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Mrs Pankhurst and the Double Standard

When Mrs Pankhurst sought to justify WSPU militancy, she often did so by drawing attention to a double standard that accepted men’s militancy but criticised women’s. “The smashing of windows is a time-honoured method of showing displeasure in a political situation,” she said, adding, “When Englishmen do it, it is regarded as an honest expression of political opinion…when Englishwomen do it, it is treated as a crime.”  

Mrs Pankhurst served a term in prison in 1908 for inciting disorder during a deputation to the House of Commons. After her release from Holloway, she insisted on the suffragettes’ right to be regarded as political prisoners , not common criminals, and directed WSPU members to refuse to co-operate with prison rules unless this was granted. It was this demand that led hundreds of women to adopt the hunger strike.  

Yet the WSPU frequently argued that the Government was prepared to grant male activists political status and tolerate their violence and incitement of others to break the law. During her defence speech in court on 21 May 1912 Mrs Pankhurst noted that while she was in prison (in 1908) “for no greater offence than the issue of a handbill”, the Government had received members of the Young Turkish Revolutionary Party. These men had “killed and slain…while we women had never thrown a stone…we were imprisoned while these political murderers were being feted by the very Government who imprisoned us”.  

The WSPU issued constant reminders of the fact that the male franchise had been extended as a result of male militancy. In 1909, in the days leading up to Liberal MP Winston Churchill’s visit to the city,  Bristol suffragettes circulated leaflets pointing out that the 1832 Bristol Riots had been a factor in men obtaining the vote. It seems Bristol was prepared to riot again: at least the female part of it. Churchill’s visit was the focus of days of demonstrations that included window breaking and heckling him at meetings.  

One suffragette, Theresa Garnett from Leeds, even assaulted him when he arrived at Bristol Temple Meads from London. She broke through the cordon of detectives surrounding the politician and lunged at him with a whip, crying “Take that, you brute!” She was sentenced to a month in Horfield Jail, where she went on hunger strike and was forcibly fed. She protested by setting fire to her cell and was placed in solitary confinement. Eleven days later she collapsed and was moved to the prison hospital.    

On 4 December 1913 Mrs Pankhurst was arrested at Plymouth on her return to England from America, where she had been on a speaking tour. She was released after a hunger strike and went to Paris, where her daughter Christabel Pankhurst had fled the previous year to avoid arrest. Mrs Pankhurst was rearrested in Dover on her return, and went on a hunger, thirst and sleep strike. Protesting against her treatment, suffragettes burned a timber yard at Devonport, near Plymouth, on 15 December. The message, “Our reply to the torture of Mrs Pankhurst, and her cowardly arrest at Plymouth” was left at the scene. A second card left at the scene read, “How dare you arrest Mrs Pankhurst and allow Sir Edward Carson and Mr Bonar Law to go free?”  

Edward Carson and Andrew Bonar Law were leaders of the Ulster Unionist movement, which was pledged to resist Irish Home Rule by force; the armed Ulster Volunteer Force was formed in 1912. When the Bishop of London condemned suffragette militancy, Mrs Pankhurst protested, “Why does he condemn militancy on the part of women while, presumably, he approves (since he remains silent) the preparations made by men in Ireland to destroy, not only property, but human life?” 

The WSPU attempted to petition the King on 21 May 1914, but were turned away from Buckingham Palace by cordons of police. It was a violent affair, with mounted police  charges and brutal treatment of the women by police officers and men in the crowd. Sylvia Pankhurst called it a “day of woman bating indeed”. Mrs Pankhurst was arrested and taken to Holloway. She was released after a five day hunger and thirst strike. Sixty six women and two men were also arrested, and when they appeared in court the next morning there were noisy demonstrations inside and outside, and eight more arrests were made. The protests continued over the next few days. Pictures were slashed at the National Gallery, a mummy case broken at the British Museum, and a portrait of the King in the Royal Scottish Academy was damaged.  

Yet, as Mrs Pankhurst pointed out, while the King refused to receive militant women, on 24 July 1914 he received a deputation of militant men led by Edward Carson during a  conference at Buckingham Palace to discuss the situation in Ireland. Members of Sylvia Pankhurst’s East End Suffrage Federation picketed outside with posters saying “The King must call a conference on Votes for Women”. 

The King did not call a conference on votes for women, and the WSPU continued to protest about the double standard. Men, Mrs Pankhurst said, “have decided that it is entirely right and proper for men to fight for their liberties and their rights, but that it is not right and proper for women to fight for theirs…Well, the Suffragettes absolutely repudiate that double standard of morals.”





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