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.


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.