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.