"The Women's Suffrage Campaign "
July 2004 Meeting Report
Guest Speaker - Margaret Rizk
The July 2004 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held on 2nd July in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth. Unusually, of late, the meeting was rather poorly attended; empty seats were to be in evidence for the first time this year. The guest speaker for the evening was Margaret Rizk and she informed the audience that her interest in the subject of tonight’s meeting was born when she helped her daughter with an essay that she had had to write on the subject for a course she was then doing.
The development of the women’s’ campaign for enfranchisement began in the middle of the 19th century and Nottingham, having the reputation for Radicalism, was an important centre for the movement. Unearthing documentary evidence and records of the working class women’s struggle for the vote during the second half of the 19th century is very difficult as very little remains relating to the struggle. However, local newspaper reports do provide a limited source of material. It is not surprising that Nottingham, with it’s long tradition of Radicalism, should have been a fertile breeding ground for the women’s suffrage movement. Indeed, relatively early in the struggle for women’s votes there were nearly thirty different campaign areas in the Nottingham area alone.
The suffragette movement began in 1865 in London and by 1871 had reached Nottingham. For many years Nottingham had had a reputation for political unrest and non-conformism and this may have been a contributing factor in the decision to hold one of the six national meetings in England here in 1890 at the Albert Hall. It is interesting to note that at that meeting women were admitted free, men had to pay 2/6d and sit in the gallery, (reverse victimisation?).
An important distinction needed to be drawn between the two major movements that developed to further the cause of votes for women. The first movement that surfaced to further the women’s cause was the Suffragists movement. This was founded in 1897 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847 – 1929), who became the movements first President. The Suffragist’s motto was “The Franchise is the Keystone of Our Liberty” and their campaign colours were red, white and green. The main differentiating factor between the Suffragists and the later Suffragettes is that the Suffragists were non-militant. It does need to be emphasised though throughout the lengthy campaigns of the movement that all acts of militancy were directed solely at property. Physical violence was never tolerated.
The Suffragette movement was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858 – 1928), largely as a result of the non-militant stance taken by the Suffragists. Their motto was the more catchy “Deeds, Not Words” and their campaign colours were purple, white and green. A further offshoot of the Suffragette movement was founded in 1907 known as the Women’s Freedom League. Their founder was Charlotte Despard and their rallying cry was “No Taxation Without Representation”, (harking back to the American War of Independence perhaps?). There was constant flow of members back and forth between the two groups. Members transferred their allegiance from one body to another and back again because they deemed own society to be either too passive or too militant.
Over the years there was constant rivalry between the two factions. They may have been united in a common cause but there was no love lost between them.
Both the two main founders, Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst had married at an early age to men who were much older than themselves. Both were widowed at an early age and both were dissatisfied with their lot as young, wealthy widows. Both women also shared enormous energy and a zealous passion for their cause. Strangely, that enthusiasm was not to be found in the vast majority of working class women. The poor had more pressing matters on their plates than worrying about “The Vote”. Indeed, it seems to have been a feature of the women’s suffragette movement that for a great many women it was not the sort of thing that nice, well brought up girls got involved with. Militancy and public demonstrations were very unfeminine and left much to be desired as to how respectable women conducted themselves in polite society.
The women’s suffragette movement made slow progress towards its aims until the advent of the First World War in 1914. Spectacular stunts such as women throwing themselves under racehorse in The Derby, (and getting killed for their trouble), chaining themselves to railings outside public buildings, highly publicized hunger strikes and pelting politicians with sundry missiles ultimately retarded their progress rather than advanced it. Ultimately, the more extreme the suffragette movement became the less support there was for it. However, what there is no doubt of was the fact that the suffragette members were unquestionably patriotic. When the war came they were there doing their bit. One militant member of the Suffragette movement, Charlotte Marsh, had been imprisoned for throwing slates at the Right Honourable Asquith’s car. Whilst in prison she had gone on hunger strike and been force-fed on no less than 134 occasions! That did not stop her becoming Lloyd George’s chauffeur during the war and contributing her small part to defeating the Bosch. The war years gave women a greater opportunity to take part in the national argument and this undoubtedly had a beneficial effect in advancing their cause.
Over the years, which the movement campaigned, many Bills were presented to Parliament furthering the cause of women’s suffrage and a great many votes cast in their favour. However, always and without exception the Bill would fall at some stage of its progress through the two Houses. In general the Government of the day was largely unresponsive to the claims of the women’s suffragette movement. Other much more pressing issues dominated the political landscape. There was the Boer War, the Irish question, (no change there then), the welfare of the poor, the costly expansion of the Royal Navy in the arms race with Germany, and the reform of the House of Lords. All these issues ensured that votes for women were always low on the Government’s list of priorities.
With the Armistice in 1918 the Government gave the vote to property owning women over the age of 30. The movement continued to attract a large following in their campaign to get all women the vote, (though it should be remembered that not all men were eligible to vote either). Notable celebrities of the day furthered the cause. The playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of many people who wrote a play in support of the movement’s aims. To celebrate the Coronation of George V the suffragette movement staged a giant rally in London. Supporters came from all over the country and by the time that London was reached the procession was nearly two miles long and numbered in excess of 40,000 people. With the advent of the universal franchise for all over the age of twenty-one years of age the women’s suffragette movement disappeared from British politics. Today it is difficult to unearth physical evidence of the women’s struggle to acquire the vote. Even the part played by many of the leading women in the movement passed quietly into history and their legacy has been largely unsung. Indeed, what would the Millicent Fawcetts and the Emmeline Pankhursts of the day make of the general apathy of voters today, (men and women), when the number of people who do not bother to vote continues to grow. Was their fight unnecessary or do we owe them a great debt of gratitude?