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100 years ago tomorrow Prime Minister Asquith finally saw a deputation of women who were fighting for the vote. Until then, he had refused to receive women from any of the women’s suffrage societies, but Sylvia Pankhurst’s threatened suicide by hunger and thirst strike (see previous blog) had forced his hand. Here is the first half of that landmark meeting between six poor East End women from Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes and Asquith, as reproduced in my novel Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring.

Julia Scurr had been given the job of leading the deputation. She had been what she considered to be a quiet housewife until galvanised by the East London Federation movement and was now a vigilant Poor Law guardian. She made and received the introductions, and was first to speak. Sylvia had prepared Julia’s statement on themes that she knew were close to the women’s hearts.

“Parliament is constantly dealing with questions affecting the education and car of our children, with the houses in which we live, and more and more with every item of our daily lives. Our husbands doe on the average at a much earlier age than do men of other classes. Modern industrialism kills them off rapidly, both by accident and overwork. We can here speak with much feeling on these matters for we know by bitter experience the terrible struggle with absolute want that our widowed sisters have to face through no fault of their own. We feel most earnestly that it is gravely unjust to pass legislation in matters of this kind without consulting the women of this country. We would further point out that whilst women are taxed on exactly the same basis as men, and like men are obliged to obey the laws, they are allowed no voice in these questions.”

Jessie Payne then told of her terrible life as a sweated worker; a cigarette packer in a factory where she had earned less than a shilling a day. Men had been allowed time for lunch but women were not, and had nowhere to eat so had to to consume their food in the lavatory. She emphasised trade unions would not tolerate such conditions. She went on to tell of her life with her mentally retarded daughter. Having a conscientious objection to her little girl being vaccinated she had gone to the local magistrate for an exemption order. He had laughed and informed her that in the eyes of the law she was not the parent. Only a father could apply. On another occasion her daughter, now an adult, became unmanageable to the point where Mr Payne had felt compelled to take her to the workhouse. When Jessie arrived there she found her daughter had been placed in a padded room. She had asked the doctor why and was informed that a mother had no voice in the matter. Only the father.

“Our demand is for the form of franchise for women with which you have repeatedly said you would be most in sympathy. It is the form of the franchise which you have declared your intention of establishing for men in the near future. It is the one for which your party is supposed to stand; a vote for every women over twenty one. This demand is supported by an enormous volume of working class opinion throughout the country, especially in our own district.”

Mrs Bird, Mrs Savoy, Mrs Parsons and Mrs Watkins all spoke well too.

For Asquith’s reply, read my next blog.

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