Review: Suffragettes

Hugely informative little book. The most impressive thing about it is how little anti-feminist rhetoric has changed in 100+ years. In fact it hasn’t changed at all. Isn’t that sad.

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The book is divided into three sections: Suffrage, Anti-Suffrage, and Victory, the last one consisting of the relevant texts from the two Representation of the People Acts (1918 and 1928) and a newspaper article about the umber of voters swelling after each franchise bill.

So basically the suffrage movement had two branches – one sucking up to men, the „constitutional“ suffragists who loved to emphasise how law-abiding and good they are (NUWSS). And the „militant“ one whose members had grown a tad impatient with waiting, for 43 years and three reforms, to get recognition for women as regular citizens (WSPU). Can you guess which one got the job done?

Yup. People in power will never willingly give it up. Women were not „given“ the vote, they won it by relentless and increasingly militant fighting. As Emmeline Pankhurts says in her speech given in Hartford, Connecticut, and published in the book, you have to make yourself obtrusive – and they did.

Though it is decidedly noteworthy that the militant actions of the suffragettes mentioned in this book (which I know is nowhere near exhaustive) only inflict property damage and damage to themselves. They set a library on fire – but during the night, and nobody was hurt. They cut off telegraphic communication between stockbrokers in London and Glasgow, upsetting their work. Miss Davison threw herself at a horse at a derby (and sadly died from her injuries), and her previous record, as reported in the newspaper article about the incident, consisted of obstruction, throwing stones at buildings, hunger strikes, setting fire to pillar-boxes and one assault. The suffragettes themselves emphasise that they are only willing to risk their own lives in their militant actions:

Human life for us is sacred, but we say if any life is to be sacrificed it shall be ours; we won’t do it ourselves, but we will put the enemy in the position where they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.

What I found fascinating and a little disturbing is how closely the discourse from 110 years ago resembles our modern discourse on feminism, on both sides. Observe:

From the Suffrage section:

We women, in trying to make our case clear, always have to make as part of our argument, and urge upon men in our audience the fact – a very simple fact – that women are human beings.

 

It is about eight years since the word militant was first used to describe what we were doing. It was not militant at all, except that it provoked militancy on the part of those who were opposed to it.

From the Anti-Suffrage section:

They call it „justice“ and „equality“. It is nothing of the kind. It is the subjection of man to woman.

 

Men of all ages have had to do the brunt of the world’s business, and ought to govern.

The Suffrage section was by far the most interesting. I especially enjoyed the newspaper report of an underaged suffragette whom the judge had decided to let go and wrote to her parents to come pick her up, to which they said they’d raised her in „Socialistic and Progressive beliefs“, and that she’d requested that her father ask the judge to give her the same sentence as the other arrested suffragists, which he intended to do.

The militant suffragettes had a great sense of humour, too, it seems – when they set fire to that library, they left a book by Christabel Pankhurst at the site with a note reading: „To start your new library“.

And finally, a few quotes I think merit attention:

To be militant in some way or other […] is a duty every woman will owe to her own consciousness and self-respect, to other women are less fortunate than she herself is, and to all those who are to come after her.

 

This is the whole history of politics. You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to be more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.

 

[T]here is a good deal of warfare for which men take a great deal of glorification which has involved more practical sacrifice on women than it has on any man. It has always been so. The grievances of those who have got power […] command a great deal of attention; but the wrongs and grievances of those people who have got no power at all are apt to be absolutely ignored. This is the history of humanity right from the beginning.

 

A large number of amiable but short-sighed M.P.’s are willing to grant the demand, without getting your permission.

 

Save suffragists women from themselves and other women from Suffragists.

(All bolded and underlined text in the quotes was so in the original.)

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