Suffragettes ‘should be pardoned’
A century after women won the right to vote, calls grow to clear the names of those who led the fight
SUFFRAGETTES who were jailed while fighting to win the vote for women should be pardoned for their crimes, campaigners say today on the 100th anniversary of their victory.
More than 1,000 women were arrested and many were imprisoned during the battle for equality, but today the Fawcett Society, as well as relatives of the suffragettes and senior Tory MPS, are calling on the Home Secretary to overturn their convictions.
Campaigners said the women’s sacrifices should not have made them criminals, and last night Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, which promotes gender equality, said: “Suffragette activism was for a noble cause and many of them became political prisoners. “It would be a fitting tribute to pardon them now. They made such sacrifices so that we could all enjoy the rights we have today. In any meaningful sense of the word, they were not criminals.”
The campaign was backed by Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Writing in The Daily Telegraph Ms Davidson says: “Voting was a value judgment, not an intrinsic right. That inequality is one of the reasons why I support calls by family members to offer a posthumous pardon to those suffragettes charged with righting that wrong.”
Today’s 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act will be marked across the country and is likely to reignite debates over gender pay equality and women’s representation in Parliament.
The 1918 Bill was the first to give women the vote, although only to those over the age of 30 who also owned land or a home. The equal right was not extended to all women until 1928.
Theresa May will today mark the centenary by thanking the heroic efforts of the women who won her the right to lead the country.
In a speech in Manchester, the Prime Minister will say: “Those who fought to establish their right – my right, every woman’s right – to vote in elections, to stand for office and to take their full and rightful place in public life did so in the face of fierce opposition.
“They persevered in spite of all danger and discouragement because they knew their cause was right.”
But she will also warn internet companies that they must do more to stop young people, especially women, from being put off from standing for Parliament because of the abuse they suffer, and will claim the problem is hampering democracy.
The anniversary of women’s right to vote comes amid concerns that there is a long way to go before female employees are treated fairly. In a letter published in The Telegraph today Jacob Rees Mogg, Maria Miller and other Conservative MPS put pressure on Mrs May to publish details on how many gay, ethnic minority and female candidates are selected to run as MPS.
Kate Barratt, the great-great-granddaughter of suffragette Alice Hawkins, said: “The suffragettes should be pardoned. They did engage in criminal acts, but the fact is that they were not being listened to through the proper
channels. They just weren’t afraid of doing whatever it took, even if that was outside the law, to achieve what they believed in – and we now know it was the right thing to do.” She added: “It just shows how desperate the situation was at the time. And desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Speaking about her great-greatgrandmother, Ms Barratt said Alice Hawkins was arrested five times, once for throwing a brick through a window, but pointed out that most of the suffragette’s crimes did not cause harm to others.
Calls for a pardon were first mounted in 2004 when more than 50 MPS – including the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – signed a petition.
The campaign came to nothing when David Blunkett, the home secretary at the time, said pardons should only be used when new evidence suggests the conviction was unsafe or if the crime had since ceased to exist.
The latter scenario was used to allow Alan Turing a pardon in 2013 after he was convicted of gross indecency for being gay.
The crime for which he was sentenced is no longer in existence. Campaigners argue that the context for what the suffragettes were doing and the unfair way they were treated should allow them the same treatment.
A recently colourised photograph of Annie Kenney, left, and Christabel Pankhurst, key members of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which was instrumental in winning voting rights for some women 100 years ago today