For a time, almost everywhere Winston Churchill spoke, a ‘Votes for Women’ banner was unfurled and heckles from female voices would fill the meeting hall. Their acts of civil disobedience were shocking, and they were arrested on flimsy grounds. Though the arrests garnered publicity and support for the women, there were no tangible gains.
Women’s Sunday Demonstration
The 19th century radical parliamentarian John Bright once remarked that Parliament never initiated reform; instead, it came when agitators filled the streets and demanded attention. Consequently, the Women’s Social and Political Union planned a large demonstration on June 21, 1908. It came in response to an announcement by the new prime minister, H.H. Asquith, that he would consider an electoral reform measure limited to men, but that Parliament would not take up a recently introduced women’s suffrage bill.
Some 250,000 people from around Britain converged in London’s Hyde Park as part of the ‘Women’s Sunday Demonstration’. It was the largest political rally the city had ever seen. But Asquith remained unmoved. So, suffragists and their supporters threw bricks through windows, and they chained themselves to fences and railings and delivered impassioned speeches to passersby, before police could drag them away.
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A ‘Civil War for Women’
In October 1908, Emmeline Pankhurst, male suffragist Dr. Richard Pankhurst’s widow, called on supporters and sympathizers to “rush the House of Commons”. Police arrested her, Christabel Pankhurst (her daughter), and Flora Drummond before they could execute the plan. But even then, as many as 60,000 people marched on Parliament. And whenever the police dispelled one group of protesters, another took its place.
The suffragists conceived of their efforts like a military battle. They were militants waging war on behalf of a just cause. Emmeline Pankhurst described herself as a soldier in a ‘civil war for women’. No niceties or compromises were possible. As she put it, “Either women are to be killed or women are to have the vote.” Angry groups hurled insults and sometimes fists—and projectiles—at the women.
The Labour parliamentarian Keir Hardie challenged Home Secretary Winston Churchill to explain the injuries caused to suffrage demonstrators by police and by well-dressed men in top hats. He said the men rushed at the protestors while the police did nothing to intervene.
Incarcerations of Female Suffragists
Meanwhile, the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union who were detained faced the choice of paying a hefty fine or being imprisoned for up to three months. While many could afford to pay the fine, the women typically chose prison, nevertheless. Nearly 1,000 British female suffragists were incarcerated between 1905 and 1914, and they served as inspiration for those who remained outside prison walls. Furthermore, when their prison terms ended, their releases became occasions for celebration and new waves of publicity.
Hundreds of people convened for Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s release from Holloway jail in April 1909. They escorted her in a spectacular procession from Hyde Park to the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End. One suffragette, Elsie Howey, led the procession dressed as Joan of Arc riding a white horse, adding drama and pageantry to the occasion.
Hunger Strikes by Women Prisoners
In July 1909, a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union named Marion Wallace-Dunlop went on a hunger strike in Holloway Prison. She was serving term for what can only be considered a political crime. On a wall in Parliament, she’d penned an excerpt from England’s 1689 Bill of Rights reading, “It is the right of the subject to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” In spite of her obvious political motivation, she was classified as a common criminal.
By now, authorities were reinterpreting their application of the law to make things much harder on women protesters. Before 1908—when the flow of arrested suffragists had been merely a trickle—Britain’s Home Office designated the women as first-division prisoners, meaning they were considered political prisoners. First division prisoners were allowed to wear their own clothes, receive food parcels from friends, and have regular visitors. But as the women’s campaign became more militant, the government designated them as second division offenders. This meant the women lost contact with the outside world and the opportunities to wear their own clothes. They were also locked up in separate cells.
Authorities released Wallace Dunlop on the fourth day of her hunger strike, so fearful were they that she would die from starvation and make a bad public relations spectacle even worse. When other incarcerated suffragists followed her example and refused food, the government initially released them, as well. But then, Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone ordered prison doctors to force-feed the women. This gave suffragists a dangerous, new political weapon.
Martyrs for a Cause
The brutal nature of force-feeding allowed the women to depict hunger-strikers as victims of conscience and as martyrs for a cause. Multiple prison staffers would physically restrain a hunger striker, while a doctor forced a rubber tube up the woman’s nose and down into her stomach or pried open her teeth. Then, a mix of eggs or milk would be poured down her throat. The process sometimes was accomplished at the cost of broken teeth and near-asphyxiation; and prisoners were subject to such feedings twice a day.
The number of women subjected to this treatment was significant. Between the fall of 1909 and 1913, archival documents show that between 2,000 and 3,000 “women and some men of all classes have incurred imprisonment as a protest against the refusal of successive Governments to enfranchise the women of” Britain.
Common Questions about the Women’s Suffrage Movement
‘Women’s Sunday Demonstration’ was the largest political rally London had ever seen. It came in response to an announcement by the new prime minister, H.H. Asquith, that he would consider an electoral reform measure limited to men but that Parliament would not take up a recently introduced women’s suffrage bill.
Nearly 1,000 British female suffragists were incarcerated between 1905 and 1914.
As second division offenders, the women lost contact with the outside world and the opportunities to wear their own clothes. They were also locked up in separate cells.