Saturday, 20 July 2013

Dreadnought Days

I’ve had an exciting few Dreadnought days, with a walk, a play, a panel and my own suffrage pilgrimage to Aldeburgh in Suffolk...

In a series of events around the region, the Dreadnought South West project commemorates the 1913 Suffrage Pilgrimage organised by the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Women’s franchise campaigners from all over the country walked to London along six main routes, including one through the south west starting at Land’s End. The Pilgrimage began on 18 June 1913 and ended with a rally in Hyde Park on 26 July, where Mrs Millicent Garrett Fawcett, president of the NUWSS, addressed the crowd.  

I was thrilled to be involved in some of the Dreadnought events here in Bristol.    

Suffragette Walk 

On 7 July ten of us braved the heat to walk around Clifton looking at sites connected with the militant suffrage campaign in Bristol. In 1907 leading suffragette Annie Kenney came to the city to launch a local branch of the Women’s Social Political Union (WSPU), the militant organisation led by Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. For the next few years the city was the setting for countless meetings and rallies; local MPs were heckled; windows broken; buildings burned; and the WSPU shop wrecked by anti-suffrage students.  


A new play specially written by Natalie McGrath, Oxygen formed the centrepiece of Dreadnought’s tour across the south west. I saw it at the Trinity Centre in Bristol on 11 July. While telling many women’s stories, the play focusses in particular on the lives of two sisters, one a militant, the other a non-militant. The complexity of the sisters’ relationship reflects the complexities of the campaign for the vote, and illuminates the connections and distances between both branches of the suffrage campaign. There’s also a real sense of the dilemma of attempting to balance the personal and the political as friends and home take second place to the cause: the young sister leaves the elder to take care of their demanding father, the elder fails to respond to a call for help from a pregnant friend. 

The play has a wide expressive range, moving from speeches to crowd scenes to private encounters. The language is poetic and evocative, summoning up the spirit of the suffrage campaigners in its use of key phrases of the time: shoulder to shoulder, the common cause, dread[ing] nought. Our sympathy is engaged at a deep and immediate level: in the recital of the names of the towns the women pass through; in the prison scene (“We strike!”); in the beautiful songs; and in the one-minute silence for Emily Wilding Davison.   

Anger and indignation about the oppression of women lie at the heart of the action. We are reminded why women wanted the vote: to end sweated labour, the exploitation of women, child poverty. In one of the most moving scenes, the women imagine that in one hundred years these problems will all be solved. If there is still anyone who thinks that feminism is no longer needed, then Oxygen is a reminder of how much remains to be done – and how much women can do. It is a beautiful, stunning piece with a fabulous cast. Ultimately, in spite of its often sombre tone, it is (as the song 'Oxygen' has it) “Full of hope for us”.    

Suffragette Militancy Panel 

I was joined at Bristol M Shed on 13 July by June Hannam, Professor Emerita at the University of the West of England; Lois Bibbings, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol; and Dawn Dyer of the Local Studies Team at Bristol Central Library, with Wendy Larner of the University of Bristol in the chair, to discuss the effectiveness and ethics of suffragette militancy.  

June reminded us of the varied types of militancy – it was not just arson but included things like tax and census resistance – and considered how women’s engagement in the campaign contributed to their personal development (eg gaining confidence). Dawn described her involvement with the 100 Women of Bristol booklet, and looked at images of militants – for and against – on postcards, noting the violent misogyny of some of the “antis”. Lois drew parallels between conscientious objectors and militants: both were “gender dissidents” in the way they challenged traditional male and female roles. Finally, I suggested that suffragette militancy was “an experiment that failed” because in its attempt to adapt traditional forms of violence to its cause, it could not live up to its ideal of not causing harm to anyone.    

My Suffrage Pilgrimage 

And finally, my suffrage pilgrimage. Why Aldeburgh? Because Millicent Garrett Fawcett, who greeted the suffrage pilgrims in Hyde Park, was born in Aldeburgh in 1847. She had a long and varied career campaigning for women’s rights in education, the welfare of working-class women, and against child-abuse, as well as for women’s suffrage. She died in 1929. 
Her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (born in London in 1836) was one of the first women to pursue a career in medicine. She was for a time a member of the NUWSS, later joined the militant WSPU (aged 72), but left when militancy escalated. She retired to Aldeburgh in 1902, where in 1908 she became England’s first woman mayor. She died in Alde House in Aldeburgh in 1917.  

Elizabeth’s daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson (1873-1943), stayed in the WSPU and went to prison in 1912 after taking part in a window-smashing raid. 

For information about the Suffrage Pilgrimage and Dreadnought South West see








Saturday, 6 July 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