I’m currently researching an article on the suffragette movement for the children’s magazine Aquila, and it’s proving to be something of an eye-opener. Most people are aware that the suffragettes sometimes went to great lengths to gain publicity, and that they in turn suffered at the hands of the prison authorities. I’d always been vaguely aware that they engaged in causing damage to property – a boathouse in my own local town was burned down – but my view now is that the movement went beyond vandalism and into the realms of what we would today call terrorism, and that it’s more by luck than judgement that they didn’t kill anyone.
I’m sure the reason I was only vaguely aware of the extent of the violence is that, being an inconvenient truth, it is played down as befits the current ‘you’re either for us or against us’ climate. This perspective attacks any ‘off-message’ viewpoint and refuses to admit to any grey areas no matter how complex a situation might be. The suffragettes were heroines, and their actions mustn’t be questioned.
But there is another side to it.
The movement was split from the start – Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies didn’t believe in violent acts, recognising that it would lose them the support of many of the MPs whose votes were needed to bring about change, as well as disavowing the violence from moral standpoint.
The kind of thing I’m talking about is the burning down of churches (the Church of England didn’t support the cause so became a legitimate target) and many other (I’m talking hundreds) of cases of arson, including the orchid house and tea rooms at Kew Gardens. Some of it was even more sinister. Postmen were injured by noxious substances left in post boxes. Suffragettes used the kind of pipe bombs that any modern terrorist would be familiar with. If there is one case that exemplifies the way it works, it would be Jennie Baines, who was involved in two notorious incidents.
In 1912 the prime minister Herbert Asquith visited a theatre in Dublin, and the visit was targeted by a number of suffragettes including Jennie Baines. Before the event, an axe was
thrown at Asquith, which narrowly missed him and injured an Irish MP. During the performance the women attempted to set fire to the packed theatre, and for good measure left a container full of gunpowder near the stage. The following year a train was blown up near Manchester and a policeman on patrol narrowly avoided being killed. Jennie Baines was arrested, and at her home police found bombs, gunpowder and a loaded gun.
But you will have to look hard to find this kind of information. I read two online biographies of her, and neither of them mentioned any of this.
I certainly would have supported a campaign to gain women the vote, but I hate the ‘I don’t believe in violence but…’ philosophy, and I believed a Gandhi-type approach of civil disobedience would have attracted more support more quickly.
Without a doubt, I would have joined the sadly neglected Millicent Fawcett’s peaceful suffragist movement.