THE MEANING OF IT by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 79
THE MEANING OF IT *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
MANY an ardent Suffragist could have found in her heart to-day the wish that the populace of London had chosen to take a more temperate interest in "the Cause."
The moment of entering the Park was a thing to remember. Thousands of banners were shining in the sunlight of a perfect afternoon, and punctuating in pennons of green and violet the lines of the seven armies, entering each by a different gate, to the music of thirty bands.
Good-humoured as the vast crowd showed itself, those who could escape from it were envied, even though escape meant mounting by strange and exiguous steps that somewhat dizzy elevation which served as a Conning Tower.
From this highest point of vantage in the Park one looked abroad and caught the breath. People! People! People! as far as the leaf-fringed boundaries of the Park. Men climbed up to stand an instant beside us, to stare abroad and to estimate the number of people in the Park at a quarter of a million, or fifty thousand in excess of that number.
* An impression of the great Hyde Park Demonstration, published in the Daily Mail, June 22, 1908.
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For the most part these transient visitors would gape with wonder, mumuring there had never been so many people gathered together before in any peaceful demonstration, since history began, and then still staring give way to others and drop back into that sea of folk below.
The noise was momentarily hushed when the bugles gave the signal for the speaking to begin. The megaphones roared "Now!"--upon which in twenty places a woman's figure rose up above the sea of heads and began to address the people.
I left the Conning Tower and made my way from one to another of the platforms, forging a path through the tight-packed mass with infinite difficulty, and not without invoking the aid now of a beneficent policeman, now of some friendly stranger.
According to the plan, when the bugles sounded a second time, the speaking was brought to a close, and at a final signal the great concerted cry went up: "VOTES FOR WOMEN!"
Caps went up, too, and the air was full of the fluttering of handkerchiefs and the noise of thousands of voices shouting. The sound is in my ears still, but, strangely enough, with no human accent. The Conning Tower was like some wave-beaten rock, and the roar that rose from its base was like the sound the sea makes rushing at full tide into reverberating caverns.
It has been a day of sunshine, of thunderous cheer-
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ing, of music, of colour, and of immense good-will. But what has it done for the women's cause?
Tens of thousands all over the country will be asking to-morrow: What has been achieved by the greatest demonstration of this nature ever made?
When the total expenditure has been added up--all the physical and moral energy that went into those two monster Suffrage Demonstrations of the past week--not a woman who took part in them but will ask: What does it all come to?
If it "comes to" realisation on the part of the Powers that Be that women's demand for the vote is widespread enough and earnest enough to merit their getting it, then the labour will not have been in vain.
But if it does not do just that, then the labour will have been in vain.
What men may not generally realise is that many of the women who appeared in this demonstration, and in that of last week, did so only at the call of the highest sentiment of loyalty. There were those who marched in spite of thinking a parade through the streets a childish way of having to record opinion--there were those who carried banners feeling in every nerve repugnance to the publicity they courted.
Nothing but a passionate caring for the issue could have brought these women into line. Small consolation to them (and hardly more to the lighter-hearted Suffragists) that tens of thousands of peo-
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ple have cheered themselves hoarse in the Park, and that the greatest city in the world, has twice within eight days been treated to a stirring, an unprecedented spectacle.
PROCESSIONS, Mass meetings, and vast open-air demonstrations, the labour of an army of people given gratis for the Cause during the many weeks of preparations; "Resolutions" in favour of Woman Suffrage carried by thousands wherever proposed, had no more effect upon a Liberal Government demanding signs of "democratic support" than had the deputation of textile-workers, or other labouring women, asking for the safeguard of the vote.
But Mr. Asquith had laid such emphasis on the democratic note--that it was all sounded yet again. After another rallying of the W.S.P.U. forces at Caxton Hall, and after a deputation was again sent out, and again repulsed at the Strangers' Entrance to the House of Commons, a Mass Meeting was called in Parliament Square. According to the estimate of the press 100,000 people responded. The Government sent 5,000 police to cope with this "democratic" gathering, and to prevent any of these inconveniently democratic women from either reaching the People's House, or from addressing the democracy about its doors.
Education of the people being what it is, there was inevitably amongst so great a throng a number of roughs
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ready to take from the police the cue that women who publicly demanded the vote were outlaws and fair game. Who can wonder that some of the neglected and the vicious, seeing the very guardians of law and order harrying the women, should have construed this as permission to do the same, or worse. There were wild scenes that night in Parliament Square--watched by three Cabinet Ministers and other well-known public men standing in Palace Yard safe out of the mêlée.
The women kept up the struggle till close on midnight. Those Suffragists who were arrested were given from one to three months' imprisonment.
While a number of these women were still in Holloway came three fresh by-elections.
An emergency call went out from the W.S.P.U. headquarters for more speakers. I happened to be staying in a country-house in the North of England at the time of the opening of the Newcastle contest. There was the usual house-party argument and the usual condemnation of militant tactics. One of the guests handed me a paper folded to display some "scare head," which I do not now remember, but which conveyed the idea: How Newcastle disposes of the wild women."
The article described an attack made on members of the Women's Social and Political Union who had dared to hold a meeting in a rough quarter of Newcastle near the docks. It was bad reading. I wondered how much of it was true. I wondered so much that the following morning I went to find out. On my arrival at Newcastle I discovered that, as usual, the scene had been exaggerated, partly, I suppose, through the desire to make a good, blood-curdling story that should sell the paper, and partly from the motive we have become accustomed to
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see at work--a desire to frighten off other women from going near the places and the persons associated with these hideous scenes.
Nevertheless, I heard Mrs. Pankhurst, soon after my arrival, telling a young helper that she was not to take the Dock Meeting that night (as the girl was expecting to do) but was to go with another detachment and speak in a different and, as I gathered, less disorderly quarter of the town. Mrs. Pankhurst herself took over the meeting at the danger-point--the scene of the disturbance I had read about.
I would not for a great deal have missed the enlightenment of that evening. Instead of listening to drawing-room misrepresentation of the Suffrage scenes, I found myself standing with Mrs. Pankhurst and her helpers on a lorry 1 while one after another those indomitable women addressed the crowd that surged about us. If she were not herself speaking Mrs. Pankhurst would interrupt whenever the situation was most threatening. I shall be very old before I can forget the slight figure on the cart confronting the turbulent mass in that ill-lit, unsavoury place, the face ghostly in the dimness, but the incomparable voice ringing out clear over the thousand heads, trying to rouse in that host of the neglected and unfit (who yet were in many cases voters) a sense of decency, of justice, of civic responsibility.
I can feel now after four years the sense of the hopelessness of her task, as I heard the cries about us, smelt the stench of rotten eggs and, as the speaker turned in the gloom to answer some verbal attack, I hear the sickening splash of something moist as it struck
1 A dray.
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the white face lifted above that moral darkness. The quiet gesture with which she wiped the stain away and let her pocket-handkerchief fall, not resenting, hardly seeming to notice the insult, never stopping an instant in her attempt to enlighten these people, appealing still to whatever of good their poor share in civilisation had left alive.
And then I saw the miracle happen. Someone had cried "shame!" and moment by moment the temper of the crowd changed. The meeting ended in the throng's pressing closer round the lorry, not to overturn it, not now to attack the little group of women. Those who pressed nearer with outstretched hands held up pennies. "Paper, Miss--got a paper?" We sold them all the copies we had brought.
I have more to tell in a later paper of Suffragette dealings with that working-class "democracy" for which the Prime Minister has so great a regard. But the so-called "educated" were not neglected. Many women of the middle and upper class were still afraid to brave the widely advertised dangers of street gatherings. For them a meeting was arranged at the Town Hall.