Monday, January 20, 2020

No more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst

When I was in London a few days ago I spent an enjoyable afternoon strolling around the Houses of Parliament and viewing the statues of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, and suffragist Millicent Garratt Fawcett, leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Standing in the middle of Parliament Square on a cold, gloomy day with traffic going about its business, tourists going about their pleasure, and office workers going about their lunch, it was sobering to think of all the dreadful scenes that had taken place there just over a hundred years ago. When I shut my eyes many horribly familiar images rose up in my imagination. Of women attempting to deliver petitions to the House of Commons being set upon by police and thugs, kicked, knocked to the ground, and in some cases sexually assaulted. Of women having their clothes torn and their hair pulled out. Of women arrested, including Mrs Pankhurst herself.

A suffragette arrested at the Houses of Parliament, November 1910

Of course, the story of what happened in and around Parliament Square isn’t quite as straightforward as it might appear. There were many people who wondered why the suffragettes deliberately put themselves in harm’s way: was it merely to make martyrs of themselves? Others thought that the WSPU leadership was heedless of their followers’ welfare, recklessly throwing them into the fray for the sake of scoring propaganda points. The politicians, from Prime Minister Asquith down, who refused to receive the women to accept their suffrage petitions pointed out that they had made it clear in advance that they did not agree to an interview. The courts argued that if the suffragettes wished to deliver petitions they could just as easily post them as create public disorder by attempting to deliver them in person.

Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummond and Mrs Pankhurst in court, 1908, charged with conspiracy after asking people to "rush the House of Commons".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the WSPU’s actions in Parliament Square, the fact remains that many of the women were treated with the utmost brutality.

Statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square, unveiled 2018

Indeed, given the fact that the Square was the site of some of the most bitter and notorious militant suffragette actions, there’s something a little incongruous about placing Millicent Garratt Fawcett’s statue there. However, there it stands, and it’s marvellous to see it. It is, of course, surrounded by statues of men: David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Jan Smuts, Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Palmerston, George Canning, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela.

The preponderance of men shouldn’t come as any surprise! In the UK generally, there are far fewer statues of women than there are of men. In 2018, it was reported that of 828 statues recorded, only one in five (174) were of women. Of these, only eighty were named. Fifteen of those were mythical, and many were nudes. And of the statues of named women, thirty nine were royal, with Queen Victoria accounting for the majority of them.

Luckily, steps are being taken to address this appalling imbalance. In recent years statues have been erected of Emily Wilding Davison (Morpeth, 2018), Elizabeth Frink (Coventry, 2018), Mary Barbour (Glasgow, 2018), Jane Austen (Basingstoke, 2017), and others. However, many new statues of women are still nameless.

More statues are planned, including one of Sylvia Pankhurst in Islington (see And I’m very excited by plans to memorialise one of my heroines, Mary Wollstonecraft, in Newington Green (see the Mary on the Green campaign website).

The statue of Emmeline Pankhurst stands in Victoria Tower Gardens. It was funded by the Suffragette Fellowship, which was founded in 1926 to bring former suffragettes together and memorialise the campaign. Although the statue has been moved once since it was originally unveiled in 1930, it was, and remains, extremely important that it should stand near the Houses of Parliament, the focus of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign.

In 1956 it was relocated when the Gardens were relandscaped to resite the Rodin statue. At that time, the Suffragette Fellowship objected to preliminary proposals to move it further from the Houses of Parliament. After negotiation with the Fellowship, it was placed in its present location. During the debate in the House of Commons, MPs asked for reassurance on behalf of the Suffragette Fellowship “that there will be no more pushing around of Mrs Pankhurst”.[i] In 1958, the low stone wall which flanks the statue was added. 

There was an attempt to move the statue to a private site in Regents Park in 2018, but after over 800 objections were received by Westminster City Council, planning permission was refused.

So I’ll leave you with the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in Victoria Tower Gardens. Behind her are the Houses of Parliament – the institution that once tried so hard to keep her out.

Statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, Victoria Tower Gardens, unveiled at this site in 1958

Picture Credits: 

A Suffragette Arrested at the Houses of Parliament November 1910; and Christabel Pankhurst, Flora Drummon and Mrs Pankhurst in court, 1908: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

 Further information

For information on recent and planned statues of women see The Invisible Women website 

[i] HC Deb June 28 1955, vol 543 cc170-1, Hansard,

Thursday, December 26, 2019

You Daughters of Freedom by Clare Wright

In my last blog, I looked at the question of the British press’s “boycott” of the suffragette movement. The piece was prompted by my reading of Clare Wright’s You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018). So in this blog, I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the book. 

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. The author’s style is direct, even forthright – you are never in any doubt about where she stands on any of the issues raised! It was fascinating to read about the suffrage campaign from an international and colonial perspective. In addition, I particularly liked the biographical approach which focussed on the stories of individual women such as Nellie Martel, Dora Montefiore, Muriel Mattters and Vida Goldstein. 

WSPU Leaders c 1906-7. Left to right: Flora Drummond, Christabel Pankhurst, Jessie Kenney, Nellie Martel, Emmeline Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard.

 At times, though, I thought the prose a bit over the top and prone to exaggeration – Vida Goldstein “was the dawn”,  “Dora had the opportunity to march in the front line of history. Literally.”, “the core of the metropole was red hot, molten bullshit”, “The world” watches the British suffrage movement, “The new wave of Australasian progressivism had come crashing on to the old world’s crumbling shores”.

There’s also the question of the “press boycott ruling out mainstream media coverage.” The claim is repeated with the same aggrieved air as the WSPU’s own complaints that the British press refused to report on their activities. However, the fact that it suited the WSPU at other times to boast that thanks to them there no longer was a boycott does suggest that it isn’t always a good idea to take the WSPU’s propaganda at face value. (As mentioned above, I considered the question of the press boycott in my last blog, The Suffragettes and the Press Boycott.) 

Muriel Matters
Sometimes, too, I couldn’t help feeling that the tendency to exaggeration resulted in the replacement of one overarching myth of the British suffrage movement – that it was all down to the Pankhursts – by another – that it was all down to the Australian women.     

Yet the fact that the book raised these issues and gave me much to think about is a measure of how much I enjoyed it. It opened up new perspectives; revealed some shocking facts, chief of which was the White Australia policy; and told the stories of women whose lives deserve greater attention than they have previously received. And I could never accuse You Daughters of Freedom of being boring! All in all it’s a great read. 

Picture Credits
WSPU Leaders and Muriel Matters: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Suffragettes and the Press Boycott

When Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney were sent to prison in 1905 after interrupting a Liberal politicians’ meeting in Manchester, one of the victories they claimed was that for the first time in years the press had taken notice of the women’s suffrage movement. The point of the protest – and of much of the militancy over the next few years – was to get noticed, and according to Christabel Pankhurst, it worked. She and Annie “had certainly broken the Press silence on votes for women.”[1] 

She also referred to stories that pressmen actually got together and agreed amongst themselves that they would ignore women’s suffrage, adding that these “rumours were false or else the agreements broke down”.[2] But after 1905 she said, referring to a meeting she and her mother had had with the representative of an unidentified newspaper, “Never again was the cause ignored by that or any other newspaper”. Mrs Pankhurst reiterated in 1909 that the WSPU had “broken down the press boycott”.[3]

In 1909 Frederick Pethick Lawrence wrote an article in Votes for Women entitled 'Is There a Press Boycott of Woman Suffrage?'[4] He concluded that there was no boycott in the London Press, and he challenged the rumour that editors and owners deliberately sought to sabotage the suffrage movement. Oddly, given the WSPU line that militancy was intended to gain attention, he then claimed that the issue was not that there was a boycott, but that the press preferred militancy to meetings. Militancy sold newspapers; reports of speeches did not, with the result that people were given the impression that militancy was all that the suffragettes did. Even the London press, he complained, ignored the “educational side” of the WSPU’s work. It was a somewhat disingenuous protest, but having made it, there was a clear solution: anyone who wanted to know the facts should buy the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women (The Suffragette from 1912). 

Advertising Votes for Women  
 On the one hand, then, the issue seemed to be that the press boycott of the women’s suffrage movement was ended (thanks to militancy), but the press was not reporting it in an appropriate manner (because of militancy). As if this was not contradictory enough, the WSPU continued to raise the spectre of the press boycott throughout the campaign. There were frequent complaints about unreported meetings, such as the Albert Hall meeting on 23 March 1911 when Australian suffragist Vida Goldstein addressed an audience of 10,000, which received very little attention in the press.[5] In addition, newspapers failed to report the brutal treatment meted out to women at deputations and on other occasions, and misrepresented what the women had done or said. Worse still, they refused to publish WSPU letters or statements sent with the aim of setting the record straight. In 1910, the WSPU was enraged when The Times would not publish Hertha Ayrton’s  statement about deputations on 18 November (Black Friday) and 22 November, when she had been assaulted by the police.[6]

Mrs Pankhurst even went so far as to blame the press for the delay in women obtaining the vote. Had they “taken up our question as they have taken up men’s questions…the women of this country would have won their Parliamentary vote long ago”.[7]  

So convinced was the WSPU about the existence of the Press Boycott, they frequently gave their supporters advice on how to overcome it. “The truth about the movement,” said Frederick Pethick Lawrence, “was to be found only in Votes for Women[8], though the editors of the NUWSS’s Common Cause or the Women’s Freedom League’s The Vote might have begged to differ. As well as buying the WSPU newspaper as he suggested, other ways members could help to “circumvent” the press boycott included finding subscribers or selling the paper in the street.[9]

Selling Votes for Women
Later historians have echoed the WSPU’s perception of a boycott, bordering on conspiracy. Clare Wright states in You Daughters of Freedom that when Vida Goldstein came to England in 1911, “For months now, the general press had been maintaining a boycott of any news or information related to suffrage activities”.[10] She also suggests that the press boycott was one of the challenges the organisers of the 1911 Women’s Coronation Procession faced when they were attempting to publicise the procession: “with the continuing press boycott ruling out mainstream media coverage, grass-roots PR was the only option”.[11] But was the attitude of the press any worse in 1911 than it had been previously?

I was so intrigued by the question that I decided to try and take a closer look at the press coverage of the militant campaign. But how was I going to identify press articles about the suffragettes given all the possible search terms I could use (vote, votes for women, WSPU, Women’s Social and Political Union, franchise, suffrage…)? In the end I decided to use the search term “Pankhurst” on the grounds that while it would by no means reveal all the available articles about the WSPU, it would at least produce some figures I could use for comparison, especially given that the Pankhurst name was the one most likely to garner such press coverage as there was. A key word here, too, is available: I used the British Newspaper Archive which doesn’t, of course, cover every single local British newspaper published over the period.

Consulting the British Newspaper Archive then, I used the search term “Pankhurst”, Publication Place – All, and Publication Title – All. I then extracted results for the total number of articles by year, excluding advertisements, family notices and “miscellaneous” articles. I arrived at the total number of articles by adding together the categories “articles” and “illustrated articles”. I then subtracted the articles published in the WSPU’s own newspapers, Votes for Women and The Suffragette. You can see a summary of the figures I came up with below. 


1908      5700
1909      3616
1910      1898
1911      1169
1912      3701 
1913      9436
1914*    4008

* To 12 August.

I discovered that there was a dip in the number of articles published in 1911 (and 1910), but of course that doesn’t prove that there was a “boycott”. There are other explanations. These were years when there was a truce in WSPU militancy during the negotiations for the Conciliation Bill so, given the press’s predilection for militancy rather than meetings, there was from the media’s point of view little to report. This seems plausible given the spike in coverage from 1912, when militancy was resumed, to the first half of 1914 (which I searched to 12 August 1914, the date that the WSPU ceased to operate as a suffrage organisation with the suspension of  militancy at the start of the First World War), with a huge leap in 1913 when militancy was at its height. It also seemed to me that if the press had truly wanted to stifle the women’s campaign, a boycott during this period would have made most sense by rendering the militant campaign ineffective. It was, after all, a campaign that thrived on publicity.

There’s also a drop from 5700 in 1908 to 3616 in 1909. Boycott – or simply that by 1909 some of the novelty had worn off? The WSPU themselves were aware of the need to constantly introduce new tactics in order to keep the public’s attention. Overall, though, if there was a boycott it wasn't a very effective one as there were articles published in every year between 1908 and 1914.

I also used the same search term – Pankhurst – to look at coverage in The Times (which was not sympathetic to the WSPU) and The Guardian (which was). As I’d expected, The Guardian search produced a higher total for the period (1187 to The Times’s 813). Both newspapers show a “dip” in 1911, with The Times search coming up with only 47 articles. In fact, the pattern of highs and lows seems broadly the same across the three searches, with 1908 being fairly high, 1909 showing a drop, the Conciliation Bill years 1910 and 1911 showing a greater drop, and the militant years 1912-1914 showing a spike, with the maximum coverage in 1913.

You can see these figures below.

So was there a press boycott or not? Perhaps it’s not so much a question of quantity as quality. The issue was not so much that the press ignored the suffrage movement, though they gave it much less attention than they gave men’s issues, but that they misrepresented and misreported it. The American suffragist Mary Winsor visited London in 1913 and 1914 to investigate the militant British suffrage movement. She concluded that the opposition of the English newspapers was “one of the greatest obstacles which the suffrage movement has encountered”.[12]

She found that the insular English press had failed to “grasp the significance and extent of the [world-wide] woman suffrage movement”. English papers were “men’s newspapers, got up by men for men, and largely devoted to party politics. The space given to women’s affairs is meagre, and the general tone towards women is hasty and contemptuous, or else of a deliberate and unctuous silliness”. Journalists failed to report major meetings and events, over-emphasised militancy without explaining the issues that lay behind it, ignored not only the law-abiding campaign but the “vast constitutional propaganda of the militants themselves”, failed to report police violence against women protesters, exaggerated public opposition to the campaign, and “embroidered” accounts of suffragette violence. Winsor even accused some newspapers of inciting mob violence – “lynch law” – against women. 

I stress, of course, that I don’t claim what I’ve done is definitive by any means. One limited search does not make for cast-iron conclusions! And when it comes to interpreting the results, there are numerous other factors to take into account, eg dates of elections and by elections, the extent of local suffrage activity and press coverage. To really understand what was going on it would be necessary to analyse the articles in more detail to see what was being covered and when, and to extend the years searched. And that’s without even beginning to look at how the press treated the non-militant suffrage campaign.

Still, for all its shortcomings it was an interesting exercise and threw up lots of questions I’d love to explore further. But to truly do justice to the subject, much more serious and time-consuming research is needed – and I simply don’t have the time at the moment to take it any further. So this is really just a very tentative – possibly even a false! – start. One thing that does seem clear is that the WSPU’s claim that there was a press boycott could certainly stand further investigation.  

The Bristol Suffragettes
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Picture Credits: Advertising Votes for Women and Selling Votes for Women: Women's Library on Flickr, No Known Copyright Restrictions.

[1] Christabel Pankhurst, Unshackled: The Story of How We Won the Vote, (London: Hutchinson, 1959), p. 55. 
[2] Unshackled, p. 55.
[3] Mrs Pankhurst speaking at a meeting in Torquay, reported in Votes for Women, 18 February 1909.
[4] Votes for Women, 25 June 1909.
[5] Votes for Women, 28 April 1911.
[6] Votes for Women, 9 December 1910.
[7] Mrs Pankhurst speaking at Kingsway Hall on 5 August 1913, Votes for Women, 8 August 1913.
[8] Votes for Women, 23 December 1910.
[9] ‘Circumventing the Press Boycott’, Votes for Women, 17 April 1914.
[10] Clare Wright, You Daughters of Freedom, (Melbourne, Text Publishing 2018), p. 404.
[11] You Daughters of Freedom, p. 431.
[12] Mary Winsor, ‘The Militant Suffrage Movement’, (The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 56, Women in Public Life (Nov. 1914, pp. 134-142).  Winsor was chair of the Pennsylvania Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and President of the Pennsylvania Limited Equal Suffrage League.