Monday, 26 February 2018

Deeds Not Words

Deeds Not Words: Women's Suffrage in Britain
Treasures Gallery, National Library of Australia
6 February - 19 August 2018

This month saw the hundredth anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act, granting women in the UK the right to vote. Not all women, of course; only those aged over thirty who were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5, and graduates of British universities.

Leading Australian feminist Bessie Rischbieth (1874-1967) was in London from May to June 1913, a time when the campaign for women's suffrage was at its peak.

Although not an activist in the British campaign, she attended meetings and heard the rousing speeches of suffrage leaders like Emmeline Pankhurst and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She followed the press reports of the spectacular actions of the suffragettes and what she witnessed helped inspire her future commitment to women's rights. 

Fascinated by the charisma of the suffragettes and their militant actions, Bessie Rischbieth gathered memorabilia of the movement. building a collection of photographs, pamphlets, newspapers cuttings, suffrage periodicals, postcards and correspondence. She conceived of her transnational collection as a 'bridge over the British and Australian demand for the vote'. The British campaign formed the basis for her own campaigns for women's equality and rights in Australia. Building on this foundation, she became a prominent figure in Australian and international feminism.This exhibition is drawn from the collection that she bequeathed to the National Library of Australia.

In 1872 the fight for women's suffrage became a national movement with the formation of the National Society for Women's Suffrage and later the more influential National Union of Women'a Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). In 1906 the militant campaign began with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). 

In October 1908 Muriel Matters and Helen Fox padlocked themselves to 'that vile grille behind which women have had to sit in the House of Commons for so many years'. The police had to remove the grille in order to release them. Matters and Fox shouted 'Votes for Women' from the gallery. They are considered the first words to have been spoken by women in Parliament.

Women who spoke publicly for the cause frequently faced hostile mobs. They were jeered and abused; pelted with stones, rotten eggs and (on one occasion) dead rats; attacked; molested; stripped and trampled. They received very little police protection and faced crowds of angry men demanding they go home and cook their husband's dinner. Their bravery and determination in the face of such hostility totally humbles me.

The WSPU was tightly controlled by the three Pankhurts; Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. It specialized in highly visible publicity campaigns such as large parades and acts of violence -stone throwing, window smashing and arson of unoccupied buildings. While there was much support for women's suffrage in Parliament, the Liberal Government refused to allow a vote on the issue and arrested women on charges of vandalism, interrupting meetings, and obstructing traffic. Many of these women couldn't or wouldn't pay the fines and went to prison instead, where some of them went on hunger strike to draw attention to the cause.

One of the viler consequences of the fight for women's suffrage was the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act - commonly known as The Cat and Mouse Act - passed by Parliament under Asquith's Liberal Government in 1913. Women who went on hunger strike were force fed by shockingly brutal methods, and became seriously ill. Constance Lytton describes the process thus:
“Two of the women (wardresses) took hold of my arms, one held my head and one my feet. One wardress helped to pour the food. The doctor leant on my knees as he stooped over my chest to get at my mouth. I shut my mouth and clenched my teeth. The sense of being overpowered by more force that I could possibly resist was complete, but I resisted nothing except with my mouth. The doctor offered me the choice of a wooden or steel gag; he explained that the steel gag would hurt and the wooden one would not, and he urged me not to force him to use the steel one. But I did not speak nor open my mouth, so after playing about for a moment or two with the wooden one he finally had recourse to the steel. The pain of it was intense; he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally. Then he put down my throat a tube, which seemed to me much too wide and was something like four feet long. The irritation of the tube was excessive. I choked the moment it touched my throat until it had gone down. Then the food was poured in quickly; it made me sick a few seconds after it was down and the action of the sickness made my body and legs double up, but the wardresses instantly pressed back my head and the doctor leant on my knees. The horror of it was more than I can describe. I had been sick over my hair, all over the wall near my bed, and my clothes seemed saturated with vomit. The wardresses told me that they could not get a change (of clothes) as it was too late, the office was shut.”
In an attempt to prevent the suffragettes from becoming martyrs in prison, the Cat and Mouse Act provided for the release of those whose hunger strikes and force feeding had brought them sickness to the point of near death, as well as their re-imprisonment once they had recovered. As the women were able to testify as to their treatment, this proved to be great publicity for their cause. On 14 July 1913 Emmeline Pankhurst, on temporary release from prison, famously declared,
"I would rather be a rebel than a slave. I would rather die than submit... I mean to be a voter in the land that gave me my birth or that they shall kill me, and my challenge to the Government is: "Kill me or give me my freedom; I shall force you to make that choice." 
WSPU Poster 1914

Increasing numbers of doctors, as well as members of the general public, were speaking out against forcible feeding, saying it contravened the rules of medical practice and that those doctors performing the operation were punishing, rather than treating, their patients. Even The Times, well known for its anti-suffragism, suggested review of policy.

In recognition of the enormous toll this practice took on women both physically and mentally, the WPSU presented hunger strikers with commemorative medals “For Valour” in pursuing “to the last extremity of hunger and hardship a great principle of political justice”. The purple white and green of the ribbon were the official colours of the WPSU (representing dignity, purity and hope) and each bar was inscribed with the date on which the recipient was force fed. 

The outbreak of war in 1914 enabled both the WSPU and the authorities to retreat. Emmeline Pankhurst called a temporary suspension of militancy while the government granted an amnesty to all suffrage prisoners. Thus ended the most shameful episode in the history of the British women’s suffrage campaign. 

This particular medal was awarded to Letitia Withall by the WPSU in August 1913 after her release from prison. She sent it to Bessie Rischbieth hoping that it would be exhibited in the museum that Rischbieth intended to create in Canberra. Fewer than 100 of these medals are thought to have been awarded, and only three are known to be held in Australian institutions (Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and Museums Victoria).
"The hunger-striking suffragette laid bare the sexual divisions in Edwardian society, exposing a deep flaw in an all-male Liberal government that claimed to be ‘democratically’ elected yet tortured those women who challenged its legitimacy. Although partial enfranchisement for certain categories of women over the age of 30 was not granted until 1918, the forcibly fed suffragette had won the moral high ground. Through her courage and endurance, she had showed that physical force could never overcome the justice of her cause. In the battle for women’s equality, she had politicised her body in a way that those who came after her would never forget. Men might insist upon controlling women’s bodies, but physical force could never triumph because their cause was just." - June Purvis, Professor of Women's and Gender History at Portsmouth 

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