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Myths about the suffragette ‘martyrs’


This is the second of three posts by BELINDA BROWN on the violent reality of the terror campaign by suffragettes, in contrast to the peaceful suffragists.

Although the offence of terrorism did not yet exist, the suffragettes were, as I tried to show yesterday, full-blown terrorists in all but name. They were understandably loathed by the public. The question is: What brought about their transformation to national heroines today?

In his book Suffragette Bombers, Simon Webb points to the genius of their visual propaganda. Brave women undertaking dangerous missions, martyrs to the cause, make a far more enticing story than the mundane political processes which were actually involved in getting the vote.

It is important to remember that the terrible levels of violence perpetrated by the suffragettes paled into insignificance against the wholesale slaughter which followed in the First World War.

There is also the possibility that the Suffragette Club, later the Suffragette Fellowship, may well have made co-ordinated attempts to remove their most violent acts from published memoirs. If suffragettes themselves were responsible for building up archives and artefacts, they may have felt it prudent to sanitise their history.

However even when historians and commentators do have some idea of the extent of suffragette violence, there is a refusal to condemn it. Fern Riddell, who discovered the damage caused by of one of the terrorists, Kitty Marion, still insists that she is ‘so in awe’ of these women.

Diane Atkinson, a curator and lecturer at the Museum of London, who must know how much injury Emily Davison inflicted on others, described her actions as ‘bold, brave attacks’ against the establishment.

Craig Williams, reporting on the failed bombing of an aqueduct which would have cut off the water supply to half of Glasgow, still concluded in his article: ‘We owe it to these women never to forget.’

Emily Thornberry bemoaned the fact that she didn’t get a statue to Emily Davison put up in Parliament. Surely it is bad enough that we have a statue dedicated to the woman who led an active terrorist organisation in the Parliamentary gardens? Do we also need a statue in Parliament to a woman who carried out random acid attacks? What is going on?

Believing that the suffragettes actually had to engage in a certain amount of violence to obtain the vote corresponds with the belief, even the need to feel, that women were seriously oppressed and discriminated against. This is a useful myth which justifies the relentless demands which women are fond of making today.

However even a cursory look at the evidence suggests that this too is propaganda.

Take one example. Caroline Criado-Perez, trying to portray what women were up against at the time, tells us that ‘Women were too irrational, too emotional. They would be swayed by silly trivialities and could not possibly take on the grave responsibility of voting. Women belonged in the private sphere, in the home, not in the great affairs of state. They should leave this murky world to men, who, after all, could always be trusted to vote in the interests of their sweet, innocent female dependants.’

Yet Millicent Fawcett, who actually lived in that period, tells us that ‘it is quite clear that even as long ago as 1819 the notion that women have nothing to do with politics was in practice rejected by the political common sense of the Englishman. No one doubted that women were and ought to be deeply interested in what concerned the political well being of their country’.

What Fawcett had to say is borne out by the evidence. Women had been voting in local elections since the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act, and 1,500 held elected office in district councils, school boards and Poor Law Boards. They had pushed through a whole raft of Acts and participated in trade union activity across gender lines. They were starting to go to university and to enter the professions. There were huge numbers employed in industry and 500,000 women were working in charities continuously and semi-professionally.

Further it should be remembered that fewer than 60 per cent of men had the vote, and even this had been only recently acquired.

However the myth of a unique oppression against women is very important to us. It sustains the image of women who were compelled by circumstances to be violent. To suggest that things were otherwise is extremely difficult for us as it challenges our cherished and most deeply held beliefs.

But underlying the idolisation of the suffragettes, and discussions about whether or not violence was necessary, is a belief that the suffragettes actually helped to get us the vote.

That myth is what I will turn to tomorrow.

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Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown is author of 'The Private Revolution' and a number of well-cited academic papers. More recently, she has started writing and blogging for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men's issues and the damage caused by feminism.

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