Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Suffragettes could not be pacifists at any price

In 1913 and 1914 a bomb was found at the Bank of England in London. Other incendiary devices discovered in the capital included one with “Votes for Women” labels on it at the Grand Hotel. Loud ticking led to the discovery of a device in St Paul’s Cathedral, and other bombs were discovered in the Church of St John the Evangelist in Westminster, and at Westminster Abbey. A bomb was sent to the chief magistrate at Bow Street Police Court, and a tube of nitro-glycerine was found on the London Underground.

Around the country similar incidents were recorded in Manchester, where a bomb destroyed the cactus house in Alexandra Park. Glasgow’s Winter Gardens also came under attack. In Taunton a device was discovered at the Lyceum Theatre, at that time under construction. A bomb appeared on the steps of Cheltenham Town Hall. A house under construction for David Lloyd George at Walton-in-the-Hill was bombed by Emily Wilding Davison and other suffragettes. Explosives were found at Cambridge University’s football ground. In December a bomb exploded outside Holloway Prison. There were  other incidents in Plymouth, Macclesfield, Liverpool, Caerleon, and many other locations.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and it includes one or two incidents which have not been definitely attributed to the suffragettes (the Grand Hotel and Bow Street bombs, for instance). Nevertheless, the blame has usually fallen on the militants of the WSPU.

The devices were made with dynamite, nitro-glycerine, phosphorous and other substances and they were extremely effective. That is to say, they were dangerous and destructive. Yet these qualities are often overlooked in accounts of the militant suffrage campaign. I think this is in a very large part because of Mrs Pankhurst’s insistence that no life should be put in danger by it. Suffragette militancy wasn’t really all that bad, we can tell ourselves, because no one was hurt by it.

A suffragette with bomb, kerosene, gun powder and matches.

Rebecca West, writing in The Clarion on 28 February 1913, ridiculed public expressions of regret for the loss of buildings and other property. Referring to the recent burning of the tea house at Kew Gardens by suffragette Lilian Lenton, West wrote, “I have no idea why the public should suddenly show a maudlin affection, such as they usually reserve for the royal family, for the late tea-house”. She pointed to all the suffragettes had had to endure  from the government – the obstinacy, dishonesty, duplicity and malice, and she commented that “it says much for [the WSPU’s] self-control that there has been nothing worse than these quite discreet and controlled attacks on unimportant property”.

Mrs Pankhurst herself contrasted what West called the women’s “mild” militancy with bloodthirsty male terrorism. She criticized the Government for receiving a delegation of the Young Turkish Revolutionary Party – men who had killed – while she was in prison for nothing more than distributing a handbill. She wondered why no one condemned the men in Ireland who were making preparations to “destroy not only property, but human life”. In her defence speech in court on 21 May 1912 she insisted, “We have assaulted no one; we have done no hurt to anyone”.

But this isn’t strictly speaking true. The militant suffragette campaign was not without its casualties. Following attacks on letter boxes with incendiary or chemical devices, four postal workers in Dundee sustained burns to their hands after handling tubes placed in letter boxes; a worker in Croydon had to be treated for smoke inhalation when a package burst into flames; and in Fulham another was injured by sulphuric acid. Women themselves suffered injury: a woman attempting to set the contents of a letter box alight was burned on the arm, and bloodstains found at one arson site, where the women broke a window to get in, suggested that one of the arsonists was wounded. Of course, none of these injuries were intentional, but they do throw doubt on the assertion that suffragette militancy harmed no one. 

And there were instances when harm was deliberately inflicted. Winston Churchill was attacked by suffragette Theresa Garnett, wielding a whip, at Bristol Temple Meads railway station in November 1909. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was assaulted by three suffragettes in Kent in September 1909, and his daughter Violet describes further violent scenes with suffragettes in her letters. Emily Wilding Davison, who died after she ran in front of the King’s horse at the 1913 Derby, attacked a man she mistook for Lloyd George on Aberdeen railway station. In February 1914 Lord Weardale was mistaken for the Prime Minister and assaulted with a dog whip at Euston station. A prison medical officer was assaulted outside Holloway Prison by a woman he had forcibly fed.

Women carrying whips, catapults and in at least one case even a gun caused or were likely to cause injury. Of all the weapons they used, bombs had the most potential for harm. Take, for example, the incident at St John the Evangelist in Westminster in July 1914. Here a woman left a canister of gunpowder and iron filings with a lit fuse under a church pew as the congregation was leaving. I can’t help wondering how she could possibly have thought there was no risk to the people in the building, even if she did think the bomb wasn’t due to explode for another hour. Mind you, I also wonder at the common sense of the hundred worshippers who stood round watching the bomb being doused with water.  

Some suffragettes recognised the danger – Lillian Lenton amongst them. She said, “the rule was that we must risk no one’s lives but our own, and if you take a bomb somewhere, however great the precautions you take to see that it doesn’t damage anybody but yourself, you can’t be quite one hundred per cent sure. So I didn’t really approve of the bombs.” Even so, Lillian Lenton once told a magistrate that it was her goal to burn two houses a week. 

The story of Bristol's suffragette years
Indeed, the Pankhursts were so determined to develop militant tactics that they refused to consider running the WSPU on democratic lines, which they thought would hinder the militant campaign. This, together with other differences, led to a number of women leaving the WSPU to form the Women’s Freedom League in 1907. The WFL described itself as a militant organisation, but one which did not endorse attacks on people or property. As well as deputations to the House of Commons, their more well-known actions included women chaining themselves to the grille in the Ladies Gallery, dropping suffrage leaflets from an airship, and a five-month picket of the House of Commons in 1909. Many also refused to pay taxes, and in 1911 the WFL initiated a census resistance whereby women and their supporters refused to complete their census forms.

By contrast, the militant suffragettes of the WSPU increasingly spoke of their struggle in traditional militaristic terms. They were fighting the “woman’s war”;  engaged in “guerrilla warfare”. In prison, Mrs Pankhurst said,  “I look upon myself as a prisoner of war”, and “prison...[is] a battleground”. The suffragettes, she said, had “declared war on the peace of England”. “The militants are not desperate, driven, frantic women,” said Christabel, “They are soldiers with a soldier’s high and gallant heart, with a soldier’s joy in battle, with a soldier’s cool brain, steady courage, and iron will.”

And that’s why I don’t find it all that surprising that Mrs Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and other women of the WSPU threw themselves behind the war effort in 1914. They’d been talking the language and acting out the motions of war for years. They became ultra-jingoist. They called for the withholding of the vote from conscientious objectors, demanded compulsory national service for women, the revocation of naturalization certificates from people of or related to enemy ‘aliens’, and their removal from key posts. They opposed any suggestion of a negotiated peace – the war should only end when Germany was smashed – and their followers handed out white feathers to men who weren’t in uniform.

The leap from militancy to militarism was not perhaps such a great one – and it came a step closer with every incendiary device the suffragettes planted.

For information about The Bristol Suffragettes (SilverWood Books, 2013) see 
Available on Amazon UK

No comments:

Post a Comment