So much more than a vote

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For both the suffragists and the suffragettes, the struggle for the vote was about so much more than the vote.

The trouble is, if you are seen as not having the intelligence or moral fibre to have a say on the way your society is run, then that means you’re also seen as incapable of running your own life and making decisions.

For the suffragists and the suffragettes, the vote also meant having the dignity of being seen as a full human being, not first a sweet little virgin, in need of guidance, then a self-sacrificing mother, in need of protection, or the alternative of a rampaging floozy set on bringing down civilisation (if not the world).

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And the fight was not just about the women. Until 1884, the only people in Britain to have the vote were a very small proportion of (very rich) men. With most men, as well as all women, having no say in the running of their country, or indeed of their lives, women and men of the suffrage movement fought alongside each other.

In 1884, the suffragists negotiated for women to have some voting rights as well as more men. Which might have saved an awful lot of trouble in the long run. But at the last minute, the government decided that that women couldn’t be trusted to vote for the right side (as in, them) in the next election. So, in the true spirit of self-interest, gave 60% of men voting rights instead.

The suffragists picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and went back to the drawing board and the tearooms. But the first stone to go through that first window was just that little bit closer … Men continued to support women’s suffrage even after the majority of men had been given the vote, including going to prison in support of the suffragettes – along with going on hunger strike and enduring the torture of force feeding.

In the end, it wasn’t until 1928 that both all men and all women over the age of 21 achieved the vote.

The newspapers of the time were suitably patronising and dismissive, as in this article in the Dundee Courier and Argus of June 1884. I particularly like the bit about students of natural history being ‘aware that timid creatures (lady suffragists) are apt to do rash, and apparently bold things at times…’ Charming.

It was not to be expected that the ladies who are promoting woman suffrage, and the male enthusiasts who in that matter are supporting them, would rest content, even for the present, with the decision which was given against them in the House of Commons last week, although the majority of 136 which rejected Mr. Woodall’s clause was a pretty strong rebuff. The ladies, it seems, are going to try what more they can make of the matter in the House of Lords. … Students of Natural History are aware that timid creature are apt to do rash and apparently bold things at times, and perhaps thus it happens that the lady suffragists have no difficulty in courting the attentions of Lord Salisbury, even though the end of it should be that his Lordship becomes Prime Minister. Their one aim is to obtain votes for women householder and ratepayers. Provided that they succeed in that, they do not seen to care much what might happen.

 

Suffragists Dundee Courier and Argus June 18 1884Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 18.59.03

Dundee Courier and Argus June 18th 1884 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

 

 

Beginnings

Suffragists and Suffragettes

The Manchester Courier October 7 1913Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 21.10.53

The Manchester Courier, and Lancashire General Advertiser October 7th 1913. Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)

Whenever I’ve thought of women’s fight to have the vote in the UK, this is the image I’ve had in my mind. Women  throwing stones. Being arrested, imprisoned, force fed. Throwing themselves under horses.

It was only when I began researching the suffrage movement when I was writing ‘The White Camellia’ that I discovered a very different image. The suffragettes were incredibly brave and resilient, continuing their fight for the vote in the face of physical and sexual abuse, and even death. But their story is only that of the final few years, between around 1905 to 1914, of a very long battle.

For fifty years or more before this photograph of Annie Kenney being arrested in 1913 was taken, the suffragist movement fought peacefully to improve the lives of women, and for the right of women to have a say in the laws that governed them. They might have been peaceful and used the democratic process, but they were no less daring, and resourceful, and prepared to take risks. They did not just write letters or pamphlets, but flouted convention, and the law, to fight injustice every step of the way.

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These were women who had no legal existence of their own. They belonged first to their fathers, then their husbands. Whatever their experiences or achievements throughout their lives, they remained children. They couldn’t study, follow a profession, or even earn their own money. They had almost no control over their lives. They existed to bear children, and to stay in the background, quietly, and uncritically, providing their husbands with all the necessary home comforts after his long day at the office, ruling the Empire.

Then in 1866, the newly formed ‘Manchester Committee for the Enfranchisement of Women’, presented a petition to the House of Commons with 1,500 signatures. It was supported by the renowned British philosopher and economist, John Stuart Mill, who added an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act that would have given women the same political rights as men. The amendment was defeated by 196 votes to 73.

Which, since it was voted on exclusively by men, who had been elected entirely by men, in a world in which any other way of doing things was utterly unthinkable, wasn’t exactly surprising.

But, of course, that was not the end of the story.

The tearooms were about to start buzzing …

Devon and Exeter Gazette May 19 1899 Screen shot 2015-08-06 at 21.04.53

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette May 19th 1899 Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Image reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)