AT NEWCASTLE TOWN HALL by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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AT NEWCASTLE TOWN HALL *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Mrs. Taylor and Fellow-Women:
I have been thinking that probably no reform has ever been advocated by so many good, and admittedly unanswerable arguments, as this of Woman's Suffrage. You may, if you like, hear it urged with logic, and with eloquence, in six or seven different parts of this city, any day from now till the election is decided.
You have heard, and will presently hear, more of these arguments presented afresh from this platform. Anyone who cannot go to meetings may have access to a large body of literature on the subject, from Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill down to Mrs. Pankhurst's latest pamphlet.
Because of the wealth of material of this nature constantly accessible to you, I will confine my remarks to two other aspects of this many-sided matter. One of them I will present by way of encouragement to those who share our faith. The other I submit to those who have not yet joined us.
Let us imagine that some one of you has come here to-day with a prejudice against this movement. If there is such a person present I am ready to ap-
* Speech delivered Sept., 1908.
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plaud her for taking a step in the right direction. She could not do a better thing than listen to the speeches which will follow. But listening is not all. The mental attitude counts for much. Since I am hoping that anyone who arrived here unconvinced will go out of this hall a believer in, and a worker for, the franchise, I would offer this fact as a help to her conversion: almost every social or political betterment that we rejoice in to-day was opposed, and bitterly opposed, by the timid or the slavish in the days gone by. I will not remind you of the more notorious instances. They will be in the recollection of everyone who knows anything about the past--though I do sometimes think that those persons who are so filled with apprehension at the prospect of the triumph of this reform, must either never have read, or must have forgotton all they ever knew about History. What I want to emphasise is that there is almost no gain but has seemed loss to the majority, before it was accepted. Once accepted, nobody remembers long that anyone was ever so benighted as to oppose the thing proved good.
Take, for instance, two institutions which are commonplaces of your civilisation. The first has to do with the financial credit of England at home and abroad. We all admit that in the present state of human society anything that affects public confidence in the fiscal soundness of the country is of importance. But we find a difficulty in put-
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ting ourselves in the place of those who opposed the founding of the Bank of England. Imagine regarding the Bank of England as a "shady concern"--the device of faddists and crack-brained believers in the Newfangled! But even the Bank of England did not escape being ranked with the "dangerous new things"--things that should not be tolerated. Why should this pillar of English finance have been so distrusted, so hotly assaulted? Because previous to 1694 the people in this country had done without it.
I will give you one more significant example of the fear of the new thing because it is new.
Those of us who think of the civilisation of the English-speaking race as old--find something incongruous in the reminder that so short a time as a hundred and ten years ago a law was passed making the circulating library illegal. In these days the man who puts books within easy reach of the people is called a benefactor. A little over a hundred years ago he not only would not have been considered a benefactor, he would have been disgraced and heavily fined. I say disgraced advisedly. Any person who in the year 1799 made a practice of lending or hiring out newspapers or pamphlets or books, was legally held to be on a par with the keeper of a disorderly house.
Surely a fact like this ought to give pause to those who are afraid to open the door of the mind to a new blessing merely because it is new.
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Now to those who are ready to welcome Women's Enfranchisement I will say a few last words before I sit down.
An ever-growing number of people have begun to see clearly that there never was before, in all the course of history, such a chance for the wisdom of our half the world to manifest itself as is given to women to-day. Join in this movement, give it your special gift, whatever that gift may be--give it your time and your influence (everybody has some), give it pounds or give it pennies, or give it defence--do your share with the sure knowledge that you are not only doing, but receiving, good.
The situation is enormously interesting. Before the coming of these wonderful days women had to do their work (even the most gifted and the bravest women)--had to work, not only heavily handicapped, but without any hope of making the battle a whit easier for others. A woman might--if she had great abilities and great luck--she might make an individual success. But she did so with the disheartening knowledge that her most shining achievement left the great mass of women and therefore of men--left the world--very little better off, in spite of all her individual striving--in spite of all her individual success. What she achieved did not really count in the long run. By so much as she distinguished herself she was thought of as an exception, a "sport," as the men of science say. But the women who are working for high ends to-
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day--whether in Finland in the Parliament, whether in Germany in the Universities, whether in the streets of Constantinople, in the Woman's Trade Unions of America, or at the English by-elections,--women to-day may work gladly and with uplifted hearts. For they find themselves (especially I say this to the younger women), you find yourselves in the field at a great moment in the world's history. Your good fortune it is to be offered a glorious piece of work at a time when what you do is going to count.
Whether you have read history or whether you have read only the newspapers, you must have come to see that the times are ripe for a new and a nobler standard of the value of woman's work. I don not really need to say that this applies as much to the woman whose chief work is minding her home and bringing up her children, bringing them up to believe in the equal dignity of the sexes. It applies to her just as much as it applies to those who are employed in more public service.
Before to-day, if a woman succeeded even in private life in shaping her existence to high and noble ends, she could never be sure that the germs of self-respect and independence she might implant in her daughter would survive the hard and bitter conditions which there was always the the possibility the daughter would encounter when she should leave her mother's side. But remember that we have with us now, a power greater than that of all the
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Cabinet put together--greater than all the Governments of all the nations of the earth. We have the Tendency of the Time on our side. It's a very tremendous thing, this Tendency of the Time. The individual, even the strongest, may be a straw in the current. But we fortunate ones find ourselves living in the days when the stream of tendency is at last turning our way. We have the sure and comfortable knowledge that what the Suffragist preaches to-day will very presently be accepted by the whole world.
I cannot myself imagine anything more glorious in the way of human destiny than to be a woman living in these times--a woman able to take active part in this great work. There will always be plenty for women to do--but never again, one may think, will the lot fall to woman of seeing herself so needed.
A very moving thought is this one of the high significance of women's actions and women's words in these months that lie before us. Stop a moment to realise the situation. Women who have so long been called weak and helpless, who have so often been weak and helpless, they need be that no longer--unless they are so downtrodden and so spiritless that they prefer being weak and helpless to being strong and being of value.
Until the New Suffrage Movement made such a statement possible and true, never before could anyone with a sense of responsibilty stand up and say
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to an audience of all sorts and conditions: There isn't a woman here who may not have her share in the honour of counting for something in the politics of her country. The fact that anyone may say that to you to-day is (to my thinking) a thing that will stand to the eternal credit of the Founders of this Union. They have discovered ways--with a genius and a fertility beyond praise--they have discovered ways in which every woman may share in the honour of bringing about the most momentous reform that the world has ever seen.
September 1908 - March, 1909
IN anticipation of the opening of Parliament on October 12, 1908, an effort was again made to induce the Prime Minister to promise "facilities" for enabling the House of Commons to proceed with the Women's Bill.
The Prime Minister refused to give any such promise.
For the fifth time a so-called "Parliament of Women" was announced to meet at Caxton Hall. The business was to be the framing of a Resolution which a volunteer duputation was to take to the Prime Minister--or as near to him as he would allow. Everyone knew by now that a Suffrage Deputation (having the avowed design of bringing home to the Government a sense of the urgency of the matter that was being neglected) would find its progress opposed by the police. Everyone knew that after much ill-treatment the more determined members of the deputation would be arrested. But though the deputation might fail to bring their Res-
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olution before the Prime Minister, they would have brought it before the general public, They would have compelled the attention of the authorities, if only by making them advertise and emphasise the growing discontent, through their employment of thousands of police to keep women away from a House of Commons which did not represent them.
Upon one point in the contest the Prime Minister had expressed a reasonable view. The Question of Woman Suffrage, according to him, was one which concerned the great body of the public. He has the women with him there. Furthermore, they had seen his Cabinet refusing to treat the matter seriously. They had seen a supine Commons entangled in red tape. Since, therefore, no individual and no official group both could and would attend to a matter vitally concerning the public, there was no choice between letting the issue drop or letting the public lend a hand in dealing with it. The public was invited to lend a hand.
A leaflet, sown broadcast, invited the poeple of London to come to Westminster and help the Suffragettes to "rush the House of Commons."
As a result of the issuance of this highly "democratic" invitation for the evening of October 13th, a summons, on October 12th, was served upon Mrs. Pankhurst, Mrs. Drummond, and Miss Christabel Pankhurst, "in consideration of conduct likely to provoke a breach of the peace."
A few days before, a Labour Member of Parliament, at a mass meeting of unemployed men, publicly advised them to "rush" the bakers' shops and to help themselves. At a moment of industrial wretchedness and unrest, men (who have better ways of ventilating grievances and se-
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curing special legislation) were instigated by one who was not only a voter but a legislator, to loot the premises of tradespeople, and to foment riots in an effort to stir the sluggishness of authority. Yet to do this was held to be less reprehensible than to invite the people to rush to the People's House (where all these matters are debated and decided) on an errand which, although supremely urgent, Parliament has toyed with for forty years. Or, by a more ironic construction put upon the invitation, the public was asked to help the Suffragettes to rush (i.e., to induce something like speed in) that cumbrous body which had yielded to the lethargy of party thraldom. Just as to "rush" the baker shops meant an attempt to secure quickly a needed share of the staple of baker shops--bread (for lack of which a little group of people were suffering), so, to rush the House of Commons plainly meant an attempt to secure quickly a still more needed share of those staples of Parliament, Respresentation and Special Legislation, for lack of which millions of people had suffered too long, too patiently.
The poor little baker shops would have been defenceless against the onslaught of hunger-maddened men. The House which the hand-bill invited the people to "rush" was known to be guarded as if for a siege.
A throng of unarmed citizens (even had they desired, and they did not so desire) could do no possible harm to the august body sitting in the Commons. But the man in the street, and the woman, could by their presence within Parliamentary precints, and by their temper, give a sign of their interest in the Women's Cause. What other Cause, by a simple hand-bill, however framed, could have filled Parliament Square with so many thousands?
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We hear no answer to that question from a Government which has called, again and again, for proof of public interest in the women's claim. Can those Liberals who vaunt their faith in the democracy, and who make flattering appeals to it--can they mean they care about the people's view only when that view is expressed at the polls? Then, indeed, was the throng in Parliament Square on October 13th not "the people," and instead of the fair words to which the masculine part of it is accustomed at the polls, deserved the hustling it got.
On that evening while the three leaders lay in the cells of the Bow Street police court awaiting trial, a deputation, led by Miss Wallace-Dunlop, left Caxton Hall and pressed through the crowds in the directon of the Houses of Parliament. The police broke the ranks of the deputation, and those persons impossible to turn back, or put out of action, were arrested.
When news of this result reached Caxton Hall, a second deputation, three times as large, set forth on the same errand. The struggle between the women and the police went on till midnight, with the usual tale of arrests. But except for the disorder created by the police obstruction of the deputation, the vast crowd which had responded to the Suffragists' invitation was quiet and well-behaved.
During the trial of the Suffragist leaders for issuing the "rush" hand-bill, attention was drawn to the impunity with which the Labour member, Mr. Will Thorne had incited the hunger-stricken unemployed to "rush" bakers' shops. A summons was thereupon tardily issued against Mr. Thorne, merely, as he himself said, because of Miss Pankhurst's use (in the course of the trial) of this latest instance of the man's being allowed to steal
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the horse while women were punished for looking over the wall.
The Labour M.P. slipped out of his little difficulty by giving bond to be of good behaviour. The Suffragettes gave no bond to alter their behaviour, and accepted full responsibility for thier action. The case became the talk of the town. It was such a ventilation of women's political grievances as had never yet been obtained. Miss Pankhurst succeeded in putting two Cabinet Ministers into the witness-box. The astonishing skill with which she conducted the examination of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Lloyd George, and the then Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Gladstone, gave many people their first measure of her power. But those who had been watching her for the previous two years had already recognised in that original and dauntless mind, stored and disciplined beyond its years, the force which should shape the course of modern history. To say so much will seem like extravagance to persons standing aside from the Woman's Movement. In the words of the Prime Minister: "Wait and see."
Miss Pankhurst, her mother, Mrs. Drummond, and many of the members of the deputations of October 13th, were sent to prison.
The months that followed brought the trial and imprisonment of Mrs. Baines, and of many others, for their share in interrupting the meetings of Cabinet Ministers and for other "demonstrations." One of these, made in the House of Commons by members of the Freedom League, resulted in a temporary taking down of the obnoxious grille from the Ladies' Gallery, and a further addition to the number of Suffragists in Holloway Gaol.
Still more went to prison from the Albert Hall meet-
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ing arranged by the Women's Liberal Federation. The disturbing element here was supplied by Mr. Lloyd George, with his unlucky promise of "a message from the Government." For he had none of any moment to deliver. The more practical women in the audience were the more angry at the affront to their intelligence. Pointed questions were hurled at the Minister, whose only answer was acquiescence in the hurling out of the hall of the questioners. The scene was a very horrible one, and fatally damaging to many a woman's hope of what Mr. Lloyd George might do for the Suffrage. The Liberal organ, the "Manchester Guardian," admitted that the ejections from the meeting were affected with a brutality well-nigh "nauseating." The "Standard" said some of the worst acts of unnecessary violence took place within ten yards of the chairman's table, and therefore under the eyes of Mr. Lloyd George. The "Globe" said: "We see very genuine grounds for the impatience displayed by Suffragettes at the Albert Hall. Mr. Lloyd George must have known that the declaration he had to make would have infuriated any body of men."
The evil example condoned by the Chancellor of the Exchequer began to be followed at meetings throughout the country. The police appeared in force to protect Cabinet Ministers at their meetings. But at the meetings of "the weaker sex" there was seldom any--and never adequate--protection granted to women from those who tried to break up the gathering, to burn offensive-smelling chemicals, to let loose rats and mice, and to assault the speakers.
The assembling of Parliament for the first time in 1909 still brought no mention of women's claims in the Speech from the Throne.
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A seventh "Women's Parliament" met in Caxton Hall on February 24th, and saw a deputation go out (headed by Mrs. Pethick Lawrence) to battle a little way towards the Houses of Parliament, and in the end to join their companions in Holloway Gaol.
An eighth "Women's Parliament" was held at the end of March, and a deputation, headed by Mrs. Saul Soloman, widow of the late Governor-General for South Africa, set out for the Strangers' Entrance to the House of Commons, only to find, as their predecessors had, that it led those "strangers" who were Suffragettes to a London prison.
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