Votes for Women 2018: Part IV – The suffragettes

Thursday 8 February 2018

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, were committed members of the suffrage movement. Emmeline was on the executive committee of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage from 1880 and a member of the Fabian Society, the Women’s Liberal Association, and the Women’s Franchise League. As a member of the Independent Labour Party, Emmeline and her husband were both committed socialists. Her disappointment in the lack of results of the socialist movement, inspired her to form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with the motto ‘Deeds, not words’.[1]

Letter from Sylvia Pankhurst to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, 1926 about Interlingua, a new international language. Note that she says that the enthusiasm of young university women “acts as the driving force for new movements whether social, political or otherwise.” (ms10949)

In contrast to the suffragist societies, the suffragettes advocated civil disobedience and militant action, including attacks on property. Many suffragettes received prison sentences for their actions and were famously force-fed while on hunger strike in support of their demands. In a letter to University Hall Warden Miss Dobson, suffragette Janie Allan refers to her own prison sentence and the effects of prison on a fellow suffragette visiting St Andrews after a hunger strike.

Letter from Janie Allan (UYUY37781/B/4)

Dear Miss Dobson.

My many thanks for yours.

Vera is simply suffering from the effects of prison.

She is a member of the W.S.P.U & was in prison from Nov[embe]r for 2 months and in March again for 3 months. She was sentenced to 6 months but was let out during the hunger strike as her health was all to pieces – Her heart & nervous system have been affected as all of us have been more or less, who have been in Prison. I was in for 3 months my health has not yet recovered. She has promised to leave suffrage alone for a year or so, & will get quite strong with time. The D[octo]r thought she sh[oul]d play golf. She is naturally very strong and athletic & fond of games, but hockey is forbidden in her present state. I have asked her to let you know of her arrival on the 1st – Yours sincerely

Janie Allan

Photograph of a ‘votes for women’ demonstration, from the McIntosh albums (ms37102/12/48r)

Janie Allan, born in Glasgow, was an influential activist who was given more than one prison sentence for her part in violent protests. Allan went on hunger strike in prison and was subject to the government’s policy of force-feeding imprisoned suffragettes on hunger strike. The Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act of 1913, more commonly known as the ‘cat and mouse act’, was a response to the public outrage at force feeding. Prisoners on hunger strike would be released when their health started to worsen, and would be imprisoned again when they had recovered.

In response to the failure of the Conciliation Bill in 1912, the militancy of the WSPU increased in the first half of 1913. Fears of suffragette attacks was demonstrated by the watch organised over the St Andrews golf links prior to the Amateur Championship of that year.[2] The St Andrews Burgh minutes record the refreshments organised for these ‘watchers’ in 1913, who were concerned about potential threats of damage to the course.

In June 1913 in St Andrews, there was an arsonist attack on the Gatty Marine Laboratory. The local news reports blamed the Suffragettes. In scrapbook albums from the papers of William Carmichael McIntosh, Professor of Natural History, newspaper cuttings reporting the event have been gathered together. The Courier reports that two notices had been left outside the building with the words

“Take heed of the women’s rebellion” and “ We need to be goaded – like oxen as we are – into a trot”.

Newspaper cuttings reporting on the Gatty lab fire, in the scrapbook albums from the papers of William Carmichael McIntosh, Professor of Natural History (ms37102/6/8r)
Photographs of the Gatty lab after the fire, June 1913 (ms37102/6/13v)

The fire, started by a dozen flasks of explosive material, was observed by fisherman at sea who alerted the authorities. In the same album, there are photographs of the aftermath of the fire.

Professor McIntosh received numerous letters from across the academic community offering their sympathy and expressing concern that none of the scientific drawings should have been damaged. A. P. Knight of the Biological Board of Canada (10 July 1913) is typical.

“Words fail me to express my detestation of the policy that has been adopted by the women suffragists.”

An example of some of the letters of sympathy sent to Professor McIntosh, including the letter from A.P. Knight (ms37102/6/8v)

Millicent Fawcett and the suffragists also expressed their disapproval of the attack. A letter from the NUWSS to the University expressed their condemnation of all militant action and the damage done to the Gatty.

Letter from the NUWSS recorded in University Court Minutes, July 1913 (UYUY505)

Not long after the fire at the Gatty, Leuchars Railway Station was completely destroyed by fire at the end of June 1913. While no one claimed responsibility for the arson, the St Andrews Citizen reported that Suffragettes were suspected.

Report of the fife at Leuchars Railway Station, St Andrews Citizen, 5 July 1913 (rper AN4.S2C5)

Events in Scotland sparked further debate and discussion about the suffragettes, as expressed in this letter sent to the St Andrews Citizen, which addressed ‘The Problem of the Militant Policy’

Letter published in the St Andrews Citizen, 5 July 1913 (rper AN4.S2C5)

“There cannot be the slightest doubt that the women who commit these outrages are for the moment suffering from a derangement of the mind which is induced by hysteria.”

“Perverse, obstinate, foolish-minded women who go under the classification of militant suffragettes.”

With the outbreak of War in 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst and the WPSU suspended their campaign and focused their attention on helping with war work. During the war a number of women took on roles normally restricted to men. Between 1914 and 1918 around 2 million women replaced men in the workforce.

In 1918 only around half of the male population was entitled to vote and the residence qualification prohibited many of those who had been away fighting. The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the vote to males over 21 and some women over 30.

In tomorrow’s blog we will look at the news articles from the General Elections of 1918 and 1929, when the vote had finally been extended to women on the same terms as men.

Sarah Rodriguez
Principal Archives Assistant

[1] Information about the Pankhursts and the WPSU taken from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
[2] Leah Leneman, A Guid Cause The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Aberdeen, 1991), p.145

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