The ladies are not for turning
THIS comes from a newspaper report of a Liberal addressing a crowd in South Shields during the 1868 General Election campaign. The speaker noted that the women ‘had retired to the background which in his opinion was very sensible… he was sure that 999 out of 1,000 ladies of this country had more sense than to interfere in political matters, which belonged to their fathers, husbands and brothers’. Hear hear, shouted the crowd.
Next year will be the centenary of votes for women. In 1868, women were not allowed to go to university, they had no vote in general or local elections and they couldn’t qualify as doctors. One woman, 22-year-old Philippa Fawcett, had to be placed ‘above the senior wrangler’ in 1890 when she took the annual Cambridge University mathematical tripos exam. Women were allowed to sit the exam, but their names were read out separately.
As Lady Phyllis Macrae famously said: ‘Why should I not have the vote? My butler votes.’
It seems that the actual vote was the last step in the suffragists’ battle. Women qualified for Scottish school boards in 1873 and, 19 years later, Scottish universities finally allowed women to study there. Suffrage came more than two decades after that.
However, in 1918, fighting to the last, politicians restricted women’s votes only to those over 30, graduates, householders or wives of householders. That was only 8.4 million women. It took another decade before all women over 21 qualified as electors.
Ever since I was allowed to vote—i think the age was then 18—I have made it a principle always to go to the voting booth. Twice, I despoiled my ballot paper because I couldn’t agree with any of the parties, but I still went to show I made the effort.
I felt—and still feel—that women should be grateful for the efforts made by the militant Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison, who was killed when she tried to stop George V’s horse in the Derby of 1913 in protest. She had previously been force-fed in prison 49 times when on hunger strike. And, of course, Dame Millicant Fawcett, leader of the non-violent suffragists. A statue of her will be placed outside the Palace of Westminster, the first woman to be so honoured.
It’s said now that, although Pankhurst is by far the best known of the suffragettes, Fawcett’s abhorrence of violence was more effective in the long run and that is why she will be up there and not Mrs Pankhurst.
It also seems a shame that Mr Pankhurst is now thought of as an also-ran. He was a Socialist, a republican and campaigned for Irish home rule and to abolish the House of Lords and helped set up the Independent Labour Party. As a barrister, he helped draft The Married Women’s Prop- erty Act of 1882. Before that, everything a married woman had belonged to her husband to the extent that when Fawcett was robbed of her bus fare, the charge sheet read ‘the property of Henry Fawcett’.
I must declare an interest here. Dame Millicent was Hew’s greatgreat-aunt as was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, two remarkable sisters, who grew up with their belligerent father, Newson Garrett, in Suffolk. Elizabeth became Aldeburgh’s first woman mayor. Philippa (above the senior wrangler) was Newson’s granddaughter. I find it hard to imagine the home life of this family— two feminists who became famous living with a father known for his sudden rages.
All this will go through my mind as I set off to vote tomorrow. I will not despoil my ballot paper, although voting in the Red Republic of Islington is hardly dicing with uncertainty. If it hadn’t been for the Pankhursts and Fawcetts, women would still be in the same position as lunatics and members of the House of Lords—voteless.
‘Why should I not have the vote? My butler votes