The Feministe Movement in England by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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THE FEMINISTE MOVEMENT IN ENGLAND *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
I AM one of those who, until comparatively recently, was an ignorant opponent of Woman Suffrage. I felt that what we women needed was more education, more discipline, rather than more liberty, not realising that the higher discipline can come only through liberty.
I was not alone in my error. It turns out that not only have men a great deal still to learn about women, but that women have a great deal to learn about themselves. I have been prosecuting my education in this direction almost daily since a certain memorable afternoon in Trafalgar Square when I first heard women talking politics in public. I went out of shamefaced curiosity, my head full of masculine criticism as to woman's limitations, her well-known inability to stick to the point, her poverty in logic and in humour, and the impossibility, in any case, of her coping with the mob.
I had found in my own heart hitherto no firm assurance that these charges were not anchored in fact. But on that Sunday afternoon, in front of Nelson's Monument, a new chapter was begun for me in the lesson of faith in the capacities of women.
* Published in Collier's Weekly, June 29, 1907.
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Talking about it afterward with a well-known London editor, I found him sorrowfully admitting the day was coming when the vote could no longer be withheld from women. "But when they get it," he asked, "won't we find they've lost more than they've gained?" He spoke of the deteriorating effect of the public life on men. If it bore so hardly on the stronger masculine fibre, what effect must it have on the delicate, impressionable nature of woman? How shall she preserve what is best in character after tasting the intoxication of political victory or the humiliation of political defeat?
"I am ready to believe you," he said, "when you tell me these Suffragists can rule and sway the London crowds. But isn't it very bad for women, all this publicity and concentration of attention on themselves?"
I answered that I was perhaps not so bad a person to whom to put that question, since I had spent a good part of my adult existence under conditions where I could see the effect on character of just these fierce tests, save that in the theatre they operate innocent of political significance.
In common with many others of my old craft, I had seen how the actor's necessary preoccupation with things of the imagination may divorce him from the larger realities of life. His necessary concern about himself tends to impoverish his intellectual life, narrowing down existence till for him all the world's a stage in very truth, and all men merely
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"parts." [NOTE] But the great difference, in the common effect on character, between doing work on the stage and doing it in the political arena, seems accounted for by the difference between the ambition that is obliged to concern iteself with the advantage of other people.
If I am to judge by the women I see working to win the suffrage in England, there is something civilising, ennobling, in giving up your life to the futherance of a great impersonal object. When women, such as these I speak of, stand up in public to talk reform, their high earnestness, their forgetfulness of themselves, lends them a dignity that made my answer to the question of the London editor as easy as it was honourable to the disfranchised sex.
We have come to a point in England where there is little need, and indeed little opportunity, to combat argument. The opponents of Woman's Suffrage own, with engaging frankness, that their prejudices against the innovation are irremovable. If these obstructionists are not too old in years or in spirit, they will presently be advancing to the stool of repentance. If, however, their prejudices are indeed irremovable, they themselves are not. Those who, in the natural order, are to take their place will see the matter otherwise, for the future is on the side of woman's freedom. So keenly is this felt that in the hundreds of meetings, public
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and private, held throughout England for the ventilation of the subject, the prime difficulty encountered of late in getting up a debate is to find anybody who can be induced to oppose the notion. Has it been discovered that all the telling arguments, witty or wise, are on the side of the reform?
The old-fashioned opponent, with his jargon about "short hair and the shrieking sisterhood," sees all his poor little dingy rags of ridicule blown to the winds of heaven, and he seems able to find nothing new.
One of the signs of the reserve force behind the movement is that everything ministers to it. The police magistrate sends groups of unknown women to Holloway Gaol. They come out public characters, hot with tales of abuses in the prison system and the crying need for matrons and women inspectors. The authorities try to avoid repeating their error by making all such inconvenient prisoners thereafter first-class misdemeanants, and thus ensure their seeing less and having less material with which to stir the public conscience. But the public is quick to detect the fear behind the seeming leniency of the authorities.
Then again, at a later stage of the agitation, the police magistrate, in trying a fresh batch of prisoners, endeavours to rouse public indignation against the leaders of the movement by sternly rebuking them for allowing a mill girl of seventeen to come up from the provinces to assist in a London
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demonstration, in the course of which the girl was arrested,--that being nothing less than what she had come for. She was a Lancashire delegate, representative of hundreds more who could not come themselves. The magistrate was full of a noble rage at "the cruelty of turning a girl of such tender age loose in London," as he expressed it. He seemed to count on setting men's hearts aflame at the bare idea of a young girl in the streets without her mother. That she should be in the London streets to testify to her interest in the laws governing women's honest work, that was indeed shameful!
"Why, this child," said the Magistrate, "should be at school!" And the outburst of wise and manly tenderness was reported in every paper in the land.
The working women opened incredulous eyes. They are so used to hearing their own ignorance urged against their claim to vote, that they were stark amazed to find how strangely benighted are these great London gentlemen about the conditions governing the lives of women they make laws for. School at seventeen? Why, this girl, like many more, had been earning her living in a mill since she was twelve, rising in the dawn, tramping cold and half-fed, to her work, and returning wearily through slums whose haggard realism left this prematurely old "hand" of seventeen little to learn from London, even if she had no friends here, which of course is not the case. No woman, however
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lonely, who joins the English Suffrage Movement but has friends. . . .
DURING a reconstitution of the Union which took place in September, 1907, the faith and affection which Mrs. and Miss Pankhurst and their immediate allies had inspired were put to a triumphant test. That these were the people, and the only people, who could conduct this particular agitation at this most difficult and critical moment, was recognised by the great majority who had come in contact with that very remarkable group.
The following month brought another event of far-reaching importance, not only to the fortunes of the Union, but to the organised effectiveness of the whole progressive movement.
Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence launched a newspaper, designed to give the public that information which Suffragist had hitherto looked for vainly in the press; information not only about the more sensational side of the propaganda, but about the steady, ceaseless, educational work that was being done, as well as general information bearing on the political status of women. No paper has ever been served with such devotion and ingenuity as "Votes for Women." Its astonishingly rapid growth from a little two-page sheet, issued monthly, to the weekly paper known and quoted all over the world, is due not only to the combination of political insight and business ability of the Pankhursts and the Lawrences,
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but to the vigorous co-operation they possessed the secret of winning from their friends and followers.
Members of the Union responded to the call that they should charge themselves with the business of securing regular subscribers, and that they should buy batches of the paper to distribute broadcast. Then realising that what people get for nothing they are likely to value at nothing, women who had never sold anything in their lives before stood in the streets offering "'Votes for Women,' one penny." Not only were tens of thounsands of copies sold outright in this way, and many new subscribers added; the sellers became centres of a quiet but enormously effective propaganda.
Seeing the paper solidly established, with its circulation steadily increasing, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence handed it over to the Union. Hundreds and thousands of people who could not come to the meetings were drawn into the movement through the medium of the paper. Where the mass of newspapers reported only the more sensational militant acts, readers of "Votes for Women" were kept informed as well of all the many-sided educational propaganda which was tirelessly going on, though unreported elsewhere.
Between May and October of that year the Union alone held 3,000 meetings. Other political meetings were left unreminded of all this active interest women were taking in public affairs, unless those other meetings were addressed by Cabinet Ministers. Their joint responsibilitiy for the Government neglect of women's claims was not allowed to be forgotten. The Suffragettes on these occasions were almost invariably set upon by the stewards, and not infrequently struck at by Liberal "gentlemen" sitting in the audience--a proceeding which taught
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many an onlooker more about politics in a minute than a statesman could teach in a lifetime.
The harsh and costly lesson never failed to make new friends for the Cause, or to convert some tepid adherent into a fervid worker. Those who could not help in one way sought and found other ways. Women whom natural disqualification or ill-health prevented from serving as public speakers, gave money to defray the expenses of others. When there was no more money to give, they got up entertainments; wrote gratis for the paper; sold it in the streets, and at theatre doors; gave lectures--and in these lesser ways showed their sympathy with and their admiration of the women who were bearing the burden of by-elections and meeting worse than blows as deputation after deputation forced its way to Westminster.
In February, 1908, the arrest of fifty more women for their share in this errand led to the turning up of an old Act of the time of Charles II, relating to "Tumultuous Petitions." In future, women were warned, anyone of the unenfranchised sex who came too near the Houses of Parliament with a petition was to be tried and punished on the plan invented a couple of centuries before, to harass and defeat the early strivings of men towards political freedom.
Perhaps the significance of the parallel discouraged the threatened application of the Act. For after the next demonstration (which followed smartly upon the threat) Mrs. Pankhurst and the other women were given the same insulting and now familiar police-court trial, and the usual alternative of paying a fine or going to prison.
While they were in prison another Woman's Enfran-
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chisement Bill scored a majority of 179 in its second reading in the House of Commons. However, its promoter, Mr. Stanger, became entangled in that "parliamentary procedure"--which women are so often asked to regard as respectworthy and ineluctable. [GLOSS] The advantage of the majority in favour was lost.
Three years later I was to ask a Liberal Member of Parliament what had brought him to believe, as he now professes, in the righteousness and the inevitability of the triumph of Woman Suffrage. "It has come to be a practical issue," he said.
Thinking to hear of some new light on woman's needs, or on man's discovery that her Cause is his own, "When did you come to 'see' it?" I asked.
"When the women raised a fighting fund of a hundred thousand pounds," he said.
At the Albert Hall meeting of March 19th the idea of the treasurer, Mrs. Lawrence, had been to leave Mrs. Pankhurst's seat on the platform empty till, after an appeal for funds, the great arm-chair might be filled with the cheques, bank-notes, and promise cards collected. By one of those happy chances which often fall to the lot of the Union, the prison authorities (upon what pretext I do not now remember) forestalled the date of Mrs. Pankhurst's release. Her unexpected appearance in the hall created an immense sensation. The eloquence of the empty chair, from which so much had been hoped, was pale and ineffectual beside the appeal made by the woman who came out of the grey solitude of a prison cell straight into the brilliance and enthusiasm of a Woman's Social and Political Union mass meeting.
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In the space of a few moments £7,000 was subscribed to the fighting fund.
But for a struggle so great as the far-sighted saw still lay before women, the problem was ever how to raise more money and make more converts. From every angle, political and private, those waiting to be convinced must be reached and drawn into the ranks.
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