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About those “peaceful” suffragettes

Firstly, a defence of Ed Miliband. He has been savaged from both left and right for speaking at the TUC’s historic demonstration against the cuts on Saturday. Some activists booed him as he spoke, angered by any association between Labour and the anti-cuts movement. The criticisms from the right, meanwhile, have been largely predictable: in modern Britain, any politician who associates with the largest democratic organisations in the country – our 7 million-strong unions – is automatically regarded as unelectable.

That the leader of the Labour Party would even contemplate addressing a trade union-organised demonstration against Tory cuts shows that things have shifted. It is unthinkable that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would have done the same: the fact it is now even politically possible shows that the mood is changing.

But I do have to take him up on a point he made in his speech – not to have a go at him, but because I think it has important lessons.

In his speech to some of the 400,000 workers who took to the streets of London on Saturday, Ed Miliband declared:

We come in the tradition of movements that have marched in peaceful but powerful protest for justice, fairness and political change.

The suffragettes who fought for votes for women and won.

If you’re wondering what that sound is, it’s the upper-class political reactionaries who ran Britain at the beginning of the 20th century spluttering in their graves.

Let’s be clear. The suffragettes were despised by the Establishment in their time. They were portrayed as violent anarchists who were a mortal threat to civilization itself.

In a Parliamentary debate on the suffragettes on 11 June 1914, there was consensus in the House of Commons that the suffragettes were a terrible menace that had to be crushed. Lord Robert Cecil railed against “suffragist outrages”, describing them as a:

very serious evil… Anarchy – and that was what these women were aiming at – was not the substitution of one Government for another. It was the destruction of the existing Government…. He had read with some surprise that the Government were not dissatisfied with the measures which they had taken to deal with the violent measures, which they had taken to deal with the violent suffragists, and believed matters had greatly improved.”

He had no doubt about how they should be dealt with:

What ought to be done was to prevent them from committing crimes, and the only way to do that was by deportation.”

The Home Secretary in Asquith’s Liberal Government, Reginald McKenna, informed the House of the four approaches to the suffragettes that were being suggested to him. The reactions of other MPs are instructive.

The first is to let them die. (Hear, hear) That is, I should say, at the present moment the most popular (laughter), judging by the number of letters I have received. The second is to deport them. (Hear, hear) The third is to treat them as lunatics. (Hear, hear) And the fourth is to give them the franchise (“Hear, hear” and laughter)

Having leafed through The Times‘ archive, I found hundreds of references of suffragette “outrages” and “crimes” in the early 20th century. I’ll give you a striking example. On the eve of World War I, The Times ran a sensationalist attack on the suffragette movement. At the top of the article were four headlines:  MORE SUFFRAGIST CRIME”, “ASSAULT AND OUTRAGE”, “FURTHER MUTILATION OF PICTURES” and “THE TALE OF DESTRUCTION”.

It’s worth quoting the article in full:

The latest incident in the war levied against society by the militant suffragists was committed in the Doré Gallery yesterday afternoon, when a young woman armed with a hatchet almost completely destroyed two valuable drawings – one by John Shapland and the other by Bartolozzi.

Considerable damage was done by fire to an empty house in Belfast, and two women who were arrested were, it is alleged by the police, surprised in the act of kindling fires.

Two women yesterday violently assaulted Dr. Forward, medical officer of Holloway Prison, with a dog whip.

Public resentment at the acts of outrage on prison and property continues to grow. At Bournemouth yesterday a procession of suffragists carrying umbrellas advertising their journal the Suffragette was attacked by a crowd.

We give below a list of the principle acts of malicious damage to property since the beginnong of the year.

Attacks on Works of Art

March 11 – National Gallery, ‘Rokeby’ Velasquez damaged.

March 16 – Birmingham Cathedral, Burne-Jones window defaced

April 10 – British Museum: Porcelain exhibits smashed

May 5 – Royal Academy: Mr. Sargent’s portray of Mr. Henry James damaged

May 13 – Royal Academy: Sir Hubert von Herkomer’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington damaged

May 18 – Royal Academy: Mr. Calusen’s ‘Primavera’ damaged

May 23 – National Gallery: Five Italian pictures damaged

May 25 – Royal Scottish Academy: Mr. Lavery’s portray of the King mutilated

May – 25 British Museum – Attack on an exhibit

Bomb Explosions

January 26 – Glasgow Kibble Palace (winter garden) partially destroyed by bomb

March 1 – Bomb explosion at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, SW

April 5 – Bobm explosion in St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields

May 11 – Bomb explosion at the Metropolitan Tabernacle

May 24 – Attempt to wreck Glasgow aqueduct

Incendiary Outrages

February 5 – Three country houses in Perthshire burned – namely, Aberuchill Castle (partial), House of Roses and St. Fillans House – both completely destroyed.

February 24 – Whitekirk, Haddington, ancient parish church destroyed.

March 13 – Robertland House, Ayrshire, destroyed by fire.

March 28 – General McCalmont’shouse, Abbeylands, near Belfast, completely destroyed

April 10 – Orlands House, near Carrickfergus, burned down

April 18 – Yarmouth Pier destroyed

April 29 – Felixstowe: Bath Hotel burned down (damage, £23,000)

May 18 – Birmingham Pacecourse grand stand burned

June 2- Wargrave Parish Church destroyed by fire

An official of a leading insurance company recently stated that the damage caused by suffragist outrages last year amounted to a quarter of a million sterling.

Mrs. Drummond was rearrested last night under the provisions of the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act and conveyed to Holloway Gaol.

As even the then-Home Secretary admitted, many of the crimes attributed to the suffragettes were exaggerated. But let’s be honest here. Those struggling for the right for all to vote did not stop at chaining themselves to railings, as the cleansed mainstream history of the suffragettes would have us believe. Suffragettes took part in a whole range of direct action, and they were vilified for it.

Some even used such acts as excuses not to support the women’s right to vote – much like some of our Liberal Democrat MPs over student fees. A Times editorial on 22 March 1912, simply entitled ‘Against Women Suffrage’, argued the movement was “either threatening the State or affecting for worse the characters of our women and girls. Recent events have shown that there can no longer be any doubt on either of these points.”

As the political establishment of the time was united in hostility to the suffragettes, today it is united in celebrating them as heroes.

Which brings me to today’s anti-cuts movement. As both Laurie Penny and the BBC’s Paul Mason have pointed out, there was a tiny number of activists (out of a march of up to half a million) engaged in acts of vandalism or even violence. These tactics are, in my view, totally counterproductive. My position is that the future of the anti-cuts movement lies with the sort of mobilisation that only the trade union movement can achieve – and I think Saturday’s demo vindicates that.

That said, it should be pointed out that barely any of those committing vandalism or violence were arrested, unlike the entirely peaceful 138 UK Uncut protesters who have now been charged for the crime of sitting in a shop.

But those who, for dishonest political reasons, focus on the crimes of a tiny minority should be warned. Those suffragettes who took part in acts of vandalism or violence were regarded as the villains of their time. But today all of us regard those who fought the right of women to vote as the real villains. We are understanding of why some of those confronting such manifest injustice would resort to such acts.

I have no doubt that history will condemn those who, without any mandate, are using a crisis caused by the private sector to unleash the most devastating cuts for nearly a century: cuts that will throw hundreds of thousands out of their jobs; privatise, slash or otherwise trash many of our public services; and ravage people’s lives and communities alike.

When 50 year-old suffragette Mary Benson was tried at Old Street Police Court for “obstructing a police-constable” at a demonstration in Victoria Park in 1912, she warned: “We shall get victory in the end.” And, as we know, she was absolutely right.


  1. Dafydd says:

    Um… do you not realise that there’s a difference between a suffragette and a suffragist?

  2. Dafydd says:

    Hah, evidently I don’t…

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