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.


Kitty Marion: Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman

Today marks the centenary of what is, for the feminist movement, a similar event to ‘the shot heard around the world’. On June 4 1913, Emily Wilding Davison, long term campaigner for women’s rights in England, stepped in front of the King’s horse and tried to attach a purple, green and white banner, emblazoned with ‘Votes for Women’ to the King’s Horse at the Epsom Derby. She died 4 days later from her injuries after the horses trampled her as they rounded the corner, and the horrifying tangle mess of human and animal was caught on the early news cameras and repeated across the country and around the world.

Kitty Marion

Kitty Marion

Another militant suffragette called Emily the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’, a women who had given up her own life in the fight for recognition that the society that they lived in did not accurately reflect or represent half of it’s members. But I don’t want to talk about Davison – she is well remembered by history and a figurehead of the Suffragette movement. I want to talk about a life that has been hidden from our historical memory, equally as important, and equally as significant in the fight for women’s rights.

Kitty Marion was a music hall star and militant suffragette. She endured 242 force-feedings to Davison’s 49, multiple imprisonments – and subsequent releases under the Cat and Mouse Act – and was responsible for a host of arson attacks, including the destruction of the MP Arthur Du Cros’s St Leonard’s home (which British Pathé has some great footage of ), window breaking, and other destructive activities, one of which I believe was the laying of a pipe bomb that destroyed Alexandra Park’s cactus house in Manchester in November, 1913. You can hear me talk more about that attack, and Kitty, on BBC Radio 3’s NightWaves with Dr Matthew Sweet as part of my New Generation Thinker’s work – although I have to confess I’m not quite a Dr. yet!

Kitty Marion had seen Emily only a few days before Epsom, they had discussed the fact that a protest ‘must be made’ but Kitty believed no specific action had been decided. What she did remember was Emily passing her a small green purse of money to use to buy ‘munitions’ and whatever she might else she might need to continue her destructive activities at the behest of the W.S.P.U. On hearing of Emily’s death on the 8th of June, Kitty and another militant Suffragette, Clara Givens, travelled to west London and waited for night to fall.

In the early hours of the morning they dragged a large carpetbag filled with paraffin-soaked wood chips through the streets of Kew, and down towards Hurst Park racecourse, near Hampton Court Palace. Reaching their destination at 2 a.m they decided that the racecourse’s bandstand was the best target, and set about scattering ‘Votes of Women’ leaflets around the area so that everyone would know who had been responsible.

‘We turned off the road at one end of the course, towards the river between which and the course was a cricket field with a tool shed near the ‘unclimbable fence’ as the Press called it later, where we had decided to climb over with a foot hold on the tool shed. How we got over and back again beggars description. We both regretted that there was no movie camera’s to immortalise the comedy of it.

We carried our “baggage” through the long grass, wet with dew, to the Grand Stand at the other end of the course…leading into a pavilion. We spread our munitions…and left a piece of candle burning which should have lasted at least an hour to give us time to get away before igniting its oil-soaked base.’

The fire started quicker than they had expected and the soon made they escape and began to head back to Kew. It’s possible that Kitty was already under surveillance by the police at this time, who new her as a violent and dangerous women, and had probably been expecting her to commit an act of violence in response to Emily’s death. She was quickly arrested at her lodging’s within hours of returning there and was soon jailed for three years as her guilt was unquestionable. Kitty’s was quickly released under the Cat and Mouse Act and spent the next two years dodging the police as she committed many other acts of suffragette violence, occasionally returning to prison, only to be released after force-feeding made her too ill to remain. She was, in my mind, Edwardian England’s Most Dangerous Woman, sent by the WPSU across the country to engage in, and instruct others in violence militant tactics.

To younger scholars, especially those who have grown up in a post IRA and 9/11 world, the language of terrorism is an easy one through which to understand political violence. The militant suffragette’s operated in small groups, often only pairs of women, funded in secret, and using tactics that were designed to intimidate and terrorize the members of their society, who they saw as responsible for the sexual inequality and degradation of women. There has always been huge debate about whether the term ‘terrorist’ should be applied to the suffragettes – even though that is how they were seen in their own time. Personally, I think we need to look far more closely at these violent women, and the actions they committed to fully understand the depths of subjugation and inequality that existed for women in the pre-1919 world.

This week I’m going blog on a couple of ideas around this theme of #violentwomen and #terroristsuffragette – come back and tell me what you think!

*Kitty forms the main case study of my PhD, and I’m lucky enough to have had the Society for Theatre Research fund a research trip over to America to see the hand annotated copy of her autobiography and letters which has been left in New York since she died. Totally going to blog about that too.