Vote 100: Sanitising the Suffragettes

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This month heralds the centenary of the introduction of laws which allowed certain women over the age of 30 to vote, paving the way for universal suffrage a decade later. This historic anniversary has brought with it a plethora of events in cities across the UK, and united the mainstream political spectrum in rightful celebration of women’s equality. For instance, Jeremy Corbyn launched a year-long initiative for equality within the Labour Party, and while visiting the birthplace of Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester, praised female politicians’ approach to politics, and actively encouraged further female participation, as despite the progress made still only 32% of the House of Commons comprises female MPs.

If one takes these two sentiments and relates them to the suffragettes, we enter murky moral territory.

However, at the same event Prime Minister May dodged questions as to whether suffragettes should be pardoned for crimes they committed, and that same day said that she was considering making the harassment and abuse of MPs and parliamentary candidates a criminal offence. If one takes these two sentiments and relates them to the suffragettes, we enter murky moral territory.

While those belonging to the suffragist wing of the women’s suffrage movement believed in non-violent marches, petitions and lobbying, members of the Women’s Social and Politcal Union carried out multiple criminal attacks on the political establishment-for instance, throwing roof slates at Herbert Asquith, attempted arson of Lewis Harcourt’s Nuneham House, bombing the home of David Lloyd George-the list goes on.

The image we have of them is of patient, sash-adorned women, frozen in history in a blur of green, white and purple

In recent years, attacks such as this have been brought to public attention, especially in light of director Sarah Gavron’s ‘Suffragette’, but prior to this, the image we have of them is of patient, sash-adorned women, frozen in history in a blur of green, white and purple. For many, the enduring image of the campaign for equal suffrage is of Emily Davison being crushed by the unsuspecting King’s horse at 1913’s Epsom Derby, a passive victim. But we should not remember the suffragettes as passive activists. We should not distort the fact that suffragettes caused mass property damage, and despite Mrs Pankhurst’s orders that “not a cat or a canary [was] to be killed”, misremember the fact that human lives were put at risk-were it not for the swift defusing of the bomb outside the Bank of England in 1913, who knows how many would have died. As Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline, said, “the suffragettes were violent freedom fighters.”

As Dr Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of Emmeline, said, “the suffragettes were violent freedom fighters.”

To remember them as anything else does them a catastrophic disservice. To sanitise them down to a well-dressed, peaceful protester obliterates the horrific reactionary violence they faced and absolves the laws of time as not being morally repugnant. Force-feedings, cathartic police brutality, sexual abuse, parliamentary betrayals, instrumental rape, it is no wonder that certain wings of the movement were compelled to turn to criminal violence.

There are arguments for pardoning the suffragettes of these crimes, acknowledging the abuse they received at the hands of the state. There are arguments against, as their criminal record serves as a testament to the system they faced, and a pardon would wipe clean any sign of what was done to these women. But the fact we can even start to have this debate, and with Gavron’s revealing ‘Suffragette’, clearly more has been done to uncover the truth about the suffragette movement, even uncomfortable ones like it’s relationship with racism, something the film indirectly brought up through a controversial T-shirt campaign featuring the cast and the slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’, which some claimed reinforced the contextual racism of that time. It is a film that doesn’t shy away from analysing the long, painful and controversial path that was taken to bring about much-needed social change in Britain. And neither should we.

Photograph: RV1864 via Flickr

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