Parliament and Suffragettes

To mark the 100th anniversary of the death of militant suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, Dr Mari Takayanagi examined the Suffragette movement in an Open Lecture on Wednesday 5 June 2013.

Mari is Senior Archivist in the Parliamentary Archives, and gave a fascinating and expert insight into the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Please note: no video is available for this lecture.

Parliament and Suffragettes lecture transcript

Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist in the Parliamentary Archives: Hello everybody and thank you very much for coming.

My name is Mari Takayanagi and I'm an archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, but my particular area of specialist knowledge is Parliament and women.

Last year I finished my PhD on the subject of ‘Parliament & Women circa 1900-1945’ and although my PhD wasn't specifically about the Suffragettes, inevitably I have picked up a certain amount of knowledge along the way. And because the resources here in Parliament are so rich about the suffragettes, my knowledge has continued to grow and develop to the point where I've got lots to tell you about today.

The reason we're here in this particular week of course is because this week marks the 100th Anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison and I imagine that everyone in this room has seen an item on the news or seen a newspaper article about it.

I'm not just going to talk about Emily though - I'm going to take you through the full story of Parliament and votes for women - from the earliest times to right until we got the vote and beyond. And of course I am going to talk about Emily when we get to her along the way.

So I'm going to start by taking you back to 1832. Of course the story of rights for women goes back even further than that. If you want to go back to Mary Wollstonecraft, she published her Vindication of the Rights of Women back in 1792, and from the early 19th Century women were there campaigning for parliamentary reform alongside the men in the run up to the 1832 Reform Act.

But the parliamentary story really starts here: the first petition presented to Parliament in 1832. This is the first petition that I've found by women asking for votes for women and it's recorded here in Hansard - which is House of Commons Parliamentary debates. The petition is from a woman called Mary Smith, Stanmore in the County of York.

The petitioner stated that she paid taxes and therefore did not see why she should not have a share in the election of a representative. She also stated that women were liable to all the punishments of the law, not excepting death and ought to have a voice in the making of them. But so far from this, even upon their trials, both judges and jurors were all of the opposite sex.

Now I think that argument sounds fairly reasonable to most of us today. But I'm afraid it was introduced by the MP, Mr Hunt, as "a petition that might be a subject of mirth". Indeed the response that he got there in the House of Commons chamber, was from a Sir Frederick Trench who said:
"It would be rather awkward if a jury of half-males and half-females got locked up together for a night, as often happens with juries. This might lead to some rather queer predicaments."

To which Mr Hunt riposted,

"he well knew that the Honourable and Gallant member was frequently in the company of the ladies for whole nights and he did not know that any mischief had resulted from that circumstance".

So basically it was laughed out of the Chamber - nothing was done. It was laid for information and the report appeared in Hansard but nothing happened.

So then we fast-forward a bit. And we fast-forward to other petitioning and lobbying attempts through the 19th Century. Now a series of Reform Acts were passed during the 19th Century which by 1884 had given the vote to a majority of men. I think it's important to note that it wasn't all men - we didn't have universal male suffrage yet - but about 60 per cent of men could vote by 1884. And at the various Reform Acts along the way, women did campaign to be included in these.

So, first of all you had the second Reform Act of 1867 - which was the first expansion of the electorate - and a body of women got together in a women's suffrage committee and got together 1500 signatures that were presented on a petition to parliament. Unfortunately the original of that doesn't survive but there is again a record of its presentation.

And if you think 1500 signatures doesn't sound very much, compared to how big the campaign grew later, if you think what it must have been like - for a small group of connected women in 1866-67 trying to gather together petitioners, asking their friends, families, servants and so on - I think actually it's a very large number of signatures to get onto a petition in that period.

It was presented to Parliament by John Stuart Mill - the liberal MP and philosopher who was very sympathetic - who tried to pass an amendment to the Second Reform Act to include women but unfortunately that failed.

After that though, women's suffrage was definitely on the table: private members bills were introduced to parliament virtually every year from 1870. And around 1884 we have another Reform Act - this was the third Reform Act and again we have an increase in lobbying and petitioning attempts by women.

This particular petition that you can see on the screen here is from the Mistresses of Dulwich High School - which is a very nice document we hold in the Parliamentary Archives - it's a very rare surviving example of an original suffrage petition with all the signatures on it, that you can see at the bottom there.

Now, the mistresses of Dulwich High School - if you think what sort of women they would be in 1884: there weren't many professions open to women at that time but of course one was, which was to be a teacher or governess.

So the women who had become the mistresses of Dulwich High School would have been educated, possibly would have owned property, certainly would have paid taxes since they earned salaries - and they couldn't vote. So the petition here is asking for propertied women to get the vote. And I'm afraid it didn't get anywhere - it's noted and parliament moves on.

It's after this date though, that women's suffrage societies started to work together a little more: through the 19th Century there were a lot of individual societies, but in 1897 they finally come together and you get the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

Its leader, the lady on the screen here, is Millicent Fawcett.

Millicent Fawcett was a long-time campaigner for women's rights and her husband was actually an MP. He was blind and she used to go and sit in the galleries and listen to the speeches, transcribe them and describe to him what happened. So she knew the Parliament building very well and it put her in a good position for lobbying and so on I think.

And it was very much petitioning and lobbying that were the kinds of things they got up to. The militant campaign for the votes is often so much in our minds that it's easy to forget that in fact the peaceful, constitutional campaign for votes for women went on right throughout, alongside all the suffrage militancy, and it was a far bigger movement in terms of membership.

There were far more women who were members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies than there were of the more militant groups. And they did continue throughout - petitioning parliament and other people, lobbying and organising enormous marches. So we shouldn't forget that.

These women were called Suffragists.

This is an example of a piece of memorabilia from the suffragists’ wing - this is a pin-badge and although it might look quite large on the screen it is very small indeed - 2.5 cm it says there. This is a NUWSS badge and you can see there the front and the back. You might be able to see the word ‘parliament’ on the back there - that's because they had their HQ very close to here - in Great Smith St - very handy for lobbying and so on.

The other thing you might want to know about this badge is the colours: now I think a lot of us associate the Suffragists campaign with Green and Purple and White, which were the colours of the WSPU - of which more anon. But this is actually in Red, Green and White. And we shouldn't forget that all the suffrage societies, and there were many, had their own colours and colour schemes. But the NUWSS started with just Red and White and added Green later on.

There were of course all kinds of other suffrage bodies from the various regions and various professions, and they all had their own colour schemes and their own banners so we shouldn't assume it was all just Green and Purple and White.

The Women's Social and Political Union was founded in 1903 by Emmeline Pankhurst along with her daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia. And she and another group of women had become frustrated at this point by the lack of progress - and I've told you about the lack of progress all through the 19th Century.

The WSPU from 1905 adopted a more militant tone: violence, including campaigns against people and property - and this escalated as the years went by.

A lot of their campaigns took place in Parliament and I'm going to talk to you about some of these now.

This is an illustration of the sort of scene that the Suffragettes were able to kick up in the Palace of Westminster. This is Central Lobby, which all of you will have walked through on your way here, and as you can see it's all chaos. There are women with banners on the left there - you'll notice that the women were all very well-dressed - they're mostly middle-class.

There were upper-class and working-class Suffragettes too but I think a lot of these women were middle-class women - very well-to-do, educated, articulate and so on.

I think it’s very interesting to see the police response to this. The police in those days didn't on the whole have to deal with middle-class women kicking up a rumpus in the Central Lobby in Westminster; the kind of women they expected to be manhandling - and as you can see there was manhandling going on - there's a policeman grasping a woman bodily there - they expected to be dealing with prostitutes and thieves and so on out in the streets whom they would have manhandled.

And I think it's very interesting that they have to respond in this way once the Suffragettes bring their campaign right into the heart of Parliament.

Dwelling on the police, because we know a little bit about the police in the building here: here’s an illustration: it's a very atmospheric late 19th Century picture of the police in the Palace. Responsible for security here in the House of Commons was the Serjeant at Arms but of course he relied upon the police to actually implement this.

These were the two men who were mainly in charge of security when the suffragettes were campaigning: on the left we have David Erskine who was the Serjeant at Arms in this period, and on the right, Chief Inspector Charles Scantlebury - I'm very pleased to be able to show you a picture of Charles Scantlebury as I literally only got permission to use this picture this morning as it’s privately owned.

So, Chief Inspector Charles Scantlebury was in charge of all those police you've seen there, manhandling the women and trying to bundle them out of the building. Then he had to write reports to the Serjeant at Arms about what had happened. The police reports are kept in the Parliamentary Archive and we've got more than 50 of them about policing the Suffragettes.

To give you an idea of what they look like, here are four pages, slightly overlapping, of just one police report.

This particular one is from the incident on 18 November 1910, which became known as Black Friday. If you look you might be able to see the date and the heading Suffragettes Deputation and at the bottom it’s signed by Inspector Scantlebury and also who it’s addressed to - the Serjeant at Arms, David Erskine.

I think it’s important to realise the nature of these police reports I'm going to be referring to: they are very much about what happened in the building; so they are official police reports in that they are written by a policeman on his official business, to the person in charge of security, but they're not supposed to be the last word on events here. So although this report covers the events of Black Friday it’s very much about what happened in the building.

Black Friday was a very notorious event where many women were assaulted physically and possibly sexually as well, in the melee outside of the Palace of Westminster. Hundreds of women were arrested and abused on the street and there are some very traumatic first-hand accounts of this.

There is very little of that in this police report which might be for a number of reasons but certainly one of them is that actually they weren’t interested in what happened outside, they were interested in what happened inside.

The first 3 pages of this are all about what happened in the building and it says that the Suffragette deputation arrived and you can see Mrs Pankhurst’s name right at the bottom of that first page.

Mrs Pankhurst led the deputation in and they asked to see people and they walked passed Mr Asquith in the corridor and they didn't notice each other... and this goes on for 3 pages before we finally get to the end here which is just to the effect that the deputation is not received and the very last line here says:

"All passed off quietly inside the building."

So that was the focus of these reports - that's what they were interested in - and that's what makes them different.

In terms of campaigning within the building, this is a very nice object from our collection: it's a medal that was worn by Emmeline Pankhurst. You can see here the Suffragette colours as we know them today: the Purple, White and Green. And this medal was awarded by the WSPU to women who were put in prison and it explains here the ‘H24’ is the Holloway Prison Hospital Block Second floor cell. And on the back it says ‘Mrs Pankhurst’.

The reason we have this medal in the collections here is because it was awarded to Emmeline after a rush on the Houses of Parliament in 1908. It was a very famous protest of the day and Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and Flora Drummond were arrested after the event for inciting violence because they'd been passing around paper bills and posters saying 'Join us to rush parliament on this day'.

So they were arrested; they stood trial. Christabel, daughter of Emmeline, conducted their defence. She was actually a trained lawyer but she couldn't practice because women couldn't practice as lawyers in those days: they could sit all the exams and pass them but they couldn't practice.

So Christabel conducted their defence in court and she took great pleasure in calling cabinet ministers who testified that, no, they hadn't felt threatened by events in the building. But anyway, the women were found guilty and refused to pay their fines - which was standard for Suffragettes in those days – and therefore sent to prison.

And why did she get a medal when she came out? The WSPU was very like an army - it saw itself in military terms and Emmeline Pankhurst ran it very much like a general in charge of an army and so they awarded medals to those who'd taken part in their campaigns.

I mentioned Christabel earlier. I just wanted to show you the other Pankhurst daughter: Sylvia Pankhurst, who was a trained artist. Although her work may well have been restricted by being a woman she was able to put her talents to good use by designing items like this - you can see the Suffragette WSPU colours there and the reason we have this item in our collections is because of the portcullis which is the symbol of Parliament - and I think it's great to see the brooches they were wearing which had the portcullis to symbolise parliament as the place they were trying to get into and influence.

We shouldn't forget that the WSPU wasn't the only Suffragette organisation - so I just want to say a few words about the Women’s Freedom League who also campaigned right here in this building.

The Women’s Freedom League formed after a split from the WSPU in 1907 by some people who disagreed with the Pankhursts and their methods, and it was led by, among other people, Charlotte Despard who you can see pictured here.

They were militant - in the sense that they were active and liked to get out there and do things - but they didn't go for violence against the person and property in the way that the WSPU did. Their tactics were more about non-cooperation and passive resistance - things like boycotting the Census would be a good example. More about that Census, anon.

The WFL sometimes get overlooked in all the information out there about the WSPU but they were responsible for one particularly famous and important incident in this building I'd like to tell you about. This banner you can see on the left is a Women’s Freedom League banner. This must be my favourite document in the Parliamentary Archives. We hold three million records in the Parliamentary Archives but if I had to name one this would be my favourite.

It's not as big as it appears on the screen - it's more like A2 size. It's a banner that was unfurled from the House of Commons Ladies’ Gallery in 1908. I need to explain a little bit about what that means.

The Ladies’ Gallery: if you wanted to come and watch a debate in those days you had to sit here, in the Ladies’ Gallery. When this palace was built after the Great Fire of 1834 they built in a separate gallery for the women to watch, separately from the men.

You might think this sounds a bit strange but in actual fact it was a great step forward because in the medieval palace there was nowhere for the women to sit at all. So the women who did want to watch proceedings in the House of Commons did so through a ventilation shaft right in the middle of the ceiling of the House of Commons Chamber, from where you couldn't have seen very much at all.

So to build a whole gallery was possibly a very progressive step at the time. But it was also deeply unpopular with the women.

If you see this picture of the House of Commons the chamber is not the same today as it was then because the Chamber was destroyed by bombing in the 2nd World War. But in broad terms you had the public gallery at one end and you can see the Speaker's chair and members on both sides.

The Ladies Gallery was up high - above the Speaker's chair - high up, so on the other side to where the main public gallery was, and it really was very high indeed. So you can see here the women leaning right forward to see - not only because they were so high but because of the grille covering the window.

You can see the windows there have a certain amount of general metalwork but there's also a heavy grille covering the piece of glass you might want to see through. That was deliberate - the grille covering the Ladies Gallery was put there in order to stop the MPs from seeing the women because it was thought that they might distract them.

I'm not joking - that is in fact the reason for it.

So the women had to watch from behind this grille and this was deeply unpopular because the grilles made the whole place very hot very stuffy - you couldn't see; it was difficult to hear. Millicent Fawcett writes that - after sitting in Ladies Gallery for hours on end - she said it was ‘a grand place to get headaches’, because you couldn't see properly through the grilles and it was ‘like wearing a giant pair of spectacles that weren’t aligned properly’.

So that was the conditions that women had to watch in. The grille therefore became both a physical and metaphorical symbol of women's exclusion from parliament. And that's why it was targeted by the Women's Freedom League.

Here's an illustration, with the police report on the left, from the incident that happened on the 28 October 1908: there were three Suffragettes from the WFL in the Ladies Gallery. Two of them, Helen Fox and Muriel Matters, whose names you can see on the left-hand side there, chained themselves to the grille and the third suffragette started shouting very loudly and dropped the banner I just showed you through the grille so it went into the Commons Chamber.

So if you can just think about what a furore this must have caused - even though the banner is not very big - in the House of Commons – in their little sealed box debating the business of the day - suddenly this thing appears through the window and is lowered into the Chamber and caused great disruption. We know it caused great disruption because Hansard, the record of parliamentary debates, stops here and it says:

'The Hansard reporter was unable to hear the rest of the speech by [N] because of a disruption in the Ladies Gallery.

So they did manage to disrupt the proceedings to that extent.

And the fact that they'd chained themselves to the grille caused a lot of disruption too. The parliamentary authorities could not immediately get the women off the grille so they took the whole grille out of the window and frog-marched the suffragettes out, still attached to the grille, and they hacked them off in a committee room. This is all detailed in the police report.
So it was indeed a great ‘event’ that evening.

There were three simultaneous demonstrations by Suffragettes that evening as well: one by women in St Stephen's Hall, which is where people wait to come into parliament, and there was another one by men in the Strangers Gallery - which I mention because it’s easy to forget that there were male Suffragettes - or at least male sympathisers of the Suffragettes - who were willing to be active as well.

That was increasingly important as women became barred from large parts of the building, as they were from 1907 onwards. It became progressively more difficult for women to come into parliament and sit in Central Lobby and make their way up to the Ladies’ Gallery because of events like this that the authorities couldn't stop.

And so to Emily Wilding Davison. Emily Wilding Davison was a member of the WSPU but she also acted independently which is partly why she's of so much interest. As probably everyone knows, she made her protest at the Derby 100 years ago yesterday on the 4th of June 1913, where she targeted the King's Horse, possibly trying to attach a scarf to the bridle - and was knocked unconscious and died 4 days later without ever regaining consciousness.

This is a memorial leaflet that we have in our Suffragette file in the archives. Her death made her into a Suffragette martyr and she had a great memorial parade through London and a great funeral in Morpeth in Northumberland where her family were from. And it was such a big event that we're still debating and talking about it today.

In parliamentary terms, though, we're interested in her because she targeted this building an awful lot - more than any other individual. She appears in the police reports over and over again here, to the point where she was even banned from the whole building.

These are just a few little extracts from some of the reports that mention her. And if you're thinking you'd really like to read them - I'm pleased to say that they're all on the Parliament website - not all the police reports but certainly all the reports about Emily are up there, so you should be able to find them easily. There's a link on the home page today - for the anniversary.

You might be able to pick out her name here and there - starting at the top left where there's scribbling in the margin - where it says 'Emily Davison' as the first name mentioned there and it's in the second line there and so forth. She crops up again and again.

So what kinds of things did she do here? She was initially arrested as part of a group pretending to present a petition - which is quite a mild thing to do - but she then throws a stone through a division lobby window and breaks it. She breaks windows in the Crown Office in the House of Lords; she hides in a ventilation shaft, which is something she writes about herself but it's also recorded in a police report here.

She talks about how thirsty she got - and how she had to creep out and search for water - and she goes back in again and gives praise to god that she found water. And she was found on a staircase near the Commons chamber in the middle of the night.

So there were all kinds of escapades going on here, and she was banned from this place in 1910. The document on the left there is from our Suffragette file and it's a letter from the Speaker. The Speaker was sent a resumee of all the incidents that had happened by the Serjeant at Arms.

And the Speaker wrote back to him:

"Dear Erskine,
A Lady who breaks the windows of the Crown Office, and gets into our ventilation shaft is evidently not a desirable personage to have hanging about in St Stephen's Hall. So her name better be put on to the Index Expurgatorius
Yours sincerely..."

The ‘Index Expurgatorius’ is a historical list of banned books and the idea is that she was being added to ‘black list’- which did exist - of people who had behaved so badly they were banned from the building.

But I have to say this did not stop her, because not only is there another report about an incident soon afterwards, the following year we have her most famous occasion where she hid in the building: when she hid in the chapel of St Mary, Undercroft - often called the Crypt Chapel - on Census night in 1911.

The Census was targeted by the Suffragettes in different ways in 1911. There have been a lot of studies recently into this by suffrage historians: many women's suffrage supporters did abide by the Census - they wanted their names to go down; they wanted to contribute to the bigger picture of the day as it was being recorded.

But other activists took quite a different attitude. They either defaced their census forms - writing on it: 'My Vote won't be counted' - that sort of thing - or they tried to evade the Census. There are lots of stories of Suffragettes hiding out in odd places - going ice-skating all night and so on - to avoid being counted by the Census takers.

Emily, though, took her own line as she so often did and she decided that she would hide in the Houses of Parliament overnight so that she would have a form afterwards that said she was resident in the House of Commons on Census night. And that was her way of making a protest.

And she did succeed - we were very happy to discover, when the Census forms were released a few years ago, they showed she did succeed. The document on the left there says:

‘Miss E.W. Davison - found hiding in crypt at Westminster Hall since Saturday’.

And her form was signed by the Clerk of Works at the Houses of Parliament.

She was also counted at her lodgings by her Landlady who duly filled out her form for her, so, far from evading it, she was actually counted twice.

People are very interested in the Crypt Chapel broom cupboard. It's one of those places it’s not easy to visit even if you work here all the time, but it is on the virtual tour.

So if you're interested and you want to see it, have a look on the website at the virtual tour and find the one with the Chapel in it and you can see 360 degrees around the Crypt Chapel and you can see the broom cupboard and what it looks like inside. It's very small - there's pretty much room for one person to just about get in and close the door behind you.

This plate is on the inside of the door - it was placed on the back of the cupboard door by Tony Benn MP - you can see on the bottom there - to explain the significance of the cupboard. He didn't ask permission before he put it there - he just went down there with a drill and then went and talked about it in the House of Commons – a good way to get things done sometimes.

I think the fact that it was a broom cupboard is a little misleading, because back in the day, in 1911, this cupboard was actually known as ‘Guy Fawkes' cupboard’, which is completely historically inaccurate because it was not Guy Fawkes' cupboard: he tried to blow up parliament by planting dynamite under the House of Lords which was completely the other end of the building - and the cupboard did not exist in Guy Fawkes' Day as that was the old palace.

But back in 1911, this cupboard was known as ‘Guy Fawkes' cupboard’ and MPs used to come and show their visitors down there and apparently there was some writing on the wall that said: “Guy Fawkes Woz ‘Ere”, or something.

I mention this because it’s not that she slipped into a broom cupboard just because it was in an unobtrusive part of building - on the contrary. She picked a parliamentary location that was quite significant at the time.

At one point, apparently, an MP opened the door to show a group and failed to see her. She was discovered the next morning by a cleaner and handed over to the police. Her census form was recorded and they let her go.

One thing that affected Emily, and a lot of other Suffragettes, was forced-feeding. This was also very important in terms of the Parliamentary story.

Suffragettes went on hunger strike as part of their protest. This was because they refused to pay fines and so went to prison and they wanted to be treated as ‘political prisoners’ and get certain privileges that political prisoners would have had.

Because they were refused this, in 1909, one Suffragette called Marion Wallace Dunlop decided she would go on hunger-strike.

Marion Wallace Dunlop, I should say, also had some history of protest in this building: she once famously stamped an extract from the Bill of Rights on the wall in St Stephen's Hall in 1909. We don't actually know where - we've been along scrutinising the wall but we can't actually make out the place. But as a result of that she went to prison and she went on hunger-strike and was released after a certain number of hours’ hunger-striking.

This tactic was then adopted by the WSPU and a wide range of Suffragettes. Initially, the authorities let them go, but then eventually they decided they couldn't just let them go and so they adopted forcible feeding.

Now forcible feeding is highly unpleasant - you see it satirised in this leaflet here - which we have because it was thrown, along with a whole bundle, but only this one survives - thrown into the commons chamber from the Strangers’ Gallery in 1913 by people protesting against it then
.
But the best way to describe forced feeding is to use Emily's own words. This is how Emily Wilding Davison wrote about it:

She was in Manchester prison at the time and in the evening, the matron, two doctors and five or six wardresses entered her cell. The senior doctor examined her and then said: “I am going to feed you by force.” Emily protested that for such an operation to be performed against her will was illegal. The doctor's only reply was that it was no concern of his. Grasped by the wardresses she was forced down on the bed while the senior doctor, seizing her by the hair, forced her head down violently on the pillow.

If we just stop there and think about that I think that's fairly severe even at that point - but here we have her own words:

"The scene which followed”, said Emily, when speaking of it afterwards, “will haunt me with its horror all my life. It was almost indescribable - while they held me flat, the elder doctor tried all round my mouth with a steel gag to find an opening. On the right side of my mouth two teeth are missing - this gap he found and pushed in the horrid instrument, prising open my mouth to its widest extent. Then a wardress poured liquid down my throat out of a tin enamel cup. What it was I could not say but it was some medicament that was foul to the last degree. As I would not swallow the stuff, and ejected it out with my tongue, the doctor gripped my nose and somehow gripped my tongue with the gag. The torture was barbaric."

And that didn't just happen once - it happened over and over again, to many Suffragettes some hundreds of times.

So whatever you make of their tactics I don't think there are many people that could listen to contemporary accounts - and it's not just Emily that describes it - we have contemporary accounts by Sylvia Pankhurst who underwent it and other women who even left oral history recordings that you really can hear talk about it - I don't think anyone who hears them talk about it could doubt that it is torture.

Not only incredibly unpleasant of itself but it would have been - the kind of tube they put down you was a rubber tube with a funnel in it - not some kind of modern hygienic thing. And they put down a mixture of bread and milk, so lumps of bread soaked in milk and stuffed it down and quite often the women were force- fed through the nose and not through the mouth because they found it easier to do that.

And just think about that happening 3 times a day - and in the meantime you're in your cell waiting for it to happen the next time. I think it really is horrific.

There were MPs willing to stand up in the House of Commons and say that this was torture - this was outrageous. Among the MPs who protested against it were Kier Hardie the Labour leader and George Lansbury, also a Labour MP. George Lansbury felt so strongly about this that he resigned his parliamentary seat and fought the whole by-election on this issue.

Unfortunately he lost. But it shows you how strongly that he felt about it.

And such was the strength of feeling on this that the Government adopted a new tactic. This was an Act of Parliament that was passed in1913, most famously known as the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

Its full title is the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act. Now the way that this worked is that women would be imprisoned, they would go on hunger strike and after a while when they got so weak that their health was in danger they would be released. They would go away and when they'd started eating again and their health had recovered a bit they would be re-arrested.

And this whole thing would happen again and again and again. Now, although this may sound a bit more humane than forcibly feeding somebody, it is in fact a different kind of torture, in that women would become weak over and over again and the constant rounds of being released and rearrested was in itself damaging to health.

And what might have started off as a very short prison sentence might in fact go on forever, almost indefinitely, while this cycle carried on.
So the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was very much hated and criticised.

It was called the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ because it was like a cat, playing with a mouse – letting it go, only to catch it again and play with it.

So that was the situation on the eve of the First World War. And then the First World War intervened. Then, right at the end of it, some women got given the vote.

It would be too simplistic to say that women got the vote as a reward for their work in the war – this is quite often said and it's not exactly incorrect but it is too glib. Because many of the women who did most of the work in the war effort were young women who worked in munitions factories - or who filled in for men in other professions – they did not get the vote. Because they were under the age of 30 - and this Act, passed in 1918, only gave the vote to women over the age of 30.

But of course it is true that the war was the impetus for this, it was just the impetus in a slightly different way. The reason they needed another electoral reform act at this stage was not to give women the vote - it was to give all men the vote. Because of the soldiers who'd fought abroad and been killed in their millions, it was thought that the returning soldiers all absolutely had to have the vote. As I mentioned earlier, not all men had the vote before the First World War - about 60 per cent. So they had to enfranchise the other 40 per cent.

In particular, they had to give the vote to soldiers even if they were under the age of 21, because they had gone out and risked their lives and as they were coming back they should not be disqualified by residency or property qualifications that might disqualify them. So there needed to be an electoral reform act.

And the women’s suffrage societies had not gone away. They had mostly stopped campaigning - Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU immediately stopped militancy and started campaigning for the war effort. Emmeline encouraged women to work in the munitions factories. Sylvia was a little different because she was a pacifist and she opposed the war, so she went on a different path to her mother and sister at this point.

Most other women's suffrage societies stopped active campaigning but, as I say, they didn't go away - they were there behind the scenes, lobbying. People like Millicent Fawcett, supporting the war effort but saying - actually we do want the vote still, And so in 1916 when discussions seriously began about giving more men the vote, the women were right there saying: “We would like the vote”.

So eventually what happened is that - you can see from this extract from the Act -

"A woman may be entitled to be registered as a parliamentary elector if she has attained the age of 30 and meets certain property qualifications"

- which are set out there. That's often forgotten, so it did mean a fair few women over the age of 30 also didn't qualify. So this was by no means all women.

Nevertheless it was the best that could be achieved at the time. If you think – “Why 30? - that seems rather arbitrary” – yes, it was rather arbitrary. They picked the age of 30 because that stopped women becoming a majority of the electorate. So many men had been killed in the war that if they'd given women the vote on the same terms as the men, women would have outnumbered the men by quite a lot.

This was thought ‘not acceptable’ because back then they didn't know how women would vote - they thought women might only vote for other women. They thought they'd get a parliament full of women. And we know now of course that this is not true - but they didn't know that at the time and they were trying to be cautious. So this was the best that could be done at the time and it was a big step forward.

And from the following year women are directly represented.

The first woman to be elected was elected in the General Election in 1918. That was Constance Markiewicz, who was elected for a constituency in Dublin. But because she was a member of Sinn Fein she never took her seat. In fact she was in prison when she was elected.

So we had to wait another year for the first women MP in the Commons and this was Nancy Astor. Nancy Astor was in many ways the most unlikely first women MP. She wasn't a suffrage campaigner. She didn't have a record of campaigning on women’s equality or anything like that. She was American, and she was a divorcee, and the reason she became the first woman MP is because her husband was the MP for Plymouth Sutton and he had to stand down in 1919 when his father died and he was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Astor.

The Astors were very big in Plymouth Sutton and it was thought that his wife would stand a good chance if she stood in his place - and she did.

But whatever you make of that round- about way of entering Parliament, there's no denying that once she was here - once she was in this building, encountering all sorts of obstructions and obstacles by men who did not want her here - she campaigned wholeheartedly for women's causes from 1919 through ‘til 1945 when she finally stood down.

She had unbroken service so she was here for a good few years. If you read the parliamentary debates she's always speaking on bills that affected women and children and also temperance, which was her pet cause.

She was joined by other women in 1920 but only very small numbers. The first Liberal MP was Margaret Wintringham, at a by-election in 1921, and then three Labour women elected in 1924 and so on.

The numbers are very small. But there was a raft of legislation passed throughout the 1920s on issues that affected women's lives and gender equality - including things like the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which allowed women to practice as lawyers, to enter professions like accountancy and become vets and so on for the first time. There were acts about things like pensions; there were acts allowing women to inherit property; there were acts about things like the age of consent and the sale of alcohol to young people. The list goes on and on.

And none of this kind of thing was passed before the First World War and you've got to think it's because women are part of the electorate now and the male MPs had to sit up and take notice of their views as they hadn't before.

And as before there were sympathetic male MPs who played a very important role in getting these acts passed - Nancy Astor and the other women MPs were just too small in number to do it all themselves.
The big piece of legislation that sort of completes the suffrage story ten years after the first Act - was the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

Now the House of Commons actually voted in favour of equal franchise - women being given the vote on the same terms as men - in 1919, but it was not a Government priority. If that sounds a bit mean, remember what it was like, immediately after the First World War: enormous economic problems, returning soldiers, unemployment, problems in Ireland, problems just negotiating the settlement at the end of the First World War. There were an awful lot of things the Government were worried about and giving women equal votes just a year later was not going to happen.

But it went on and on throughout the 1920's: private members bills, debates, votes in favour and so on. Finally, in 1928, we get to a position where they were able to pass equal franchise. It was passed by a Conservative government: the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, was very committed and he had a sympathetic Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks. And if it wasn't for William Joynson-Hicks it might never have happened because the rest of the Conservative Cabinet were very hostile.

Winston Churchill in particular - he was Chancellor of the Exchequer and opposed it right to the end. The Cabinet minutes which are in the National Archives at Kew - include the record that the Cabinet had agreed on equal franchise, and then there's a note saying the Chancellor of the Exchequer wished it to be placed on record that he disagreed with this and he thought it would be the end of the Conservative Party - so there you go. He was wrong there too.

So women's suffrage organisations had not gone away but reformed to become organisations of a different nature. So, the NUWSS became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and they campaigned, not just on equal franchise, but on other issues that I've mentioned already - some of which became the subject of legislation in these years.

In the run-up to 1928 it became clear that equal franchise was on the agenda and they started some of the old protests and marching, but none of the old militancy - that had stopped with the war.

And that's almost the end of my story. But I've got a postscript for you which is that Parliament is not just about the House of Commons. Parliament is also the House of Lords. And we know an enormous amount about women's struggle to get into the House of Commons but I rarely hear people talk about how women got into the House of Lords. Does anyone here actually know?

Women finally got into the House of Lords in 1958 which is within many people's living memory. I find people are often quite horrified to learn this.

But there is a back story, in which the lady you can see pictured here was a big test case.

This lady is Viscountess Rhondda  - and Viscountess Rhondda was a suffragette in her youth. She was a militant and was imprisoned for setting fire to a post box. It was almost 100 years ago today because there was a commemoration recently in Newport, in Wales, where it happened, and they dressed the post box up in Suffragette colours - so it's still remembered.

Her father was a minister in Lloyd George's wartime Government and was awarded a peerage. He was very much involved with his daughter. He didn't have sons - just a daughter, Margaret. He involved her very much in his work - he was a businessman, owning coal mines and other businesses in Wales, and was fully involved with Margaret.

In the war they were on the RMS Lusitania when it got sank. They were rescued - he was rescued and Margaret spent hours clinging to a bit of wood in the water before she was rescued. And she later wrote that this was character-forming: that after all those hours in the water she realised she could do anything.

Her father became Viscount Thomas, and because he didn't have any sons, a special remainder was made allowing for his peerage title to pass on to his daughter. So, on his death she became Viscountess Rhondda in 1918.

Now, if she'd been a man she'd have just taken his seat in the House of Lords, but because she was a woman she couldn't do so. But, being Lady Rhondda, she petitioned the House of Lords to be able to take her father's seat.  She brought her case before the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and initially she won.

So there was a short period in the Lords where it looked like we were going to get a women in the House of Lords as early as 1921-22 - she gets letters of congratulation saying: “Well done on getting your seat in the House of Lords”, and the newspapers were saying: 'A lady in the Lords' and so on.

But unfortunately the Lord Chancellor of the day, Lord Birkenhead, was very ‘anti’ all this and as soon as he heard about it he reconvened the committee and packed it with his supporters. They heard the case again and this time they found against her.

She was a great egalitarian-feminist anyway. She founded the Six Point Group which was a very important feminist group between the wars. She continued to run her father's businesses; she became the only – up to then - women's director at the Institute of Businesses, and generally went on campaigning right to the end. She founded the journal called Time and Tide as well, which she's also very well known for.

But she didn’t quite live long enough to take her seat in the House of Lords and, rather as with women getting the vote, it was from the need to do something about the men that the women managed to benefit.

By 1958 the House of Lords was very moribund; there were a very small number of working peers because it was almost exclusively an hereditary body apart from the Bishops and the Law Lords and there just weren't enough hereditary peers willing to turn up and do the work.

Particularly, Labour politicians were not willing to take hereditary peerages as they disagreed with the peerage system so this meant that all the work of the Opposition in the Lords was being done by about three men and this was just untenable - they couldn't carry on like that.

So the way they chose to reform it was they passed the Life Peerages Act - which you can see here - in 1958, which allowed peers to be appointed for the first time. And this led to the situation we have today where we have only a small number of hereditary peers and most peers sitting in the House of Lords will have been appointed under the Life Peerages Act: and hopefully, given their peerages in recognition of their experiences, their skills and their talent and the knowledge that they can bring to the House of Lords.

By 1958 there was really no reason why women shouldn't be included so women were included. Four women were awarded peerages in 1958 and took their seats in the House of Lords. The first to be appointed was Barbara Wootton who was a noted criminologist at the time, and women have continued to be added to ever since. Lady Rhondda died in 1958 - so sadly, just a little too early. I think she saw the passage of the Act but she didn't live quite long enough to see the first women take their seats in the House of Lords that autumn.

 It wasn't quite full equality of course, because she was a hereditary peer and would have had to be appointed separately as a Life Peer anyway. Hereditary women peers could not take their seats in the House of Lords until 1963, which is when we finally get to full equality in Parliament - and 1963 is I think in even more people’s living memories.

Finally, hereditary women peers – of course there were only a small number of them - but the first one did take her seat there in 1963. She'd held her peerage since the 1920s - so she'd been hanging on all that time and finally she got there.

And that is the end of my story - I hope you've enjoyed it.

[ENDS]

Image: Parliamentary Art Collection Reference Collection

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