Hearts and Minds

Jane Robinson


Rise Up, Women!: The Remarkable Lives of The Suffragettes

Diane Atkinson


THE centenary of the first British women winning the vote, which came with the passage of the Representation of the People Act on February 6, 1918, prompted the republication of photographs synonymous with the campaign: ladies in white dresses and sashes carrying placards or being dragged along the streets by burly police officers. Fine, stirring images they are too. But, like many of the stories they accompany, they give the impression of solidarity, of women united in strategy and vision.

The truth is different. The suffrage movement, like most great movements, encompassed a wide spectrum of opinion and, after 1909-10, was increasingly split between those who thought militancy was the only way forward and those who thought it was counterproductive.

The most radical suffragettes have come to dominate the story, setting fire to postboxes and throwing yourself under the King’s horse being innately more interesting than peaceful lobbying. But among historians, the question still lingers: which strategy was more effective in wearing down the resistance of anti-female suffrage politicians such as Winston Churchill, Herbert Henry Asquith and David Lloyd George and securing the piece of legislation that gave 8.4 million women the vote?

It is complicated because, when the Great War began in 1914, all militancy was suspended and members of both camps threw themselves behind the war effort or into the peace campaign. By the time the Act was passed, the climate had changed: women had been running hospitals and working in munitions factories and the notion of female suffrage was less contentious.

Neither Jane Robinson’s Hearts and Minds nor Diane Atkinson’s Rise Up, Women! gives us a definitive answer but, read together, they provide an exhaustive account of a crusade that involved high jinks as well as self-sacrifice and a much more eclectic cast of characters than our fixation with Pankhursts, Emily Wilding Davison and a handful of Scots hunger strikers (such as Ethel Moorhead and Arabella Scott) would suggest.

In Hearts and Minds, Robinson turns the spotlight away from the more

high-profile protagonists and on to members of the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Great Pilgrimage it staged in 1913.

The march, in which 50,000 women from all walks of life and from all over the UK descended on Hyde Park, was aimed at showing recalcitrant Liberal politicians (then in power) that “quiet, home-loving” women also wanted the vote. But it had another purpose too: to put clear, blue water between the NUWSS and its law-breaking sisters in the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In an attempt to distinguish themselves from the suffragettes, those taking part in the pilgrimage were advised to dress in sombre clothes and ensure they were non-threatening at all times. “It was as a much a march against militancy as it was for women’s rights,” Robinson writes. To the suffragettes, the suffragists were insipid and naïve, continuing to place their faith in politicians who strung them along, then reneged on their promises. But Robinson breathes life into them, revealing them as women of great humour, wisdom and organisational skills. Some, such as Elgin-born Mary “Murdie” Murdoch, Hull’s first female GP, famed for her open-topped carriage drawn by horses flamboyantly done up in the suffrage colours (red, white and green), were wilfully eccentric. Others, like Kate Frye, the “opinionated, self-confident and slightly dissatisfied” daughter of a Liberal MP, seem strikingly modern.

Frye was independent and politically savvy. Sent to Norfolk in 1912, she “pound[ed] the streets with no companion or chaperone”. At each new stop, she gathered intelligence: on the cheapest printers, on the political leanings of the local newspapers and whether or not the vicar was sympathetic. And, as her diaries make clear, she was no po-faced spinster. When a man in Lowestoft pays her attention she wonders if she should exploit his interest to gain his membership. “I suppose it helps the suffrage, but it shouldn’t,” she writes. “But it is hard to live up to suffrage. In some moods, I could flirt with a broomstick.”

One of my favourite characters is the charismatic Selina Cooper, a Lancashire mill worker who became politically active. So great were her powers of oratory, the WSPU and NUWSS both wooed her, but she went with the constitutionalists. Robinson has a knack of zooming in on small scenes that capture the essence of the women involved. When Cooper finds herself overshadowed by Emmeline Pankhurst at a meeting in Newcastle, she takes off her hat and allows her lustrous long hair to tumble down her back. “I soon got a crowd,” Cooper records, with a hint of smugness. On another occasion, she tells how students in Cambridge, who had tried in vain to interrupt her meeting, were so impressed with her that the following day, when she was due to return to London, they escorted her to her train and formed a guard of honour on the platform. As Robinson says: “Pure showbusiness”.

For the pilgrimage, women set off from towns all over England and Wales. They walked during the day and slept at night in houses, halls or horse-drawn caravans. And, although they didn’t seek out confrontation, they often found themselves in danger. In towns where anti-suffragette sentiment was running high (often fuelled by newspapers), residents ignored their avowals of non-militancy and hurled insults and missiles regardless.

Where Robinson empathises with the suffragists, Atkinson’s focus is on the suffragettes. She charts their escalating campaign of civil disobedience from harmless larks, such as infiltrating a hall and hiding in an organ, to the stalking of Churchill and Asquith, both of whom had Scottish seats, to the

window-breaking and arson attacks that saw them jailed and force fed again and again. Atkinson too has an eye for the quirky, introducing us to the likes of Muriel Matters, a member of the WSPU breakaway group Women’s Freedom League, who, in 1909, hired an airship and flew 3,000ft above the ground to mark the state opening of Parliament, and pointing out how, for some, militancy offered an escape from stultifying home lives.

She shows how suffering for the cause and, in Davison’s case, even dying for it, could become an obsession. One of the most interesting stories involves Lady Constance Lytton, the daughter of an earl, who suffered from a heart condition. Frustrated by the special treatment given to her on account of her health and social standing, she decided to use a false name. The next time she was arrested, she was jailed for 14 days and force fed eight times. Lytton’s suffragette activities took their toll and in 1912 she suffered a stroke.

Atkinson is also good on the rampant megalomania of Emmeline and Christabel. They cut off anyone who questioned their authority, including Frederick and Emmeline

Pethick-Lawrence, who had given the WSPU “moral and professional support, a great deal of money, and countless acts of generosity”. The poignancy of this betrayal is heightened by the grace with which the Pethick-Lawrences appear to have responded, even as bailiffs seized their country home to cover the costs of a conspiracy trial for which Emmeline Pankhurst was partly liable.

But what legacies did these rival camps leave? Robinson says the suffragists’ campaign of peaceful resistance inspired Mahatma Gandhi and the women’s “quiet determination and touching optimism” helped to create a new world. She believes NUWSS leader Millicent Fawcett would have said the constitutionalists’ most important achievement was “to give women the permission and confidence to be themselves”.

Yet, given one of the reasons the Liberals opposed female suffrage was that they believed the newly enfranchised women would vote Tory, it is difficult to see how the vote could have been delivered without the deeds of the suffragettes. Churchill’s wife Clementine came to believe “the day would not have been won without women with a passion that exceeded constitutional and legal binds” and Atkinson suggests a fear of renewed militancy after the war was one of the drivers behind the Act.

Perhaps it no longer matters. What is beyond dispute is that the suffrage movement politicised women and that the experience they gained from campaigning meant they were better equipped to capitalise on the vote when at last it had been secured.

Over the past few weeks, Scotland has also been celebrating the centenary of Muriel Spark, who once wrote of a character: “She wasn’t a person to whom things happen. She did all the happenings.” This is what the books by Robinson and Atkinson teach us about the suffragists and the suffragettes alike. Right or wrong, they took control of their own destinies. They did all the happenings.