Militancy came only after decades of law-abiding protestby Louise Raw / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
In a new biography of the suffragette movement, Diane Atkinson has written not just a useful guide, but a terrific page-turner. It reads at times like a novel, but with characters and events you couldn’t make up. As you would expect, the Pankhursts are here in force, but so too are the music hall star Kitty Marion, weaver Dora Thewlis, clerk Jessie Stephenson, Princess Sophia Duleep Singh and more, showing a movement much broader than its commonly presented image as exclusively white and middle class.
Even before the founding of the Pankhursts’ Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), working-class women were actively campaigning for the vote. Grande dame Emmeline Pankhurst was assisted by factory workers Annie Kenney and Hannah Mitchell; legions of working-class women joined, and formed, WSPU branches.
All-out militancy came only after decades of law-abiding protest, and as a response to astonishing levels of state brutality. Suffragettes were charged by mounted officers, kicked and beaten, and often sexually assaulted by police as well as by civilian men. At a meeting in 1908, 25-year-old Helen Ogston was burned with a cigar and punched on the breast. Pankhurst described women after the meeting “bruised, clothes torn, false teeth knocked out, eyes swollen, noses bleeding.”
On “Bloody Friday” in 1910, 300 women protesters were attacked by officers who threw them to crowds of men who were told to “do what they liked.” In prison, the notorious process of force feeding hunger strikers was condemned as torture. When the partial franchise came in 1918, it was not just a “reward”: the government feared a return to militancy.
Atkinson’s tour de force shows the campaign was no genteel hobby, but an all-out war in which the bravest and most indomitable warriors were, without doubt, the suffragettes.
Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes
by Diane Atkinson (Bloomsbury, £30)