1906 General Election, 1910 Conciliation bill, Annie Kenny, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst, false-feeding, Mrs Pankhurst, National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, NUWSS, Suffragists, Titanic, Votes for Women, Women's Social and Political Union, WSPU
Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring begins in 1912 but the book has a brief preface to set the scene, as follows:
The fight for the vote for women effectively began when John Stuart Mill tabled an amendment to the 1867 Reform Act which would have given women the same political rights as men, a large section of whom were franchised for the first time by the Act. The amendment was defeated and there followed almost 40 years of lobbying by an increasingly large section of women throughout a number of suffrage societies. But progress was slow and limited.
Frustrated by this lack of success, Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst set up her own women’s suffrage society, the Women’s Social & Political Union. When her private member’s bill about the vote was talked out in the House of Commons amidst laughter by MP’s she decided it was time to take more direct action.
In 1905, her daughter Christabel and supporter Annie Kenny disrupted a large Liberal meeting, by shouting from the audience. They were thrown out but eager to gain publicity, Christabel allegedly spat at a policeman. The two women were arrested, and in court were fined and required to be bound over under their own recognizances. They refused to pay the fine and refused to be bound over, making them guilty of contempt of court, which carried a custodial sentence. The women went to prison. The newspapers, which had hitherto mostly ignored women’s fight for the vote, reported the incident on their front pages the following morning. Publicity would now be the oxygen of the WSPU movement.
When the Liberals won a landslide victory at the 1906 general election, with a majority of their MPs reputedly to be in favour of votes for women, there was much optimism. But these hopes were dashed when leading members of the new Cabinet showed themselves to be openly opposed to women gaining the vote. From this time the WSPU became a militant organisation. Members deliberately got themselves arrested to gain publicity for the cause, but eager to highlight their cause further they refused to pay whatever fine was imposed upon them by the courts and duly went to prison. The Home Office treated them as common criminals so the protesters started hunger-striking for political prisoner status. The widely condemned use of force-feeding of Suffragettes in prison soon followed.
The non-militant Suffragists, such as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which had a membership which far outweighed that of the relatively small WSPU initially applauded the militants for bringing the fight for the vote more into the public domain. but once the WSPU introduced violence into their tactics, their actions were deplored by the vast majority of women fighting for the vote. The militant and non-militant factions essentially went their separate ways.
Emmeline Pankhurst was the figurehead of the WSPU; the great charismatic speech-maker. Her daughter Christabel wad the decision-maker of the organisation. And it was the principle of the vote for women, rather than who actually got it which interested Christabel. She favoured limited suffrage, for just propertied women; effectively middle class women. The 1910 Conciliation Bill, which the Suffragettes supported, would have given only propertied women the vote. Its first reading was passed by a huge majority but Prime Minister Asquith blocked its progress.
Mrs Pankhurst continued to politicise women all around the country, but frustrated by the government’s false promises and delaying tactics Christabel decided to increase the Suffragettes’ level of violence from March 1912. This stepped over the line which the public and press were willing to tolerate and they turned against the women. Suffragettes became pariahs.
Suffragettes would use the time when Parliament was in recess to sail abroad to spread the word. Mrs Pankhurst visited the United States on several occasions. And the amount of publicity surrounding the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic would have been just the sort of thing into which she would like to have tapped. But the British parliamentary season was still in full swing in April 1912, so such a trip would have to wait for a couple of months.
it was just as well…