believe that historic day had finally arrived. Despite this huge leap forward for women’s rights, it would be another ten years before the franchise was fully extended to all women on the same terms as men, but for those casting their vote in 1918 it had been a hard-fought victory. The victory of the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign had been a long drawn-out affair between the majority of women and the government, it was a time when the women of the United Kingdom banded together across the four nations to demand that the time had come to rip up the social handbook and accept that women, just like men, were an important and integral part of society and the country as a whole. They had had enough of being typecast as the homemakers and family carers. Women wanted change, they wanted to have their voices heard by the people that mattered; they wanted an opportunity to be counted and to feel counted. They wanted the vote and they were going to make sure they got it!
It was during the early Victorian period that the gender gap in society across the UK was the widest it had ever been. In times before this you may have seen women working alongside men within the family business, whether that was in a provisions store, apothecary or some other type of establishment. It may even have been within the home producing goods that were then sent out to be sold. Regardless of the actual role, there was a place for women within the working sphere. However, the Victorian era saw the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and before long the cottage industry was gone and big industrial factories and textile mills started to appear in towns and cities right across the country. New inventions meant that manufacturing was possible on a much larger scale with a greater profit yield for the factory owners. It also meant more employment opportunities. The decline of the cottage industry forced families to seek work in these factories, so men started to travel to their place of work, and with a more stable and larger income the women could be left behind to tend solely to the domestic side of life. We were at a point in history when specific tasks became either for men or women. The man was expected to go out to work to earn the money to provide for his family, it was seen as his responsibility to put food on the table and to keep a roof over their heads. For the woman, well, it was her job to ensure that food was cooked and on the table for whenever the man of the house required and to tend to the children or elderly relatives. She was also expected to keep the house clean and tidy and ready for any potential guests that decided to visit, it was her responsibility to entertain them and to make sure they had refreshments. She may also have taken in extra work in the evening such as sewing or the mending of garments on behalf of local businesses. Working class women did not have a lot of leisure time to relax; their role was a busy one and their days were long. Of course, we are looking at a certain level in society here – if you were poor and staring poverty in the face then you went out to work regardless of your gender and you did whatever work you could get. A poor man did not have the luxury of being able to leave a wife at home to take care of the domestic arrangements, and she certainly did not have the luxury of just focusing on the domestic side of life. The woman of a poorer household would have to do her domestic chores when she got in from work, for the lot of a poorer woman was to contribute financially and to ensure the tea was cooked and the house kept clean. If the woman was single then she may have entered service in a grand house and become a servant waiting on the needs of the rich, but that did provide her with a small income and a roof over her head. These hard-working families were grateful for the employment they had. They may not have liked it and felt they deserved more in terms of pay and benefits, but they were the lucky ones – the next rung down on the social ladder would have seen them in the workhouse, where couples were split up and children taken from their parents. But here in lies the groundwork for the suffrage movement, as it is important to remember that these women were going to work in the mills and factories, putting in a hard day’s work just as the men did, but they were not enjoying the same privileges: they could not vote in the General Election, and their voices were not heard. Without that, things could never change for them. That being said, no woman could vote. Society may have differentiated between men and women, but it did not differentiate between women. All women were seen as the same, and working women were barred from having the vote just as much as the ladies who sat in their drawing rooms taking tea with their companions in the afternoon. No woman at any level of society was considered worthy enough of having the vote; they were all considered to be irresponsible.
Queen Victoria sat at the head of the British Empire, it was progressive and led the way in many areas of innovation, which began in the UK with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Despite this, they did lag behind some nations when it came to giving women the vote and the queen did little to support the cause. ‘What right’, she thought, ‘did they have to assume the role of men?’ Yes, she was the ruler of the whole empire, very much seen as a male role, but her role as a monarch was because of birth right, not because she had outwitted, bested or been promoted ahead of any man. In earlier times female monarchs were under constant threat from male family members, who may have held a lower rank but that would have been overlooked if it meant they could displace a woman. For example, Elizabeth I knew she could not marry, if she did then her husband would have assumed power over her, both within the marriage and also in terms of governance, as women were expected to obey their husbands in all matters. She also feared that being married could have led to her having a son and her advisors would have preferred an infant child on the throne rather than a woman. In the end Elizabeth decided she would not risk any threat to her power and announced that she was married to her country, becoming known as the Virgin Queen. Despite being queens, Elizabeth, Victoria and all the other female monarchs who have sat on the throne of the United Kingdom have been surrounded by a host of powerful men who were only too eager to advise, for surely they knew what was best for the country, not a female sovereign.
The working conditions of women and their lack of representation at any level formed the basis of a movement that began to swell across the nation. In the mid-nineteenth century the campaign for women’s suffrage began to grow, taking hold in Britain as the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign, which would become a tidal wave of attack against the Liberal government. Before any of that could happen they needed a platform and a vehicle to peddle their campaign, so a group of like-minded women decided to band together for the common cause and demand change. The movement initially started out as a peaceful protest led by a group of respectable middle-class ladies, whose main aim was to raise awareness to the plight of women. They wanted to bring into the public consciousness the argument that it was high time for change, and that it was their intention to challenge Parliament as such. It was to be considered a dignified and proper campaign which was to be undertaken in a law-abiding, peaceful and calm manner and in the utmost respectful way.
In December 1884 William Gladstone introduced the Third Reform Act and later the Redistribution Act (in which it was agreed the franchise would be extended to include not only towns and cities but also the countryside), which meant if a man paid £10 in rents, or he held his own land worth over £10, he was now entitled to vote. The Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 looked to redraw the boundary lines in towns and cities and out in the rural areas. The aim was to ensure that there was a fair distribution of electoral districts, meaning each district would have at least one member of Parliament, although in twenty-three districts it returned more than two. With the implementation of these Acts more men were granted the vote. The small ruling elite was becoming a thing of the past as a more democratic and representative Parliament was being formed, but it still continued to exclude women and it was due to this latest snub that women decided the time was right to start a fight back.
The introduction of the act allowed more agricultural workers an opportunity to cast their vote. They had finally been given a voice by the government, and why not? After all, they worked and paid taxes like other men did, so it was only fair that they did too. The introduction of the act also increased the voting populace significantly to approximately 5.5 million, but there was still scope for women to be added to their numbers. The sense of injustice that women felt at the implementation of these Acts caused an outcry and added fuel to the already simmering fire, which spurred many women into finally standing up to fight for the vote. For many of them, it was difficult to comprehend why a man of a lesser social standing and of lesser fortune than herself should have a say in how the country was run, especially as some of those women paid more in taxes, abided by the same laws and contributed to the country’s economy just as much as the men did, so why should they not have the vote too? It is a very reasonable question to ask, but – unfortunately for them – women simply did not exist in the eyes of the government, they were invisible citizens who were deemed to have nothing to contribute to society or to the country as a whole.
The hypocrisy of the government knew no bounds. They were happy to take a woman’s money in the form of taxes due, but they were unwilling to give her a voice in return for that payment. To them, she was of no worth and her thoughts and ideas were especially to be scoffed at. After all, what reasonable and sensible ideas would any woman have to contribute to the country? Women, it was thought, were run by their emotions and were liable to fall to pieces in an emotional rage should she encounter any difficulties. But the only rage women were experiencing was the downright refusal of the government to give them a voice that would let them be heard, but then maybe the governing few were scared of what they might say, or, that women might actually surprise them and pose considered and well thought-out arguments. The government would not have known how to react if they had come across a group of women who put across their thoughts in a rational and reasonable way.
It was a firmly held belief among the majority of politicians that even if women were to be granted the vote then surely, being the true and proper female ideal, they would just vote how their husbands or fathers had told them to. Would they be foolish enough to defy them and attempt to make their own decision? Politics was a male-dominated arena, and women had no rights getting themselves involved in it. In the eyes of men, women were deemed incapable of making such an important decision for themselves; they were clearly devoid of any sense and unable to take into consideration the various manifestos to make an informed and balanced decision based on the information available. Surely this was beyond their understanding, so they must seek the advice of the greater men in their lives. Was the government really that short-sighted and ignorant to think that women would just meekly comply with this? Admittedly, before the rise of the female suffrage movement, women had displayed behaviour of compliance and duty, there were very few women who went against the grain of society, and if she did she was quite often the lone voice who was quickly quietened. There are a few exceptions to this, but on the whole women were under the control of men. That being said, with the emergence of the various suffrage groups did they honestly think women would continue to be quietened by these reasons? Quite clearly they did, and they were obviously not prepared for the backlash that was to come from these meek, mild and previously compliant citizens. It was quite naïve on the part of the government. For years women had been asking peacefully to be heard and time and time again they ignored their pleas, it was not a shock that they would then try a different plan of attack. The time had now come for women to fight back and prove they were, in fact, just as capable and dependable as men, and that they could be trusted to make an informed decision – but it was precisely these decisions the political parties were frightened of.
The Liberal Party was led by Herbert Henry Asquith, who served as Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916. He was growing increasingly concerned that the trade unions and newly formed Labour Party were beginning to pose too much of a threat, and the fact that the suffragists had started to win them over meant he needed to make a decision. He initially supported the campaign, but when he really thought about it he decided the risk was too great. His party seemed at odds with itself. Some members seemed to support extending the franchise but would then change their mind once the process had started, and the indecision they showed frustrated the women as they never knew how close or, indeed, how far they were from being successful.
Asquith considered the whole enfranchisement of women in terms of the effect it would have on the running of government and whether or not it would aid him in doing so. He gave little credence to the actual rights of women, to him that was not a factor to be considered and he did not understand why women were up in arms about their lack of vote. It was his and his government’s inability to make a firm stance one way or the other that caused the women to give up on any chance of winning the vote through peaceful methods. Once the campaigning took on a more militant turn, he quickly changed his mind and decided to oppose any future bill, and the Liberal Party took a hard line against the women from then on. Why Asquith was so indecisive is unclear. On the one hand, many of his party supported women’s suffrage and he himself was not against it, but something played on his mind. He believed it was against public opinion and like any other prime minister before him, the main aim of his career was to stay in power, so perhaps it was fear that prevented him forcing the issue through Parliament. That fear came from either upsetting the public, or the fact that if the women were granted the vote, they could potentially vote against him and his party at the first possible opportunity. Surely the latter fear was a misguided notion by Asquith. If the Liberal government had allied themselves with the campaign, it was a very real possibility that the women of the various organisations involved could have voted in his favour and secured his place in government for longer. Either way, at that point he turned his back on the women and instead entered in to an all-out war, making himself a personal target in a campaign that would far exceed what he or the country thought possible.
In 1865 groups of women from across the country decided to come together in branches which cumulatively became known as the Women’s Suffrage Committee. They managed to gather over 1,500 signatures as part of a petition that demanded women be given the vote on the same terms as men. The petition for women’s suffrage was then handed to two pro-universal suffrage MPs. The first was Henry Fawcett, MP for Brighton, and secondly John Stuart Mill, MP for City and Westminster. Hopes were riding high that finally a breakthrough would be made as an amendment was written into the second Reform Bill of 1867. Unfortunately, when it came to the crunch it was defeated in Parliament by 196 votes to 73. Bitterly disappointed by this latest setback, but sensing that victory was possible, the women decided to take a more structured approach to campaigning and so together they formed women’s suffrage committees. When subsequent bills were rejected by Parliament they made the decision that seventeen of these committees would merge together, and in 1897 the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was formed, led by Millicent Fawcett. Millicent spoke publicly on a regular basis about women’s rights and was often found in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons listening to the debates; she was also the wife of Henry Fawcett MP. The formation of the NUWSS brought about an organisation which was much more professional and concentrated in its approach; it gave women a focus and one umbrella to campaign under.
This first group of women became known as the suffragists and they believed in peaceful campaigning methods. It was their hope that by using education and a well-constructed argument, they could persuade the government that votes for women was not only a sensible and reasonable suggestion, but one that should be implemented. The lobbying techniques used by the suffragists were moderately successful in that they achieved yearly debates on the issue of women’s right to vote, which kept the issue in the public’s conscience and kept the discussions relevant. They purposefully chose to lobby the politicians they knew already had sympathetic views towards female suffrage, and it was important to avoid any confrontation so they opted to write directly to MPs, produce leaflets, pamphlets and posters to raise awareness for their cause. The NUWSS consisted mainly of middle- to upper-class women and it was for these women they campaigned for. By 1914 there were approximately 54,000 members and it was the largest of all the women’s suffrage groups, but as time went on, and as more of their campaigns ended in disappointment, it was quite clear that for all their peaceful negotiations they had made very little progress, and for some members it was time to take the campaigning to the next level. From that point on it became a much more focused and militant fight that put a whole new group of women in direct conflict with the government. These were women who were not scared to be bold and controversial; many of them came from the textile mill towns of the north who had more to fight for than just having the vote.
In 1903, at 62 Nelson Street in Manchester, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). They would later become known as the suffragettes, and it did not take long for women to flock to their cause and for branches to be formed up and down the country. There were many differences between the NUWSS and the WSPU, mainly the level of ferocity in their campaigning methods and the size of each organisation, with the NUWSS being the larger of the two but with the WSPU having a much bigger impact. The main difference was that the members of the WSPU were predominantly working-class women who were not frightened to engage in a more militant approach. After all, these women were earning a wage, a hard wage in fact as the conditions in many of the mills were far from salubrious, but they did it to support their families. They were paying their taxes to the government so felt they had every right to have a say in how the country was being run, but in order to do that they needed the vote. They were not scared to commit arson, chain themselves to railings and cause widespread disruption to hammer home their message to those in power.
They were going to make sure their message was heard loud and clear, and they were soon front-page news. Many newsreels were taken at the time which show us the sheer numbers involved in their demonstrations, and soon enough the suffragettes were using the media to their own advantage. They even turned the term ‘suffragette’, which was initially used by a journalist from the Daily Mail in 1906 as a derogative term, into their own, which has stood the test of time. It would be safe to say the press, the government and the country as a whole underestimated how passionate and forceful this group of women could be, and they certainly would never had anticipated the levels they were willing to go to for their cause. The courage and strength of these women cannot be overlooked; they committed these actions knowing it would probably lead to their arrest and possible imprisonment. Admittedly, they may not have realised at that stage the barbaric treatment they would face once they were there, but even when it did become apparent they did not give in and they never shied away from what was thrown at them. To these women the cause was paramount, and no amount of force feeding or threats from the government would halt their campaigning. The suffragettes were clever and quickly realised the arrests and subsequent trials were getting them the column inches they needed so they used it all to their advantage. Knowing that the arrest of these women would cause utter scandal, they mobilised this as their propaganda and continued to use it to highlight the campaign for ‘Votes ...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Title
  3. Copyright
  4. Contents
  5. Acknowledgements
  6. Preface
  7. Timeline of Events
  8. Introduction
  9. Chapter One: The Early Campaigns
  10. Chapter Two: Edith’s Early Life
  11. Chapter Three: Helping the Women of Preston
  12. Chapter Four: Rise Up, Women!
  13. Chapter Five: Edith’s Last Push
  14. Chapter Six: Men and the Media
  15. Chapter Seven: The Suffragettes and the Royal Family
  16. Chapter Eight: Life During the War
  17. Chapter Nine: Life in Wales
  18. Chapter Ten: The Suffragette’s Legacy and Women Today
  19. Bibliography