Celebrating the Suffragettes
It was a small gathering; about 50 people near Mile End tube station, some in costume, many with placards either home-made or created using the items brought by the East London Feminists who had organised the Centenary celebration. 100 years ago today Emily Wilding Davison died from injuries sustained when she attempted to drape a banner or give a leaflet to the Jockey riding the King’s horse in the Derby. She was a brave woman who passionately believed in the cause and had come to the belief that fighting for the right to vote would entail extreme action which would break the law.
We were there to remember Ms Davison and her sisters in the struggle who suffered, were tortured, beaten and sexually assaulted, all because they believed the women should have the right to vote in their own country to which they were obligated and within which they were subjugated.
Groups specifically dedicated to the fight for suffrage in the United Kingdom had existed since at least 1851, and there had been individuals and unofficial groups raising awareness before that date. In 1872 the groups formed a national organisation, the National Society for Women’s Suffrage which later became the more influential National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). By the early 20th century, methods used in the fight diversified and became more extreme. Groups became separated according to the actions they felt were morally and ethically acceptable, although the NUWSS continued as the main organisation.
As the fight became more violent, some women began to feel they needed more extreme actions to raise awareness and the disenfranchisement they lived due to not having the vote meant they felt less obligated to remain law abiding. After all, not having the vote meant not having any say in parliamentary representation and therefore in the formulation, debate and enactment of these laws. Others felt legitimate and legal ways of protest were the best way to win support and influence policy-makers. Groups were split along the lines of political affiliation; such affiliations even split families. The Pankhurst family split irrevocably on these lines, with Emmeline and one of her daughter’s, Christabel, supporting the Conservative (Tory) Party and her other daughter Sylvia campaigning for the socialist cause.
All suffragettes (and suffragists, the former term was originally intended as an insult by the Daily Mail newspaper, and was adopted by the more extreme activists in defiance) had one cause though, and that was to gain the right to vote for women in the United Kingdom. Women believed in this so strongly that whilst they may not intend to die for the cause, they were certainly prepared to.
I think it vital we remember the times in which such events were taking place. Feminism has moved on and become increasingly intersectional; like any political ideology it is both subject to and reflective of the times in which it exists. It evolves to encompass new thought and new experiences, and to hopefully leave behind the prejudices in which we are all indoctrinated. I identify as an intersectional feminist, but the context in which the suffragettes fought is so different to the context I fight in that it is incomparable.
I admire these women and men who suffered force-feeding (damaging the health forever and occasionally leading to death), sexual assault (by police and encouraged in male on-lookers; photographic evidence was released in the mid-1960s), violent beating, imprisonment, harassment; all of which was state-approved punishment. Nowadays we protesters may suffer kettling and rare occasions of violence. We do not experience the intense vitriol and misogynistic hatred these women suffered.
Ms Davison never voted; she died five years before women over 30 were first enfranchised and 15 years before women gained the vote on an equivalent basis to men. We need to remember these women, revere them and thank them. They succeeded, after suffering and over 100 years of fighting, in giving women a voice in the political process and in their own lives. We today were gathered to celebrate, commemorate and take strength from these women. I took strength from the day and from the people who joined me in the march, songs and talks. The fight goes on for equality; the goals may be different and varied, but I hope I have just a small bit of their dedication, determination and passion.
Suffragettes, I remember and I thank you.