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Don’t forget the working-class women who made suffragette history

A century after some UK women won the vote, most of the suffragette stories we hear still focus on the elite. But this was a diverse movement.

Sian Norris
9 January 2019

Black Friday suffrage protest.

Black Friday suffrage protest. Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

In October 1909, the aristocratic suffragette Lady Constance Lytton was arrested and sent to Newcastle prison. When the police discovered that she was the daughter of Lord Lytton, former Viceroy of India, they ordered her release after two days.

Along with her fellow militant suffragettes, Lytton had gone on hunger strike in protest at her arrest and the continued denial of the vote to women. But she was already in poor health and authorities feared she would die and become a martyr to the suffrage cause.

This was one factor in the decision to release her. But Lytton believed that her class and status had led to her release – that she received special treatment for this, with the police treating her with more politeness and delicacy compared to many others in the militant movement.

When Lytton next attended a protest, outside Walton Gaol, she disguised herself as a maid called Jane Warton. She was arrested and, again, went on hunger strike. This time, however, rather than be released, she was force-fed by the police eight times.

Force feeding was a common, brutal form of torture used against suffragettes, with food poured down the throats of restrained women or through nasal tubes. There is some evidence that women were even force-fed anally.

Lytton’s poor health was still evident at the time of this arrest, but because she was assumed to be lower-class, the authorities did not care.

She wanted to expose different attitudes from the police towards working-class women – she wanted the world to know that while the rich escaped some measure of brutality, the police routinely harmed and tortured poorer women.

While the rich escaped some measure of police brutality; the police routinely harmed and tortured poorer women.

It was this determination to show solidarity with her fellow women that led the militant suffragette Annie Kenney to write that Lytton’s: “passion and devotion for the working-class women was extraordinary”.

These acts of solidarity reflect a suffragette movement that was defined by cross-class activism, where members of the elite stood alongside working class women to expose institutionalised misogyny and fight for freedom.

I researched stories of suffragette cross-class solidarity, such as aristocrats like Constance Lytton working with survivors of child labour like Kenney, while the Ben Pimlott Writer In Residence at Birkbeck University of London.

What I found was diversity – among the suffragettes and the broader political issues they campaigned on. I also found a lot that resonates with feminist struggles today.

Child labourer to suffragette

When Kenney went to work in a factory as a child, it’s unlikely she imagined that, just a few years later, she’d be addressing rallies, taking on male politicians, facing imprisonment, or finally writing in her memoir that “in the end, we won”.

Indeed, in that memoir Memories Of A Militant, she wrote that in her early years “politics did not interest me in the least”.

A “factory girl”, Kenney became a trade unionist, later on noting that there were “96,000 women members of the trade union and not any women officials”.

This inequality was of course reflected in the voting laws of her time, when the lives of half the population were regulated by male voters and MPs, without their input. It wasn’t until Kenney was 38 years old, in 1918, that some women won the vote.

 Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Annie Kenney. Photo: Bain News Service / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Kenney wasn’t unique in her position as a working-class woman fighting for the vote. She was joined by women like Mary Gawthorpe, a fellow survivor of child labour who became a teacher and a union activist.

Gawthorpe had campaigned for free school meals and labour rights before the arrest of Kenney and the militant suffragette organisation Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) co-founder Christabel Pankhurst in October 1905 convinced her that the right to vote was needed to change things for women.

She quickly became a committed suffragette, writing to Christabel Pankhurst at this time that she “too was ready to go to prison”.

Cross-class solidarity mattered to Gawthorpe. In her book Suffrage Days, historian Sandra Stanley Holton wrote that Gawthorpe found "a unity of purpose in the suffrage movement which made social distinction seem of little importance”, and experienced “sexual solidarity with women from other classes”.

Gawthorpe was paid £2 a week by the WSPU to rally her fellow working-class women to the cause. In her memoir, fellow militant suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst recalled one of their meetings where “throngs of mill women kept up the chorus in broad Yorkshire: ‘shall we win? Shall us have the vote? We shall!’”

One of the best-known members of the WSPU was Kenney, who travelled across the country rallying women to fight for the vote. Addressing crowds in Manchester, or heckling Winston Churchill at an electoral rally, she an electrifying speaker.

Like Gawthorpe, Kenney knew the importance of reaching out to the poorest in society. For them, the vote was not to be won for the rich or the elite. It had to be a tool which could change women’s lives wherever and however they lived.

The vote was not to be won for the rich or the elite. It had to be a tool which could change women’s lives wherever and however they lived.

In her memoir, Kenney described with admiration the courage of women who joined the fight for the vote from the slums of London’s East End, amidst daily struggles with extreme poverty, reflected in their “thin, sallow, pinched, pain-stricken” faces.

Kenney thought that, through the struggle for suffrage, “we gave them [East End women] something to dream about, and a hope in the future”. She had felt this herself, describing with emotion how the movement “absolutely changed” her life and was a “school for experience... a chance for those who loved adventure”.

Kenney also spoke to the Wigan pit girls. These were women who worked in the coal mines in the town of Wigan, in the northwest of England. In 1908 they joined other suffragettes and campaigners in a historic march on parliament to demand the vote.

She knew that, for pit and factory girls like herself, risking arrest was a significant sacrifice. Working-class women – as Constance Lytton’s experiment exposed – were treated differently, and had more to lose, in prison and after.

But this didn’t stop the Wigan pit girls, and many other working-class women, who joined the movement despite these risks.

 Unknown author/Museum of London/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Sophia Duleep Singh. Photo: Unknown author/Museum of London/Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Kenney also recalled taking “fishwives, pit brow girls, East End women, laundresses, teachers, nurses, tailoresses, factory girls” to meet MPs. At one protest, she described meeting a “tin plate worker who said she had come alone, and [had been] determined to come whether she got killed or not”.

These women are not the popular representations of the suffragettes as middle-class, ‘middle England’ women that we are used to in the UK. While we celebrate the work of famous and class-privileged suffragettes such as the Pankhursts, the brave women from the pits, slums and factories who marched alongside them, and risked so much, have often been erased from the story.

But women from all walks of life, including those from the poorest backgrounds, with the least political and social power, recognised the need for the vote, and were prepared to sacrifice their safety and freedom to get it. The real story of the suffragettes includes the poorest women standing up to the most powerful men in the country to demand a better future.

Of course, the 1918 Representation of the People Act denied those very women the vote by extending suffrage only to women over 30 years old who held property. It wasn’t until 1928 that all adult women won the right to vote.

Beyond the vote

Many suffragettes had radical aims that went beyond the vote. They saw suffrage as a tool to improve society for women’s economic and sexual as well as legal equality.

Lytton, in her 1909 satirical essay ‘No Votes For Women’, said that one argument against giving women the vote was that they didn’t contribute to society or the economy. Her stinging rebuke reflected Edwardian feminist views on unpaid labour.

“How could [men] be released and equipped for work”, she wrote, “but for the mother, wife, sister, daughter, who as housekeeper, cook, laundrywoman, needlewoman, nurse, who spare him the time and thought he would otherwise have to spend on these essential details of maintenance?”

Winning the vote was part of broader movements to build a better world for women – as it would give women a say in the laws that impacted them.

The UK’s most famous suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, made this argument in her 1913 article ‘Why We Are Militant’, describing “women in my country who have spent long and useful lives trying to get reforms, and because of their voteless condition, they are unable even to get the ear of MPs, much less... secure those reforms”.

 LSE Library/Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

Suffragette Rosa Mae Billinghurst. Photo: LSE Library/Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

The prison system was also a target of these women’s campaigns, for example. Following their arrests, suffragettes like Kenney and Lytton became even more determined to improve the conditions of women behind bars.

Kenney wrote in her 1907 article ‘Prison Faces’ about the cruel treatment of pregnant inmates, which she also connected to women’s lack of the vote.

She declared: “Cowards! that you will allow laws to exist that will force a woman into prison on the eve of her confinement [an archaic term for going into labour] and at the same time withhold from all other women any power by which we could help abolish such a cruel and inhuman system”.

Meanwhile, Lytton campaigned to ensure that women in prison received “sanitary napkins” after Gawthorpe wrote about the “nauseating undergarment – stained in a revolting and suggestive manner” she was forced to wear during her detention.

She also wrote an influential book, Prisons and Prisoners, in 1914, exploring a range of different issues with the prison system.

 LSE Library/Flickr. No known copyr

Suffragettes carry a banner saying “690 imprisonments to win freedom for women”, 1911. Photo: LSE Library/Flickr. No known copyright restrictions.

Both Lytton’s ‘No Votes For Women’ essay, and Pankhurst’s ‘Why We Are Militants’ article, also talked about prostitution – another key issue for some suffragettes.

In Lytton’s essay in particular, we can see echoes of what’s now called “The Nordic Model” – policies that decriminalise the sale of sex while criminalising the purchase.

The idea that men should take responsibility for the sexual exploitation of women, rather than seeing women in the sex industry as immoral or sinful, was pretty radical then, as today, while debates continue to rage about this issue.

Laws like the Contagious Diseases Act 1864 criminalised and stigmatised women who worked in the sex industry. Meanwhile, nineteenth century moral campaigners treated women in prostitution as “fallen” and in need of “saving”.

Neither was the case for suffragettes such as Lytton and Teresa Billington-Greig, who emphasised that a double standard was feeding this industry.

Lytton wrote in 1909: “If to provide the supply be so criminal, what about the demand?… Is it honourable to buy in the market where, according to universal principle, it is so ignoble to sell?”

I wouldn’t claim that all the suffragettes held radical views about the sex industry that identified this sexual double standard, male sexual entitlement, and the exploitation of women as drivers of women’s oppression.

There were suffragettes who would have shared punitive positions towards sex workers with the moral crusaders of their time – as well as those like Kitty Marion who have recently been framed as “sex positive” for their approach to the sex industry (a concept that I reject – all feminists are “positive” about women’s free expression of sexuality regardless of their views on this industry).

But I want to point out that the suffragettes were grappling with some of the same issues that feminists still campaign on today. They held diverse views on how to resolve women’s inequality, just as the current feminist movement does.

Whether it was about unpaid labour, prison conditions, or the sex industry, women like Lytton, Kenny and Gawthorpe promoted and campaigned for radical reforms for women that went beyond the right to vote.

There’s no single narrative of the suffragettes.

There’s no single narrative of the suffragettes. These women came from different class backgrounds, fought for more than the right to the vote, and saw the battle for the franchise as a way to win greater equality.

A century since the 1918 act that began to widen the franchise to women, the suffrage movement has been (often rightly) accused of ignoring working class women, and of being racist and white supremacist.

But, the picture is more complicated than that. There is no doubt that many suffragettes held classist and racist views – Edwardian Britain (as Britain is today) was a classist, racist, society.

That some of our feminist foremothers held such views, and in some cases fought to repress other women, must be acknowledged. At the same time, criticisms of suffragettes have often led to an erasure of the radical working class women who fought for the vote. When criticising the movement for not being diverse, we run the risk of ignoring the diversity that did exist.

That powerful diversity brought together women from different classes, ethnicities and sexualities to challenge patriarchal power and build a fairer world. It’s that same patriarchal power which is invested in, and benefits from, silencing women’s stories – especially those of radical working class women.

While we must not be afraid to critique feminist movements on crucial issues of inclusivity and diversity, we must be careful not to collude in the patriarchal project of erasing the diverse voices that helped to make history. To do so is to silence those radical, working class women who risked everything for a fairer, more equal world.

* This essay was written by Sian Norris while the Ben Pimlott Writer In Residence at Birkbeck University of London.

                                                                                                                                                        

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