Terrorist and Suffragette: Talking about history is hard

I am a firm believer in presenting people with all the facts so that they can make up their own mind. Below, you can read C.J. Bearman’s article on suffragette militancy, on which much of the debate that I had with Kaitlyn in yesterday’s video was based.  It is important, however, to know that for resounding counter arguments to Bearman’s beliefs you should read any of the important work on female suffrage and women’s history by June Purvis.

One of the most exciting things about History as a discipline is the fact that it is a vibrant and confrontational place to inhabit. Anyone who thinks that it is just a load of people sitting around in dusty archives, coming to similar conclusions, is totally wrong. Unpicking the past, presenting as true an account as possible and defining what counts as ‘historical truth’ is never simple. Historians themselves rarely interpret sources in exactly the same way and this leads to passionate debate in journals, seminars and at conferences. Bearman and Purvis exemplify this, and as a PhD student, to see two academics really go for it is inspiring, whichever side of the debate you eventually come down on.

I can understand the parallels drawn between the actions of the suffragettes and the actions of terrorist groups who have also brought their campaign onto English soil.  Equally, I can understand that these parallels are unwelcome and upsetting to many who have experienced terror and lived through previous campaigns. To try and understand why Bearman has been defined as calling the suffragettes ‘terrorists’ I drew an analogy between their actions and the actions of the IRA.  This was, in hindsight, insensitive to those who lived through the campaigns of this group and are still deeply affected by its legacy. I am still learning to navigate my way in talking about history and I will make mistakes, for this I apologise.

But the facts remain; the suffragettes were a section of civil society, who, at one point in their campaign, used methods of intimidation and violence towards property and society to attempt to create a national crisis, so that the government would be forced to concede to their wishes.  They used the language of ‘war’, of ‘battle’, and of ‘surrender’ in their literature and memoirs. To ignore this, to deny the impact and ferocity of their actions at this point, 1912-1914, dismisses the fundamental causes of these methods, and the severe inequality and horrific social injustice that faced women in British society at this time.

Do I think the suffragettes deserve the title of ‘terrorists’? …I don’t know, certainly not for all of their campaign.  Does using that label for the period 1912-1914 immediately de-legitimatise the rest of the movement before and after it? Maybe, but to deny it happened, to ignore or pass over the extreme measures that the suffragettes were forced to take, does not seem honest to me. And isn’t that the sole purpose of History, to find the truth? What is the point in being a historian if you are not interested in finding out the facts, however difficult they maybe to accept.

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