Thinking about women in history, it occurs to me that it’s quite a recent departure for women to actually write or commentate on it. With much of the history we know being written by men, I wonder now how much of it has been ‘filtered’ in order to fit an image of women that suited the time, and how that image has only really been challenged since the 1950’s. I wonder how much of what we ‘know’ about women through the ages is more conveniently stereotypical than the reality.
Take the Suffragette Movement, for instance. It’s hard to believe that there was a time – a very long time – during which women had no place in national politics. They had no political voice whatsoever, indeed, no need of a political voice, as this was the husband’s domain, women being deemed homemakers and rearers of children. It’s ironic that the mass movement and economic shift that had taken place around 100 years earlier – the Industrial Revolution – had led to more women being in full-time employment than ever before. And where so many women were working together, so could they come together. And they did.
The Campaign for Women’s Suffrage began with The Suffragists and ‘The Cause’ and was more about women’s rights than politics. It was led and followed by middle-class women, and when it became political, it was for middle-class women with property to be given the vote. They prided themselves on peaceful action – demonstrations, petitions, lobbying – and wanted to be recognised as intelligent and law-abiding … thinking, presumably, that this would persuade the men that they could handle the responsibility of having the vote. When I think of them, it’s hard to shake the image of the mother in Mary Poppins, wearing a sash and chanting slogans. Soon, though, the Suffragettes would come along under Mrs Pankhurst and women – the fairer sex, the weaker sex – would show just how ‘fair’ and ‘weak’ they were.
With different ideas from their predecessors, the Suffragettes adopted the motto ‘Deeds not Words’. And this is where it all changed, although what follows is surprisingly undocumented. I’ve always known that they were abused and beaten and force-fed, and that this is because they demonstrated loudly and tied themselves to railings. What I have only recently discovered is that the Suffragette movement turned Suffrage from a polite, intelligent, middle-class affair into … well … terrorism is not too harsh a word.
Law-breaking, violence and hunger strikes were the order of the day. Their campaign of terror included pipe bombs, arson and intimidation. Post-box burning, telegraph and telephone wire cutting, damage to cultural artefacts, bombs in banks, churches and Westminster Abbey all featured from 1912 onwards. Women chained themselves to railings, rushed the doors of Parliament, refused to pay taxes and marched in their thousands. In Dublin, four women tried to set fire to the Theatre Royal during a busy matinee. There were 1214 Suffragette court appearances between 1906 and 1914. Why did I not know this before? Why has the media representation of the Suffragette Movement always been more Mary Poppins than Baader-Meinhof? Why does history allow men to be aggressive and militant, but not women?
I remember the fierce debates during the Miners’ Strike of the early 1980s about whether the violence shown by some of the men on the picket lines could ever be condoned. Arguments raged back and forth about police provocation, etc., and it was a time when values were tested. Without condoning the Suffragettes’ tactics, I think it’s time we included them in that other age-old debate – Does violence work? I don’t know if their methods got us the vote. What I do know now, though, is that the Suffragettes were up there, in terms of the violence, intimidation and militancy, with any male-dominated pressure group, but this didn’t fit with the image of women throughout the early to mid-Twentieth Century, and that’s probably why it doesn’t feature in mainstream perceptions of that Movement. Perhaps it’s time for that perception to change.