THE PRISONERS' BANQUET by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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THE PRISONERS' BANQUET *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Mrs. Fawcett, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I am called upon to propose a toast that needs little commending here. I think we all realise that the publicly expressed sympathy of a representative gathering, such as this, is a fact of no small significance.
But an even more wonderful thing is true. There is now a large company outside these walls who say when the question of Woman Suffage is broached: "I am in favour." We have it on the authority of the late Prime Minister that four hundred and twenty Members of Parliament stand committed to this Cause.
We are told that the gracious-sounding phrase "I am in favour" is on the lips even of Cabinet Ministers.
There is something almost monotonous about the unanimity with which the eminent are in favour of this measure.
We do hear that legislators still betray a disposition to be dumb, in public, before the question, yet even they (the great majority of them), if speak they must, feel constrained to proclaim their favour.
* Speech delivered at the Savoy Hotel, Dec. 11, 1906.
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The strange thing is that so much favour should be so ineffectual. I hope fair-minded men will remember that, when they criticise "methods."
They are not to forget that their "favour" left the question where it was.
It is rather as if you were told: "Oh, yes, you women may cultivate your gardens. But you mustn't use spades. They are too heavy for your delicate hands. And they are dirty--spades are! Besides, spades are for men!" That was settled as long ago as the days when Adam delved and Eve span. I don't doubt but Adam thought, as the remnant of the unelightened do still, that it would be dangerous to discuss public affairs with a woman.
To allow her to contract the unfeminine habit of expressing her opinions, would be to teach her that she shared the most effectual weapon in all man's armoury. For no one denies the Power of the Word. I saw a fresh exemplification of that power the other day at Huddersfield. I saw politicians and worthy burgesses stopping in the streets certain ladies who are here to-night; I heard men, young and old and middle-aged, arguing and remonstrating! Not because women believed this or that, but because they were saying they believed these things--and saying so, most reprehensibly, where everybody could hear.
This attitude on the part of men is, I gather, not peculiar to Huddersfield. Before there was a Huddersfield, from the earliest times, after men had sub-
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dued woman's wilfulness, taught her back bending, taught her feet to run at their bidding and her hands to fetch and carry--when every other member had been brought under control men still had dark misgivings about woman's tongue. So they praised silence, and they heaped scorn on the talking woman. To this day when they lament that now and then she so far forgets the lesson of the ages as to use her tongue in private, men shake their heads and remind one another that the end of the world would come if once she were allowed to talk in the Council House.
No one knew this better than the women who did the talking on October 23rd. 1It was their way of announcing the end of the world--the end of the world as it had been. You all know how they paid the price in that grim place, His Majesty's Prison at Holloway. When we think of what they went through there, when we think of what they have suffered from the tongues and pens of people safe outside--oh, very safe, indeed, from ever running a risk for conscience sake! safe from daring to do anything unpopular; impregnably safe from any temptation to cast in their lot with the weak and the "unrepresented"--when we think of these things to-night, we are proud of the type of woman the suffrage cause has forced to the front. And in the Woman's Cause what aspect more important than this?--that they should be women capable of taking "the long view," able to realise that it may be
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necessary for the achievement of a higher, better order than a temporary disorder should stir the sluggishness of the world. History tells us that is the spirit in which fundamental political Reform is born. In defence of Mr. Chamberlain's threat in 1884 to march 100,000 men from Birmingham to London in support of the Franchise Bill--Mr. Gladstone put his views on record in these terms: "I am sorry to say that if no instructions had ever been addressed in political crises to the people of this country except to hate violence and love order and exercise patience, the liberties of this country would never have been attained."
Now the lesson conveyed in these words is a lesson learned more readily by men than by women. We, you know, are the law-abiding section of the community.
In those parts of the world where women are enfranchised, they go on obeying the old laws until by constitutional means they can get them bettered.
We have present, I see, a recent visitor to the Isle of Man, who was shown among other public institutions, a prison and the excellent accommodation for fifty men and nine women. "Where do you put the other women-prisoners?" asked the traveller. "Oh, we never have more than nine," was the answer. As against fifty of the opposite sex! Yet the Isle of Man is a sort of Isle of Woman, since, as you know, women have votes there. But whatever evil effect their voting may entail, it does not
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make law-breakers of our sex. Perhaps the greater proportion of men-criminals is due to some defect in the education of men. We remember the answer given by a rural teacher to the question, "Whether proper attention was being paid to the morals of the boys under his care?" "Oh," he said, "we don't teach morals here. That belongs to the girls' department."
It is out of that department that this new influence has come. Already it has wrought so powerfully that fewer and ever fewer are found willing to say--in public--that women should be asked to do their work in the world's garden without the essential spade.
No one denies that the parliamentary vote is the working man's best tool. The other day a letter was published in "The Times," on the subject of industrial conditions in New Zealand. That letter told us, "the ballot-box is the only social weapon."
Those persons who would persuade us that this fact has no application to our sex, must count on our not knowing that 82 per cent. of the women of this country are wage-earning women. They must count on our not knowing that since the extension of the male franchise the wages of men have gone up, and the wages of women have gone down. They must count on our not knowing that since the extension of the male franchise the wages of men have gone up, and the wages of women have gone down. They must count on our not knowing that the average wage for working woman is 7s. 6d. a week; while the average wage of the working man is a pound.
To the honour of our sex these facts have only
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had to be known to the better-off women in order to inspire many of them with a sense of responsibility towards their less fortunate sisters. Women are at last learning to look to women for help.
While we gratefully acknowledge the support of many good men, we owe to our opponents a great and valuable discovery, and that is: the education as well as the power that comes of women's working to-gether. I will admit that I think it is a better and a more civilised combination when men and women labour together for the same ends. But that ultimate co-operation will come the more easily and more honourably, after we have learnt how strong we are when women support women.
We see every day now the thing that we were told would never happen. We see women of different education, different fortunes and associations all pulling together, all working with enthusiasm for a common end. The first thing that struck me about the first person I came to know in the Women's Social and Political Union was, her faith in her co-workers and her hearty admiration of them. Women have looked at the world so long through the eyes of men, that they must bear with us for a little space (till the re-adjustment comes) while we look at affairs from what is called the woman's point of view.
For instance, we agree that a voice soft and low is an excellent thing in its place. But if you are being robbed, or if you are drowning and you say "help,"
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who is to blame if nobody notices? If her child is perishing in a burning house, the woman who stops to consider what the man in the street will think of the timbre of her voice, is a poor creature and a guilty mother.
I may say, in conclusion, that while it seems obvious that women will presently obtain the right to vote "upon the same terms" (as the phrase goes) "as that right is or is to be enjoyed by men," I am far from sure (though here I speak for myself alone), I am far from sure that the "right" will be much "enjoyed" by the women who are called on to pay the heaviest price for it. It is an argument for haste that should the Suffrage be granted to-morrow, the world may still have to wait for the generation that is to grow up in the exercise of public duty, before women can take the personal satisfaction in in that so many men do. I should like to emphasise this as my last word, since the issue is overlaid with cheap charges of notoriety-hunting and of hysteria.
Many of us believe self-control to be the highest expression of civilisation. But we also believe that nothing less than a sense of duty and a resolute self-mastery could bring women of the character of those who have done most for this Cause to face the misunderstanding, the hideous discomforts, and the lasting hurt to health that they have been called to bear. Every fair-minded person must realise it is very hard for women to face these things. It was
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George Eliot, I believe, who spoke with envy of those who could lead what she called "the sheltered life." When woman as a sex considers her own dignity and satisfaction alone, it is the shelter that she chooses. I am reminded of that happy tribe in the inclement North called the Achéto-Tinneh, which being interpreted out of the Esquimau tongue is: The People Who Live Out of the Wind.
Enviable folk these, for in the Arctic it is not still cold, but the wind that kills. The vast majority of women would belong to the Achéto-Tinneh if they could with honour--though some of you may tell me that preference has its origin in the defects in our training. But, as I say, the women of the future, brought up in the exercise of public duty, may find it not duty alone, but pleasure as well.
For this generation, the fighting and the sacrifice. But Richard Cobden's great-granddaughter will be able to say with the poet:
"L'o . . . how deep the corn
Along the battlefield."
MEETINGS and demonstrations continued; arrests were frequent, and the violence of the stewards at political
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gatherings (and, in those days, the violence of the police in the streets) were a painful feature of the advance of the Woman's Question into the sphere of practical politics.
In February, 1907, three days before Parliament met, the non-militants assembled at Hyde Park Corner, and marched in rain and mud to Exeter Hall, where they called on the Government to redeem the promises made to Constitutional Suffragists.
In this same month a so-styled "Parliament of Women" was convened in Caxton Hall, under the chairmanship of Mrs. Pankhurst, to consider the "King's Speech" of the day before. As this document was found to contain no mention of the needs or wishes of women, the meeting resolved to send a deputation (under the conduct of Mrs. Despard) pledged to reach either the King's representative (the Prime Minister) or prison.
That was the first occasion upon which I saw mounted policemen riding down little bands of women and girls; and even (as I was myself to experience) charging against solitary women whom the momentum of a driven crowd, or the onset of excited horses, had detached from a group of friends.
There was an abundance of strange new knowledge to be picked up that night, even by those who had not joined the little deputation headed by the white-haired benefactress of East London poor. But others have described the scenes which ended in the arrest of fifty-seven bruised, dishevelled women and two men. The little room at the rear of Caxton Hall was filled with the hurt or spent, who had been rescued by their comrades and taken to shelter.
The prisoners, including Mrs. Despard, were given
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the usual summary police-court trial, and sent to Holloway Gaol.
The languishing cause of Woman Suffrage was now so thoroughly alive that, upon Mr. Dickinson's introduction of a private member's Bill for the Enfranchisement of Women, those who were opposed to the measure felt the necessity of forming a Woman's Anti-Suffrage Society--the first that the growing seriousness of the issue had called into being.
As a sign of the waking-up of the hitherto politically inert mass of women, the "Anti" Society was welcomed by the farther-sighted among Suffragists. In the death of the old indifference the first decisive battle was won.
The Anti-Suffragists presented two petitions to Parliament against Mr. Dickinson's Bill during the month of March, 1907. When these documents came to be officially examined, they were rejected by the Petitions Committee of Parliament as "informal." The names were found to be written on separate sheets which did not set forth the object for which the signatures were designed. There was nothing to show that the persons giving their names knew for what. Another fact damaging to the authenticity of the petitions was that whole batches of signatures were discovered to have been written by a single hand. But, as has been pointed out, had these petitions, bearing 87,500 names, seemed genuine enough to be accepted by Parliament, they would have been a negligible number as compared with the subscribers to the great memorials in support of Woman Suffrage.
The more practical women had come to realise that, could the question have been much affected by petitions, women would now be voting.
So, while the great body of militants were carrying
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forward, from divers centres, the work of educating the public to understand a more effectual policy--that policy, in the form of direct pressure on the Government, was being actively prosecuted.
An instantaneous good result was manifest in the clearing away of some of that fog of futile "sympathy with the Cause," which had so long hidden from women the more serious obstacles between them and political freedom. The Prime Minister (Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman) found that a mere expression of "belief in the principle" did not satisfy these terribly practical Suffragettes. He saw himself obliged either to go forward or to go back. He went back--on the plea that Mr. Dickinson's Bill was not sufficiently democratic.
Women were to find that always a Bill for their enfranchisement is either too democratic or not democratic enough to suit so-called friends of the suffrage in Parliament. The measure was talked out by a Liberal Member.
A second "Woman's Parliament" was held at Caxton Hall on the afternoon of March 20th, 1907. Another deputation, led this time by a Suffragist of the old school, Lady Harberton, made the attempt to carry to the Prime Minister a resolution passed unanimously by the meeting.
The police were out in great force, and the struggle that followed was the most protracted that the women had yet engaged in. Caxton Hall was kept open from 2 P.M. till late in the evening--a refuge for the disabled. After an interval of rest and succour, those sufficiently recovered went back into the fight. Mrs. Mary Leigh, who was later to shorten a five years' sentence of penal servitude to a fiercely contested hunger-strike of
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forty-four days, was arrested on this occasion, the first of many times. A hundred and thirty women were sent to prison.
Throughout the spring of this year a vigorous campaign was carried on at the by-elections. The women found how many friends they had even amongst the remote and provincial public. Equally gratifying, they found how more and more the friends and agents of the Government objected to the presence of Suffragettes at by-elections--drawing larger audiences than Liberal speakers could, and (most inconvenient of all) telling those audiences the history, past and present, of Liberal treatment of women.
This and subsequent campaigns did much to strengthen the forces of the Women's Social and Political Union by developing a body of first-rate public speakers. Aside from great natural orators like the Pankhursts, some of the best public speakers in England (or, as I believe in any country) are the Suffragettes trained in the rude school of the hustings.