'it was not 'votes for women’, but ‘votes for ladies’.'
By Belinda Brown: They’re the heroines of the hour. The brave women who fought so hard to win us the equality we enjoy today. Ask any schoolgirl who won women the vote 100 years ago and they will be quick to answer: ‘The suffragettes.’
They’ve been the subject of a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep, they feature in girls’ bedtime stories, and last week, Emmeline Pankhurst and her corseted followers were lionised in a BBC documentary presented by historian Lucy Worsley.
Such is the hero-worship of this band of ‘gender freedom fighters’ that when last Sunday thousands took to the streets to commemorate the centenary of votes for women, many were holding banners calling for the ‘battle’ to continue.
‘Fight like a Girl’ read one (right). ‘Deeds, not words’ said another, echoing the slogan of the suffragettes, who were responsible for 337 acts of arson or bombing during 1913-1914 alone. But while gaining the vote 100 years ago was a huge achievement, I also believe that it’s time we started telling young people the truth.
For the real action did not lie with the suffragettes and their shameful violence. It lay with another group of women, the suffragists led by Millicent Fawcett, and their collaboration with men in the Labour party.
It was Millicent Fawcett and her 50,000-strong suffragists whose peaceful and persistent work turned the tide: Pankhurst’s suffragettes (estimated to number only between 2,000 and 5,000) were an aggressive offshoot from which Fawcett repeatedly tried to distance herself.
Yet somewhere along the line, the tale has been twisted. To the extent that when a statue of Fawcett was unveiled in Parliament Square this year, they used suffragette colours (white, green, purple) when Fawcett herself established suffragist colours (red, white, green) to distance herself from the violence.
Similarly, the processions marching through London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast were a sea of white, green and purple, the suffragette colours. Once again, Millicent Fawcett and her more successful, peaceful approach was erased from the story.
Why? I suspect it suits today’s feminists to portray the suffragettes as having to fight and suffer for women to get the vote. That meant struggling against the enemy — men. Embraced by the Me Too, Time’s Up campaign and the gender equality brigade, it’s all the rage to identify with the suffragettes.
But the story they want to tell is of a pitched battle between freedom-fighting heroines and the men who stood in their way, when the truth just isn’t as black and white.
It wasn’t that men in power specifically didn’t want women to have the vote. Besides, only 56 per cent of men (those who owned property) had the vote.
Another fact that has been quietly dropped from the story is that the suffragettes were only campaigning for women like themselves, middle-class propertied women, to gain this privilege. As one critic pointed out, it was ‘not votes for women’, but ‘votes for ladies’.
This was why Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith and his Liberal party didn’t want to give votes to women — because if it was only propertied women, they were unlikely to vote Liberal. Their objection was political, rather than based on gender. As for the suffragists, they had been petitioning Parliament for many years, and in 1897 suffrage societies came together under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge.
They formed the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and used peaceful tactics such as lobbying MPs. It was a tireless journey, and its slow progress is what triggered Emmeline Pankhurst to set up a rival faction in 1903, arguing drastic action was required.
Over the next decade, the suffragettes dreamed up countless violent and exhibitionist stunts. Burning rags were stuffed into letterboxes, chairs flung into the Serpentine, and envelopes containing red pepper and snuff sent to every Cabinet minister.
As the government repeatedly stalled all attempts to push female suffrage through Parliament, the violence intensified. Windows and street lamps were smashed, golf greens burned with acid, bombs placed near the Bank of England and an axe was thrown at Prime Minister Asquith.
Largely, however, the suffragettes resorted to cowardly hit-and-run attacks against ordinary people. They started fires at postal sorting offices using phosphorus, the fumes from which caused permanent lung damage to several workers.
Meanwhile, the suffragists were toiling away. In 1912, they made a pact with the Labour Party: they would canvas for them and fund candidates in return for support for women’s votes.
The government knew they had to redraw the electoral register after World War I. And many returning soldiers didn’t have the vote because they were not property owners. ‘If they are fit to fight, they are fit to vote,’ was what they said in Parliament.
And it is worth remembering that while the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave the vote to eight million women, it also gave the vote to five million men for the first time, too.
So, how did it come about? Fawcett’s friend in the Labour party, Arthur Henderson, said he would only support the new Bill if it also extended the vote to women. (If he resigned from Cabinet, it would have brought down the government.)
But Millicent Fawcett’s ‘boring’, slow work courting male as well as female support doesn’t make exciting television viewing. The fact she worked alongside male MPs does not toe the feminist man-hating line.
True equality was achieved by men and women working together to overcome party political resistance. This is what we should be remembering and teaching in schools. Rather than pretending that violence achieves great things — and that men are the enemy.