Suffragette Outrages: The Terrorist Argument

Carrying on from early in the week and ‘Kitty Marion: Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman’ I want to talk a little bit more about the argument surrounding the militant suffragettes and terrorism. When people think of the militant suffragettes and violence, the most common image that springs to mind is one of broken windows and burnt post boxes. Few people expect the reality to include pipe bombs, suicide, and assassination attempts. It’s a thorny issue. Anyone who has spent anytime in a gender studies class, or read any of the feminist literature on the subject knows that the party line follows that you cannot, and must not, attach the language or social constructs of terrorism to the militant suffragette movement.

'Black Friday' 1910, 300 Suffragettes take a deputation to Parliament, and are met by an unknown number of armed policemen. Some reports the numbers to be in the thousands.

‘Black Friday’ 1910, 300 Suffragettes take a deputation to Parliament, and are met by an unknown number of armed policemen. Some report the numbers to be in the thousands.

Militant violence in it’s own time was condemned both by those within the wider suffragette movement and those outside of it, but modern feminists are often surprised to discover that the suffragettes were refereed to as terrorists by their contemporaries. For modern scholars, reattaching this construct runs the risk of accusations of patriarchy agency, and feminism bashing. It’s a serious flaw in the scholarship, and a prejudice that needs to be corrected.

So what do we mean by terrorism, and why can it be applied to the actions of the militant suffragettes? One of the main arguments against using ‘terrorism’ is that the Suffragettes did not kill anyone. This seems to be the fundamental issue for many feminists, but just because no-one died, doesn’t mean an act of terrorism hasn’t been committed.

The United Kingdoms 2000 Terrorism Act says this:

Evening Telegraph, February 21st, 1913,

Evening Telegraph, February 21st, 1913, A bomb had partially destroyed Lloyd George’s house, and had be claimed by the militants, in the Press and at public meetings. There had been a number of similar attacks on MP’s homes across the country.

(1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where:

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it:

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

So what is the Suffragette evidence of these actions? Reading Christabel’s words in The Evening Telegraph makes her message very clear, it is one designed to shock and intimidate the government, and those areas of society that did not allow her voice, and the voice of all women, to be heard. It was to advance the cause of the Suffrage movement, it involved the threat of serious violence, damage to property, and endangered lives. But as this is just one event, could it have been a one off? The answer to that is a categorical no.

You only have to look at the ‘Suffragette Outrages’ reported in the press to quickly see that the scale and scope of suffragette violence is far grander than scholars have ever seem to have realised, or admitted. But reliance on the press reports leaves us open to criticisms of being blinded by the ‘male gaze’, as the newspaper journalists were in the majority male, and writing for a male dominated audience. Some scholars would argue that the reports were just sensationalised, dramatized to sell more papers and paint the Suffragettes as hormonal, hysterical monsters. But the reports also exist in the Parliamentary Papers, which includes lists of the ‘incendiary devices’, explosions, artwork destruction, arson attacks, window-breaking, post box burning and telegraph cable breaking that occurred during the most militant years from 1910-1914.

I won’t deny that biased reporting would have been rife, both pro and anti suffrage, but you can’t change the facts of the case. A pipe bomb is still a pipe bomb, it doesn’t become less dangerous or less important just because it’s a woman who has set it. To continually deny the levels of suffrage violence, and the forms that it took, is, I feel, patronizing to the women whose power, passion, and political extremism so dominated the debates on women’s right’s before the First World War.

 

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13 thoughts on “Suffragette Outrages: The Terrorist Argument

  1. Excellent post. Well, I would say that because it is very much my view. I feel that, in a way, the extreme militant wing of the WSPU has been patronised by history – ie because it was women who were placing the bombs, setting the fires etc it was as though the effect would never be as dangerous as it would be if male ‘anarchists’ were to do so. Why not? I think we need to recognise that an act of arson committed by a woman can be as equally dangerous as that committed by a man. And, like you, I cannot agree with the special pleading from historians (feminist or otherwise) that absolves arsonists and bombers from being labelled ‘terrorists’ just because they were campaigning for the vote. Although such historians have said that the WSPU leaders made plain that no suffragette would ever cause harm, I note, coincidentally in a Kitty Marion piece that will go out on my blog tomorrow, it was only by very good luck that their actions did not cause injury. Moreover, we can see from the interview with Christabel Pankhurst (which, coincidentally, I quote in a guest post commissioned from me for the No 10 website on the bombing of Lloyd George’s house – to go live, I think, at the end of June) that she spoke quite candidly of the women’s right to employ the same weapons as men. It’s there in black and white!
    Elizabeth

  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Thank you for both reading and responding to this post – I’m thrilled!! And thank you, also, for referencing it on your own blog. I’m currently finishing an article on Kitty, which calls for a greater analysis of the suffragette violence, I’m hoping to submit it to journals soon and I was wondering if there is any chance you might be willing to have a look at it before I send it out? I think this area is one that needs serious analysis but has become regarded as a bit of a lion’s den, and I’d really appreciate you thoughts on what I’ve written so far.
    Best,
    Fern

  3. Hi Fern, I’m doing a series on Resonance FM about news, arts and media, called ‘The Wires’ which I’m interpreting very broadly. As a specialist in silent film I wanted to do something about newsreels – I wondered about the suffragettes and the representation of them in the news and other media of the time. Do you fancy coming on and talking about this … ? If you have the time and the schedule suits of course. Best X

    • Hi Jude, I’d love to have a chat about it!! the newsreels certainly covered some of the destruction the violence caused, as well as the marches and demonstrations. Please send me an email (fern.riddell@kcl.ac.uk), I’m currently finishing off my first book manuscript so September is out for me, but oct/november would be possible! best x

  4. Hi Fern – love your blog, it is so very interesting. Especially your research on Kitty Marion.

    You mention assassination attempts as one of the tactics employed by the militant suffragettes – “Few people expect the reality to include pipe bombs, suicide, and assassination attempts.”

    Do you know where I can find any further information on this specifically? I remember reading somewhere someone had written a death threat to the King too, but I can’t find the website again!

    Many thanks and keep up the great work!

      • Hi Helena,

        To start with there is a well documented case in the Home Office files, held at Kew, of a reported suffragette plot to shoot Asquith. As far as ‘no harm to humans’ goes, we have documented acid attacks, burns from phosphorus, as well as bombs and arson. If you’d like more details on specific attacks, please have a listen to my BBC Radio 3 documentary ‘Kitty Marion: Singer, Suffragette, Firestarter’ now available on iPlayer, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04n2zcp) and watch out for the new series of BBC Coast coming out next year where we recreate an explosion using the same materials as the suffragettes had at their disposal.

    • Hi Carly, lovely to hear and I’m so glad you are enjoying it! We have a number of assassination attempts/plots reported both by the press and the police from 1909 onwards. Most famously is a plot to shoot Asquith, who also had a hatchet thrown at him in a theatre in Ireland during an attempted arson attack by the Suffragettes. A magistrate claimed to have been pushed off a cliff by two suffragettes in Margate, and the risk to MP’s lives was so serious that plain clothes police officers provided protection for those members of the cabinet that were thought to be most at risk. For more info, check out the websites of the national archives at kew, the british library, and british newspaper online. Hope that helps!

  5. Fantastic article brilliantly written too much emphasis put on Pankhurst and the suffragettes as though they singlehandedly got the vote for Women. I believe this subtracts from very important figures such as Millicent Fawcett who through peaceful and political means really paved the way for feminism and the vote. The Suffragists are sadly overlooked a lot although I believe highly influential.

  6. “Reading Christabel’s words in The Evening Telegraph makes her message very clear, it is one designed to shock and intimidate the government, and those areas of society that did not allow her voice, and the voice of all women, to be heard.”

    My mother was born in 1917, and did not meet her father until she was two or three, as he was a serving soldier at the time. He returned from the war with shell shock, and then had his salary as a teacher cut in half by ‘The Geddes Axe’.

    Some 20 years ago I somehow got into a conversation about the suffragettes with my mum, expecting that she would be approving of what they did for women as a whole, and was greatly surprised to hear, that even as an old lady, my mother was deeply angry with them for what she saw as their lack of respect for men, and about the way the suffragettes conducted their campaign. I wish I had discussed it with her in greater detail, but I am certain in saying that many women of my mother’s generation and that of her parents, would have vehemently disputed that the suffragettes spoke for them, or that their voices were not heard.

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