Saturday, July 6, 2013

Were the suffragettes insane?

On 16 March 1912 a leader in The Times explained suffragette militancy by attributing it to women’s “Insurgent Hysteria”. The article suggested that “in a large number of cases, even though in the strict sense insanity is not present, there is a tendency to some form of hysteria or morbid moods akin thereto”. Women’s mental weakness was inherent in their physiology: their “senseless outrages against property” could best by understood by physicians. Amongst the correspondence the leader inspired, one doctor, in a letter headed “What Every Doctor Knows”, agreed that physicians did indeed understand the type of woman referred to. He explained that “when she has reached a certain age, we know that there is no help in us”. To prevent the development of such characters, he added, “the lunacy laws will require revision.”   

Medical scientist Sir Almroth Wright produced a whole book – The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage – exploring the theme, characterising the suffragettes as “spinsters in a state of retarded development”, women who could not understand that their “unsatisfied sexuality is an intellectual disability.” He characterised the suffragettes as “ungrateful women” – disappointed wives , the sexually embittered, and those who wanted to have everything for nothing.  
Other newspapers, like the Daily Express, also described suffragettes as “crazy”, “frenzied” and “insane”. The insane, of course, could not vote. Neither could criminals.

Suffragette militancy itself proved that women should not have the vote. “If anything could strengthen the general conviction of ordinary men that women are unfit for the suffrage, it surely would be the supremely silly conduct of the window-breakers”, thundered The Times on 26 June 1912.  

Before forcible feeding was used on suffragettes, it was used on the insane, and it continued to be connected with insanity. A male suffragist, William Ball, was said to have been driven mad by forcible feeding. Bristol woman Alice Walters was so badly affected by forcible feeding she feared that if it continued she “should have gone mad”.
In 1912 the Home Secretary introduced The Mental Deficiency Bill which would give the Home Secretary the power to compulsorily confine people for life based on fairly sweeping definitions of insanity. In the Commons, Sir F Banbury criticised the Bill, saying it would make the Home Secretary “an absolute dictator” who could use the legislation to exclude who he chose from “the rights of citizenship”. It “would enable him to brand all the woman suffragists as deficient in mind and to lock them up”. Sir F Banbury added, however, that if he did so he “might be acting rightly”.    
When on 11 June 1914 the House of Commons discussed methods of dealing with hunger-striking militants, treating them as lunatics was amongst the options considered. Reginald McKenna, the Home Secretary, agreed that suffragettes were “hysterical fanatics”, but rejected the lunatic suggestion because his earlier attempts to get women certified as insane failed when doctors would not co-operate. (The other options considered were to let the prisoners die (“the most popular”, remarked McKenna), deport them, or give them the franchise (this was greeted with “Hear, hear, and laughter”).

Suffragettes on trial were frequently characterised as insane. During the trial of Bristol woman Lillian Lenton, who had burned the tea house at Kew Gardens, the magistrate asked, “is she responsible for her actions?”  Mary Lindsay, who struck Lord Weardale when she mistook him for Prime Minister Asquith, was remanded in custody to see whether she was of sound mind. The London County Council solicitor, prosecuting Elsie Neville Howey for setting off false fire alarms, described her crime as “an act of madness”.  

Sometimes it’s easy to sympathise with the outraged populace. One woman attended a church service and placed a canister of gunpowder and iron filings under a church pew. She lit the fuse as the congregation was leaving; the device was discovered and doused in water. What was she thinking? The same woman carried a loaded revolver and frequently declared that she wasn’t afraid to use it (though thankfully she never did). Was she insane? She was certainly reckless and violent – perhaps not the same thing.
What do you think? Were the suffragettes mad, criminal, or political activists? If you are in Bristol on 13 July 2013 you can find out more in a free panel event at Bristol M Shed – details below.
“Senseless outrages against property”: suffragette militancy and women’s right to vote
Saturday 13 July 2003, 2 pm to 3.30 pm, at Bristol M Shed.   

Join June Hannam, Professor Emeritus at the University of the West of England; Lois Bibbings, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol; Dawn Dyer of the Local Studies Team at Bristol Central Library; and local author Lucienne Boyce to discuss the effectiveness and ethics of suffragette militancy in the campaign for women’s right to vote. For details see the Bristol M Shed website.
This free event is part of the Dreadnought South West series of events commemorating the south west’s contribution to the Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. For more information about the project see


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