Report on a talk given by Professor Sarah Pedersen of Robert Gordon’s University
For most of us our knowledge of the women’s suffrage movement is based on the actions of Emmeline Pankhurst and of Emily Davison who threw herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom races in 1913. Scotland also had campaigners for votes for women and Professor Sarah Pedersen introduced us to some of them at a packed room in the Orkney Library and Archives.
Professor Pedersen of Robert Gordon’s University has been engaged in a year long project investigating ‘The Scottish Suffragettes’. An hour was not long enough for the scope of this project to go into great detail about many aspects of the campaign and the women who worked, many to the detriment of their own health, to achieve its aims.
The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), known as Suffragists, believed in achieving votes for women through constitutional means. They raised petitions, wrote letters to MPs and held tea parties where discussions and fundraising would take place. In Orkney by 1911 when the suffragettes in the county joined with them they numbered about 55 members.
The Suffragists had been actively campaigning for over 40 years and making little progress when in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union(WSPU) was formed. (One of the main founders being Emmeline Pankhurst). They became known as the Suffragettes (a term coined by the Daily Mail) and their campaign was based on militant activism, in complete contrast to that of the Suffragists.
The activism of the WSPU was not about holding tea parties. They went to political meetings. Meetings that were run by men with a male audience and they asked questions, disrupted them, were removed by ushers all of which eventually would result in arrest in 1905.
With arrests came fines, refusal to pay and as a consequence prison. This escalation of militancy was instrumental in grabbing headlines in the Press. The publicity for the Suffragettes was on the whole negative but it was in all the papers and the public were very aware of the movement and its cause.
Professor Pedersen reminded us that the WSPU was very much a middle class organisation. It was not until 1918 that all men over the age of 21 had the vote in Britain. The Suffragettes, led by Emmeline Pankhurst, were working for votes for not all women, but the women of the middle classes and above.
The landslide Liberal Party victory in the General election of 1905 held out great hopes to the campaigners who thought that their cause would receive support and make headway in Parliament. This was not to be. Despite support from individual MPs the Liberal Party did not deliver the sea change that was hoped even though 400 MPs had agreed to women’s suffrage ‘at some time’. The complete opposition of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, H.H.Asquith ensured that the issue would get no further in Westminster.
The Suffragettes’ militancy became more violent and it is at this time that ‘pitched battles’ took place between them and the Police. Most of this activity took place in Manchester and London. To spread the word organisers were sent out to speak across Britain. Paid Organiser Teresa Billington was despatched to Scotland. She was a great,witty speaker and newspapers would report what she had said almost in full. This meant that the reach of what she was saying in street meetings went much further.
Teresa Billington and Glasgow artist Helen Fraser established branches in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Their street meetings were intended to address men and to persuade them of their argument. This meant that they were subjected to much abuse often of a physical nature.
Most of the violent militant activity occurred in London and it is what most of us have come to think of as representative of the women’s suffrage movement.
The Suffragettes’ increasingly violent campaign moved from attacking the House of Commons to smashing windows in the large new department stores springing up in the city. Train loads of suffragettes would be transported in from Scotland to participate in the action.
Mary Phillips, a Scottish organiser, was arrested in 1908 in just such an activity, and sent to Holloway after refusing to pay the fine. On her release she was met with a large group of women draped in tartan. Non- payment of fines leading to arrest was the next stage in the escalation of the militancy.
Princes Street in Edinburgh saw a huge procession in 1908 as the result of the coming together of all the groups and organisations working for votes for women. Special trains were laid on to convey marchers from other parts of Scotland. The procession was extremely successful with large crowds coming out to view the scene. It was also a clear demonstration that the disparate groups of the women’s movement could work together.
Growing discontent in the domination of the Women’s Social and Political Union by Emmeline Pankhurst led to the setting up of The Women’s Freedom League in 1907. One of the main leaders of this being Teresa Billington, now married and settled in Glasgow. This was still a militant organisation but was democratic in its structure.
Orkney women were active mainly as suffragists and there were no violent incidents in the islands. There were, however, several public meetings and speakers visited, including Chrystal MacMillan, (the first ever woman to graduate in science from the University of Edinburgh in 1896) and later on a visit from Dr Elsie Inglis in 1912.
Chrystal MacMillan was also a lawyer and engaged in a succession of court actions when a By-Election for the MP representing the universities of St Andrews, Aberdeen and Edinburgh arose. She argued that as all graduates were electors that she should be enfranchised. In 1908 her case was finally presented to the House of Lords but was unsuccessful.
The suffragettes continued to escalate the violence in their campaign including vandalising golf courses, burning buildings, damaging paintings and acid attacks. Amongst buildings set alight were a St Andrew’s University building and Leuchars railway station.
The prison system of the early 20th century had a tiered class system. Second class prisoners included the suffragettes. Prison attire had to be worn and access was extremely limited. Political prisoners were classified as first class. The suffragettes argued that they were political prisoners but were incarcerated in the second class category.
Scottish artist, Marion Dunlop, was sent to prison in 1909 for refusal to pay a fine for damaging stone work in the House of Commons. She refused to eat and after 91 hours was released. Imprisoned suffragettes now employed hunger striking as a tactic and this drew the waning media attention again to their cause.
In 1910 the prison system in England decided to force feed suffragettes who were on hunger strike. Their methods were brutal and horrific damage was physically done to the women who were subjected to this. Eventually the women became so ill that they had to be released. Not to be deterred by this the Government introduced ‘The Cat and Mouse Act’ in 1913. This involved waiting till those on hunger strike became really ill, releasing them to the care of their friends and family and then subsequently re-arresting them when they ventured into public. To evade re-arrest suffragettes would go into hiding.
Up till this point prisons in Scotland had not been force feeding but releasing women who had gone on hunger strike. This was to change in 1914 when in Calton Prison Edinburgh there was a succession of disastrous attempts to force feed Ethel Moorhead (alias Margaret Morrison). The force feeding was botched and the tube punctured her lung with the result that she became extremely ill with pneumonia. During this time a noisy demonstration by her supporters took place outside the prison. The coverage in the newspapers was a media disaster for the authorities and force feeding was stopped at Calton Prison.
A special unit was set up in Perth prison where 5 women were imprisoned and 4 force fed. The women were denied all access to the outside world. One of them New Zealand born Fanny Parker ( niece of Lord Kitchener but imprisoned under an assumed name) was force fed by rectum.
With the outbreak of war in 1914 the women’s suffrage movement threw itself into war work. Dr Elsie Inglis organised 16/17 mobile hospital units which although rejected by the British were used by the other Allied countries. The work of women during the war was invaluable and many took on jobs once only done by men. Although the majority of the movement whole heartedly supported the war, many in the Women’s Freedom League did not and they were reviled for their pacifism.
The 1918 Representation of the People’s Act extended the right to vote for men over the age of 21 and to women over the age of 30 with certain property rights. It was not until 1928 with the Equal Franchise (Flappers) Act that both men and women at age 21 could vote.
The talk was fascinating. Professor Pedersen was an excellent speaker covering an amazing wealth of details about women that we still know so little about.
This brief report has included links to other sources which for those interested can take you to more information about some of the women whose political activism led to all women getting the vote.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame