What modern campaigners can learn from the fight for women’s suffrage

What modern campaigners can learn from the fight for women’s suffrage

Rise Up Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes. By Diane Atkinson. Bloomsbury Publishing; 650 pages; $40 and £30.

The Stalled Revolution: Is Equality for Women an Impossible Dream? By Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds.Emerald Publishing; 320 pages; £26.99.

Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen. By Jo Swinson.Atlantic Books; 383 pages; £16.99.

Deeds Not Words: The Story of Women’s Rights, Then and Now. By Helen Pankhurst.Sceptre; 376 pages; £25.

SHE is a picture of peaceful protest. Millicent Fawcett’s clothes are unruffled, her gaze fixed, her mouth shut. She holds a placard at her waist: “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”. The statue, made by Gillian Wearing, will be unveiled in London’s Parliament Square on April 24th; Fawcett will be the first female figure among the statesmen in bronze. It celebrates the centenaries of two laws that enfranchised some British women and gave those over 21 the right to stand for Parliament. These were the culmination of decades of polite lobbying—and of a ten-year campaign of militant protests. Both strategies hold lessons for reformers today.

Fawcett, the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), was the leader of the moderate “suffragist” wing of the movement, which believed in “constitutional agitation” and “law-abiding propaganda”. From the 1870s she oversaw lobbying and the delivery of thousands of petitions and letters to Parliament. At the start of the 20th century such decorous tactics were the preference of feminists around the world, from America’s Susan B. Anthony to France’s Jeanne Schmahl and New Zealand’s Kate Sheppard. Their fortunes varied. Women in New Zealand were granted the vote in 1893. French women got it only in 1944.

Yet posterity’s view of the British movement focuses on the disorder fomented by the militant “suffragettes”. The archetypal images are of a diminutive Emmeline Pankhurst being accosted by a policeman at the gates of Buckingham Palace, or of one of her imprisoned supporters having a dirty force-feeding tube thrust into her nose. The organisation that Pankhurst (pictured above) founded in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), operated for a little over a decade. In that time it pioneered the use of shock tactics such as hunger strikes, borrowed from Russia and emulated elsewhere. In “Rise Up Women!”, a history of the suffragettes that is among several books on the period published this year, Diane Atkinson writes that “women’s political campaigning would never be the same again”.

The rumbustious suffragettes are relegated to small etchings on the new statue’s plinth, a marginalisation that hints at lingering unease with their methods. Some historians think the new rights were won solely by the suffragists, and that the suffragettes’ outrages were a distraction from the cause or even—by alienating some wavering supporters—actively damaging to it. Others argue that hearts and minds would have proved more intransigent without their pyrotechnics. “Twenty years of peaceful propaganda had not produced such an effect, nor had fifty years of patient pleading which had gone before,” one woman wrote at the time.

Soldiers in petticoats

This is a false dichotomy. Pitting one group against the other obscures the fact that they operated in tandem. Fawcett—who hosted a banquet at the Savoy for a group of suffragettes on their release from prison—acknowledged that “the successful conduct of every great change needs the combination of the spirit of order with the spirit of audacity.” The order and the audacity are equally instructive.

Order was essential for effective organisation. Fundraising paid for grassroots campaigners, who drummed up support, co-ordinated events, sold suffrage literature and wrote reports. They were energetic and incorrigible. In 1913 Helena Swanwick, one NUWSS organiser, spoke at nearly 80 public meetings and wrote “50,000 words on the future of the women’s movement”. By-elections provided opportunities for targeted campaigns. In 1912 the NUWSS established a fund to assail candidates who opposed suffrage. Two anti-suffrage Liberals duly lost their seats.

The suffragists’ sense of order also provides a good leadership model. Fawcett was an elected leader who inspired respect and loyalty and encouraged debate. By contrast Pankhurst and her daughters were bold, impressive orators who led by example. But they governed as tyrants and cast out dissenters. They also spent long, disruptive stretches in prison and exile.

Yet though the suffragists did make waves, particularly with their “Mud March” through London’s boggy streets in 1907, it was the suffragettes’ audacity that secured publicity. Their exploits cleverly reflected their demands. Smashing windows and setting fires were comments on women’s lack of property rights. Emily Wilding Davison, best known for being fatally trampled by the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, hid in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament during the census of 1911, so that a woman could list the House of Commons as her address.

The suffragettes were witty. Guards at Parliament were wary of well-dressed women, so Muriel Matters—“one of their youngest but more determined warriors”, according to the Daily Express—hired an air balloon emblazoned with “Votes for Women” and tried to rain WSPU pamphlets over Westminster. Adverse weather threw her off-course, but the madcap stunt made headlines across the world.

The shackles of yesterday

Their willingness to suffer engendered sympathy as well as havoc. Some, such as Kitty Marion, were force-fed over 200 times. Plenty were sexually assaulted by policemen or agitated crowds. This fiery approach consumed the suffragettes’ livelihoods and health—inevitably making it harder to sustain than the constitutional one. The WSPU suspended its militant activities in 1914, out of deference to the war effort; the NUWSS persisted. Fawcett described the suffragist campaign as “like a glacier; slow moving but unstoppable”.

As Helen Pankhurst, Emmeline’s great-granddaughter, outlines in “Deeds Not Words”, modern feminists’ aims are less straightforward than those of 100 years ago. Then campaigners cared about many causes, from access to the professions to sexual double standards, but they were galvanised by a single, simple goal: the right to vote. Today, write Eva Tutchell and John Edmonds in “The Stalled Revolution”, discrimination “is much less obvious than the blatant injustice that was prevalent a generation ago”, but it still blights lives. Now, though, no specific issue supersedes all others, within countries let alone between them. Moreover, though some problems can be fixed by laws, such as paid parental leave and subsidised child care, others, such as the gender pay gap and harassment, endure despite prohibitions (albeit often shabbily enforced).

Their daughters' daughters

Different and varying as these modern challenges are, together the suffragists and suffragettes offer a road-map. Ordered campaigning remains the main way of changing the law. In “Equal Power”, Jo Swinson, deputy leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, encourages women to “keep the pressure on” their political representatives by raising uncomfortable issues, even outside election season. Internet petitions have already scored some victories (an average of 70% of signatories on change.org, a petitions website, are female). In Britain a call for the sales tax on menstrual products to be lifted was signed by more than 320,000 people, nudging Parliament to pass an amendment in 2016.

These days women’s organisations tend to lack the financial heft needed to emulate the suffragists’ election fund. But they can make a difference in other ways. International research by Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon, two political scientists, found that by influencing trade unions and other power-brokers, such groups played a vital role in workplace reform. In India and Latin America women’s movements have helped secure gains for rural and domestic labourers. Meanwhile the British government recently enforced a law obliging firms with more than 250 employees to publish data about the average earnings of men and women. The Fawcett Society, a charity named after Millicent, pushed for that transparency.

Cultural change is trickier to orchestrate than the legislative kind. For that, making as much noise as possible is often the best strategy. A century ago women resorted to the “argument of the broken pane” because they had no other way of making themselves heard. They chained themselves to railings, set buildings on fire and put bombs in post-boxes. Today’s campaigners can harness more effective megaphones, such as social media and journalistic exposés. One of their forebears’ lessons is that shocking the public into changing its mind may not be achieved in a year or even ten. But it can be done.

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