January 31, 2018|Reports

“Suffragettes” by Paul King

Fifty nine Wickham History Society Members and Visitors came to our January talk celebrating the 100th Anniversary of women getting the vote in 1918.

We all think we know that the suffragettes won women the vote at the end of the Great War – but Paul King, a local historian and dramatist demonstrated that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing! Firstly women didn’t get the vote in 1918, only women over 30 who met a property qualification – it took another ten years before the franchise was extended to all women (and men). Secondly, the jury is still out on whether the suffragette campaign brought forward or delayed the 1918 decision.

Paul took us behind the scenes to show how the Pankhurst family effectively split into two competing factions, reflecting the wider political arguments of the time. Emmeline and Christabel, mother and daughter, dominated the main suffragette organisation: the Womens Social and Political Union. They argued in favour of restricting the vote to women with a property qualification. The two other daughters, Adela and Sylvia, campaigned for universal suffrage for all women and men. For her temerity, Adela was sent firstly to Manchester, and then to Australia, while Sylvia formed a breakaway organisation in the East End of London.

In 1910 a suffragette march on Parliament was violently broken up by the police. Two suffragettes were killed and many women were sexually assaulted. Emmeline said the government had declared war on women, and the suffragette campaign became more violent.

Could women have got the vote before 1918? Syliva arranged for a delegation of working class women from the East End to meet Lloyd George. He said that he was so impressed that he was prepared to bring in legislation to extend the franchise to all women – providing the violence stopped. He said he would publicly promise to resign if unsuccessful. Sylvia asked Christabel to call a halt to the campaign but she refused. Was this a lost opportunity or a cynical divide and rule ploy?

What we do know is that the dedicated campaigning of many hundreds of thousands of women (and many men), the great majority “suffragists” in the wider national campaign led by Millicent Fawcett finally triumphed, and the worst fears of the “League for Opposing Womens Suffrage” came true – women MPs and even (though they thought that was too unlikely) women Prime Ministers !


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