This is Asquith’s reply to the six woman deputation from the East London Federation of Suffragettes whom he agreed to see at Downing Street in June 1914. This is how it appears in my novel Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring, and it’s almost verbatim what he actually stated. I’ve just tweaked it a tad to get rid of some of the verbose language that he used and added the final sentences to give it a sense of time, namely the end of the Parliamentary season, June 1914.
Asquith replied that their deputation was more representative than others he had met. And if the change to women’s suffrage had got to come he and his government must face it boldly and make it thoroughly democratic. It appeared that he finally recognised he could not maintain his resistance to women’s suffrage much longer and stated his position now for equal suffrage was closer to Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation than Christabel and Emmeline Pankkhurst’s WSPU.
“I tell you quite frankly that I have listened with the greatest interest to the statement read by Mrs Scurr and to the special, individual experience of the various members of the deputation, by which the statement has been reinforced. It is a very moderate and well-reasoned presentation of your case and I will give it very careful and mature consideration. I am not going to enter into anything of argument here, but I think the substance of your case you have presented comes to this. The economic conditions under which women labour in any community like, for instance, the East End of London, are such that we cannot get substantial and intelligent reform unless women themselves have a voice in choosing representatives of Parliament. And you have each given me special illustrations, drawn from your own experience, to show this is not a rhetorical statement, but does correspond to the actual facts of East End life. I will take all these things into consideration during the recess which is upon us and will write to you with my full response in due course. And this statement will be laid out in public come the next Parliamentary season.”
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War broke out during the summer recess and we’ll never know what would have happened next had it not done so. The question is, was Asquith being truthful? There are several factors that suggest he may not have been. Firstly, he had only been forced to the negotiation table by Sylvia Pankhurst threatening to starve herself to death outside the Houses of Parliament. He had also been disingenuous on the subject of Votes for Women throughout his term in office. And he would have considered himself a gentleman – it would have been the height of poor taste for a gentlemen to effectively be rude to six poor women he had invited to to see him, by simply dismissing their claims, which is exactly what he had been doing for the past 6 years since he had become Prime Minister. However, on the plus side, he did propound that women should get the vote when it was next discussed seriously in Parliament over 2 years later, mid-war. And, being a Liberal, he appreciated that if women were to get the vote, women of all classes should get it. If only propertied (middle class) women got the vote, which was all that Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst’s Women’s Social & Political Union were fighting for, there was a good chance that a majority of them would vote Tory. Whereas working class women were more likely to vote Liberal.
Given the strength of the Votes for Women movement as a whole in the summer of 1914 (the Suffragettes made up only a tiny percentage of all the women’s groups fighting for the vote; e.g. the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies had a membership of 100,000, and there were 21 other sizable women’s suffrage societies) it is reasonable to argue that had war not broken out, women may have won the vote in principle in 1914 and it become law in 1915. Had this been so, Sylvia Pankhurst lying down to die outside Parliament, followed by Asquith’s capitulation, would probably have gone down in history as the defining moment of the fight for the vote for women, and it would be Sylvia, rather than her mother, who would be remembered as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.