6.3 Suffragettes: government attempts Source B: to deal ... Suffragettes...
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Protest, law and order in the twentieth century
Suffragettes 1903–14 (Political protest)
111 Learning outcomes By the end of this topic you will be able to:
fi nd out about the increased militancy • adopted by the WSPU
discover how the government tried to cope • with the protests.
6.3 Suffragettes: government attempts to deal with the protest
The government found it very diffi cult to deal with the suffragette protest without upsetting public opinion and encouraging more support for the suffragettes.
Mixed messages The Liberal government didn’t have one clear view on votes for women. Some of its members supported the cause, others opposed it or weren’t decided. Several times, the government seemed about to introduce a reform to extend the vote to some women but, each time, it was withdrawn or altered.
Shutting out peaceful protest Once the WSPU became more militant, however, the government decided to take a hard line. When women disrupted political meetings by heckling or other forms of peaceful protest, the government responded by banning all women from Liberal meetings. This closed off an important avenue of peaceful protest.
Use of prisons WSPU militants started a new tactic of breaking windows and refusing to pay fi nes so they could be sent to prison. The government refused to treat them as political prisoners and, instead, they were treated as ordinary criminals. This included not being allowed to speak and having to empty their chamber pots each morning. The government wanted to frighten and humiliate suffragettes so that they would stop this tactic. They did not want to encourage other groups looking for reform to try the same tactics or to recognise suffragette tactics as political protest.
Hunger strikes and force-feeding When the government refused to treat them as political prisoners, some suffragettes went on hunger strike. This tactic put a lot of pressure on the government. If a woman starved herself to death in prison for a political cause, there would have been a storm of publicity and criticism of the government’s handling of the issue. It would have created a martyr, increasing support for the suffragette cause.
So, the prison authorities began to force-feed these hunger-striking suffragettes. This meant pushing a tube down the throat and feeding watery gruel into the stomach. When a suffragette resisted, the prison warders sometimes used wedges to force their mouth open, or pushed a tube down through their nose. Many protesters vomited as soon as the tube was withdrawn. Occasionally, the gruel went into the lungs rather than the stomach. This caused serious health problems. Many WSPU prisoners suffered health problems as a result of their treatment in prison.
However, once details of the methods used had been publicised by the WSPU – for instance, in their paper Votes for Women – there was a public outcry. The suffragettes had succeeded in making the prison protests political.
Attempts at compromise All protests involve a balance of power. If authorities are powerful enough to squash a protest, it gets nowhere. If protesters manage to get media opinion on their side, or if a government is afraid to use all the power it has against the protest because of what public reaction would be, then protesters can sometimes force change.
In 1910 Asquith agreed to work with the WSPU and the NUWSS to produce a Conciliation Bill, which would extend the right to vote to women. The WSPU agreed to a political truce and called off its violent protests. The two sides had reached a compromise and it seemed that progress was being made. However, the Liberals thought that women would vote for the Conservatives and the Conciliation Bill was abandoned.
The police and ‘Black Friday’ The suffragettes were furious and, on Friday, 18 November 1910, over 300 went to parliament to protest. The government had instructed the police to frighten and humiliate the suffragettes so that they would stop their protests. There were many accusations of violent and even sexual assault
by police on women. Twenty-nine women later complained of indecent assault by the police.
The result was that hundreds of suffragettes were now prepared to break windows and go to prison. Emmeline Pankhurst called the WSPU an ‘army’ and the suffragettes ‘warriors’. From 1911, the suffragettes began a massive window-breaking campaign, along with the destruction of golfi ng greens – all designed to generate publicity.
The ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act In 1913, the government passed the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act, which allowed the authorities to release a hunger-striker before they became seriously ill, and then re-arrest them once they had regained strength, in order to complete their sentence. This showed the government using its power to make laws to foil the protest and blunt the hunger-strike weapon.
• The government gave signals that reform was possible, but did nothing, infuriating suffrage groups.
• The government used the police and prison authorities against militant suffragettes who simply intensifi ed their tactics.
• Suffragette publicity meant a lot of media attention, and a lot of pressure on the government.
Source A: A WSPU poster of 1909, protesting against the force-feeding of suffragette prisoners on hunger strike.
Study Source A. 1 What image or impression was the poster trying
to get across about force-feeding? 2 How did the designer of the poster try to get that
Source B: A suffragette struggling with a policeman on ‘Black Friday’, 18 November 1910.
3 Using the sources on these pages, consider whether you would you agree that the government’s attitudes to the suffragettes’ protests only helped the suffragette campaign.