SIGNS OF THE TIMES by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 99
SIGNS OF THE TIMES *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Printed in Votes for Women, March, 1909. [This chapter in modified form is reproduced in Hearst's Magazine for their Book of the Month feature, September 1913. See the reproduced pages at Why Suffragettes Go to Jail.]
"But he answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather; for the heaven is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to-day, for the heaven is read and lowering: but ye cannot discern the signs of the times." [NOTE]
AMONG the signs that might instruct the politically weatherwise is the last election from Denmark. The first occasion upon which women were eligible as candidates, seven have been elected to the Copenhagen Municipal Council.
Norway granted three-fifths of her women the full Parliamentary franchise two years ago, and the plan works so well that the Royal Council has recommended that the remaining two-fifths of the voteless women should also be given equal citizenship rights.
In Italian politics the most significant fact, chosen out of all others for telegraphing to "The Times"--which, of all papers, can least be supposed to
* Speech delivered at the Queen's Hall, London.
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welcome such news--is the prominence given to Woman Suffrage at the General Election last week in Rome.
In regard to those parts of America longest settled and supposedly most enlightened, we were informed a few short months ago, the Woman Suffrage Cause had been killed. But the latest advices (through the non-partisan Press of Boston) tell how two thousand Suffragists stormed the State House during the legislative hearing of the Julia Ward Howe Bill. That staid and most conservative of New England papers, the "Boston Transcript," called the occasion "the biggest Woman Suffrage demonstration which Boston has ever seen." The "American" said: "Never had such a scene been witnessed on Beacon Hill." The daily papers devoted columns to description and comment; and persons who succeeded in gaining the much-coveted admission to the hearing, report the same sort of change in the latter-day treatment of the question which has been remarked in the House of Commons. In the Boston State House, too, the same opposer who for years has made his speech the occasion for ventilating a cheap facetiousness, spoke last month for the first time with gravity and decorum. The late proceedings are admitted on every side by the American Press to mark a notable advance for the Cause in the Eastern States.
And what of England! Just as truly as the body sitting at St. Stephen's is accounted the Mother of
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Parliaments--just so truly may the Woman Suffrage agitation in this country be called the Mother of the world-wide New Movement. The late-born coroporate spirit among women (taking its hundred different aspects according to character and oportunity)--this new inspiration lifting up the women East and West--had its birth in England. To England the peoples look for its highest expression. One witness to the truth of this came in the significant utterance of a Norwegian the other day: "We did not want to see our women going through what the English women have gone through. We knew that, with the English example before the Norwegian women, they would do the same. Rather than see that we enfranchised our women."
Not only from afar off may the Signs of the Times be read. Look down the columns of our paper, at the notices of meetings to be held and of those which have taken place within the week, but do not forget that the reported meetings represent less than a tenth of those that are held. British Suffrage Unions and Societies of every political complexion spread like a network over the kingdom, and next month will see the International Woman's Suffrage Alliance holding its Convention in London.
One of the most significant of the isolated "Signs" was the profession of faith recently offered to the Prime Minister by women doctors. Out of the total number of qualified medical women in Great Britain, but fifteen did not join in asking
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for the vote! When one thinks of what those five to six hundred women stand for--of trained skill and exceptional knowledge of life amongst all sorts and conditions--this "Sign" alone might, one feels, have helped the least weatherwise among the authorities to a rational forecast.
But, looming hight above all the other Signs, standing out like a "great sea mark," is the fact that something like 400 women have gone to prison in their determination to make as clear as voteless people can that they will not patiently endure their present outlawry. While you read these words more than thirty women of character and standing are living the life of the second-class prisoner in Holloway Gaol. And this has come about--through the endeavour of those women to help the authorities to interpret, and to take to heart, the most significant of all the Signs of the Times. But those who, seeing "a cloud rise out of the west, straightway say, 'There cometh a shower,'" are not able, it would seem, to discern the meaning, or gauge the elemental force, that lies behind this cloud of witnesses.
So little weatherwise are the political prophets they even think that prison as a means of protest has been weakened by repetition and robbed of its significance.
But going to prison has not lost its poignant significance to those who suffer the ordeal, nor to
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those who do not blind themselves to what that ordeal involves.
There are people who think the Suffragette is pleased to "advertise" her hardships, and that she gets her reward out of "posing as a martyr." But the truth is, there are few things rarer than to find a Suffrage ex-prisoner exhibiting any readiness to dwell upon what she has suffered. I have sometimes felt that the comfortable people, who "take it out" in criticising, are not much to blame. Perhaps they ought to be given a better opportunity to realise what imprisonment means. But, no; your Suffragette is both too proud and too busy. Also, she is terribly afraid of seeing the Suffrage Movement side-tracked on to prison reform. "No," she says; "keep to the point"--in spite of semi-asphyxiation, disgusting food, the aching misery of plank beds, damp cement, midsummer days of choking airlessness and winter nights of graveyard chill--"keep to the point! The point is Votes."
Well, I shall disobey the unwritten Suffragette law and say a few words about this same prison ordeal which I have not gone through myself, and which I yet know something about.
Perhaps one reason that I feel I may speak of it is that I have not endured it in my own person.
When you see the women coming out of Holloway to the welcome of flags and the music of bands--some of you, even of you who do not grossly mis-
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judge the Suffragettes, find difficulty in realising what these prisoners with the smiling faces have lived through. "Why," people say to one another, "this going to prison can't be anything like what we thought it was! If it were half as bad as we imagined, nobody would ever try it twice! Some of these women have been oftener still! Going to prison is played out!"
Why is it, then, that in spite of misapprehension on the part of many of the great middle class, in spite of the contemptuous shoulder-shrugging of the authorities--why is it that every time women go to prison to forward this reform, they actually and very palpably do forward it? And the answer to that question brings us face to face with a problem which confronts all leaders of reform.
We must remember that one of the most difficult things in the world is to induce the preoccupied public to stop and reconsider the merits of an opinion they have begun by regarding with prejudice. The primary concern of the practical reformer is: How shall people be made to give this matter a fair hearing? All the comparatively easy ways are tried first. Women's appeal was in the beginning made to reason. You know the result. In America the result was epitomised a few weeks ago by President Roosevelt's saying he was lukewarm about the Suffrage because women were lukewarm. In England politicans say they were warmly in favour till women became so hot. On this side the Atlantic
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feminine fervour cools the generous ardour of the legislator. On the other side it is the absence of warmth in the Suffragist that left the President cold. I do not think it is American partiality that makes me imagine Mr. Roosevelt shows himself a better weather-prophet than the authorities here. Whatever we may think about his statesmanship or his love of abstract justice, we must admit he reads aright The Signs of the Times. The American Government will find less inconvenience result from withholding the Suffrage from women than will the Government of England. You have not in all the world at the present moment a better apologist for W.S.P.U. tactics than Mr. Roosevelt. Here at home your political weather-prophets are like those who, when they "see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway say, 'There cometh a shower'"; and so it is. And when the south wind blows they say, "There will be heat; and it cometh to pass." But as in the old days, those who "can discern the face of the sky and of the earth," cannot discern "the signs of the times."
In the symbol offered them by the woman who goes to prison, the political weather-prophet can discern no meaning.
"We were a little stirred as well as shocked at first," they tell you. "But we are no longer stirred, and hardly ever shocked."
And because they are able to deaden what human sympathy they have--because they can look on
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unmoved while women suffer--the public, too, they think, is equally indifferent.
But they are wrong. The public is anything but indifferent.
And this is why.
To the toiling millions prison is real.
In the great body of the electorate there are people who realise that going to prison is a ghastly business.
Justice is the stepmother of the poor. The poor know the heaviness of her hand. Few great aggregations of the populace where there is not someone who has been caught in our clumsy municipal machinery--someone who has suffered and been torn. Those who have not first-hand knowledge have heard. Prison for them is not a thing to shrug the shoulders at; neither lurid legend nor queer anachronism, scarce credible as an accompaniment of twentieth-century progress.
Prison is real to the poor. In the person of some relation or friend it has been a horrible fact. No danger of their sharing the illusion of the middle-class woman, entrenched in her comfortable ignorance, leaning back against her cushions and saying: "Holloway can't be so bad, or the Suffragettes could never get so many people to go there." Strange forgetfulness of the fortitude possible to the human soul!
Say to your neighbour at a dinner-party, "Those women seem rather to like it." But don't dare say
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that to the people at the polls. There will be those who know better.
Men and women who would understand the signs of the times must remember that the comfortable person's paraded indifference to women's imprisonment is offest by the enormously greater number who are not blind to the significance of hundreds of women voluntarily entering the gates of Holloway.
Anyone who doubts this has only to watch the electric effect of the coming of a relay of newly released prisoners into the field during a by-election. Easy enough to denounce their appearance as "a cheap electioneering dodge." If it were really so "cheap," if it were not in truth very costly, it would not have its invariable effect upon the voters. The reason it is so potent is, as I say, than in the great mixed crowds that gather round the public speakers at election time are always these people who know. Even for them--at no time used to much creature comfort--even for them, hardened to harsh treatment and sordid environment, some of them--(enough to make actual the women's sacrifice)-- know the fierce pinch of prison days. The effect of that sacrifice upon the masses is enormous. It is incalculable. They look at these delicate women and say, "She knows! Very few of the gentlefold know. That woman standing there in the wind and the rain, she knows! She was under no compuslion to share the heavy knowledge of the hard-pressed. She must be buyoed up by some
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strange power unknown to the petty offender. What power? Let us listen and find out."
By going to prison the Suffragette has done two things. She has proved her faith to those who know the harsher side of life; and she has brought herself through suffering into more direct relation with the masses than she could have done by all the academic eloquence in the world.
The perhaps too common silence of the Suffragette as to the price she has paid does not here make for misunderstanding. These people have seen the cowed and beaten look many another sort of prisoner has brought out of the same sort of experience; they know all about the strain on the nerves and the courage, the unconquerable sickness at sight of the food, the windows that cannot admit air. In their dumb way some of these people, too, have felt the atmosphere, not to be shut out, that penetrates the prison walls. The "Geist der stets verneint" is in possession there. The spirit that denies all hope of understanding or of betterment, that harshly represses every natural human emotion.
Who that heard will ever forget the tone and haunted look of that prisoner who once admitted the acid-like corrosion wrought upon the mind by the "warder-voice." And she excused the warders--"not their fault," she said, "that the only people who may speak to you have a special voice for prisoners. A voice that isn't human," she said, with trembling lips, "a voice of iron." Such kind-
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ness as, in spite of all, creeps into the relation must be hidden like a felony.
Some of us remembered the Suffrage prisoners when we read the other day that Sir Walter Scott once quoted an opinion that women go mad seldomer than men. "I fancy," he said, "if this be true, it is in some degree owing to the little manual works in which they are constantly employed, which regulate in some degree the current of ideas, as the pendulum of the timepiece. I do not know if this is sense or nonsense; but I am sensible that if I were in solitary confinement without either the power of taking exercise or employing myself in study, six months would make me a madman or an idiot."
When he came over to lecture for the Berlitz School a few weeks ago M. Richepin told us how the poet Verlaine, after trying to kill his friend by shooting him, was sent to prison for two years. But Verlaine was given all the books he asked for. In those two years he taught himself English. He read Shakespeare, so the lecturer said, from end to end before he had finished his term. What would not some of the imprisoned Suffragettes give for a chance to occupy their minds to that extent? But they, so far from having injured their friends, have not even tried to injure their enemies. Yet they are less well treated than a French citizen convicted of manslaughter.
"Ye say . . . in the morning, It will be foul weather to-day: for the sky is red and lowering."
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Does it tell men nothing that some of the Suffrage prisoners before they tried going to Holloway had grown grey working among the poor and the lost? And some of the prisoners are young--full of a generous fire as illuminating as experience, lighting up the Wrong that could never touch them, but which they have pledged themselves to banish out of the world. A few weeks of prison! Can you not realise that the woman bearing that may see in herself a type of the Immemorial Woman--the burden-bearer of the world?
Prison? What evil there can visit her that will not pale by the side of what evil women bear outside those walls?
One seems to hear the prisoner in her darkest hour reproach her heart as the Greek hero did: "Endure, my heart, far worse hast thou endured."
She comes out smiling, do you say? Yes. Her smiling is a symbol of her faith. But you may believe that, as she sits alone there in her narrow cell,
. . ."tears
Are in her eyes; and in her ears
The murmur of a thousand years."
I do not ask on behalf of those women what they do not ask for themselves. They do not ask for sympathy. They went to prison for "a sign." The question is: Can you read it? Can you even discern the two strange and unexpected things that
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have come out of women's going to prison in the cause of Suffrage?
First: a fact not easily given its due weight--the fact that through their suffering and voluntary acceptance of the badge of humiliation, they have come close to the poor. Second: most difficult, most precious gain of all, the poor have come close to them.
In a democratic country this is a circumstance of the first magnitude. Well may the most astute statesman be given pause when he reflects that there is no body of educated men in Europe to-day in such close touch with the hard-pressed, disinherited millions as the women who have gone to prison for the Vote.
AS will have already appeared, this commentary concerns itself, chiefly, with the fortunes of the W.S.P.U.--the Society best known to me. I would not for a moment wish to minimise the work of the others--least of all the old-established National Union of Suffrage Societies, of which Mrs. Henry Fawcett, LL.D., is the President. This important organisation, during the time I write of, multiplied its branches and secured a following whose steady, unhasting, unresting, educational work, especially in conservative quarters, was building up a power destined presently to astonish the unbeliever.
The new spirit which had been breathed into the existing bodies was of a nature so vigorous and independent
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that it has kept on seeking and finding newer channels, as well as brimming the old.
In addition to the Freedom League there was presently to be a Conservative and Unionist League, a Church League, a London Graduates' Union, a London Society for Woman Suffrage, a Tax Resistance League, an Artists' Suffrage League, a Political Reform League, a Cymric Suffrage Union, a Scottish League, an Irish W.S.S., The Fabian Group of Women, The Free Church League, a Catholic W.S.S., a New Constitutional Society, the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, the Men's Political Union, the Men's Federation for Women's Suffrage, the Men's Committee for Justice to Women, the Suffrage Atelier, the Actresses' League, the Women Writers' League, and I know not how many dozens more.
The last-named was formed in 1908 by Miss Cicely Hamilton and Miss Bessie Hatton. Its constitution was drawn up by Miss Hamilton early in 1909. The following is a copy of the leaflet sent out to announce the function and scope of the Society.
WOMEN WRITERS' SUFFRAGE LEAGUE
President: MISS ELIZABETH ROBINS.
Chairman of Committee: MISS CICELY HAMILTON.
Hon. Treasurer: MISS ETHEL HILL.
Hon. Secretary: MISS BESSIE HATTON, at the Office of
the League, 55 Berners Street, Oxford Street, W.
Telephone: 1808 City.
The object of the Women Writers' Suffrage League is to obtain the Parliamentary Franchise for women on the same terms as it is, or may be granted to men.
Its methods are the methods proper to writers--the use of the pen.
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It is entirely independent of any other suffrage society; at the same time it was formed with the intention of assisting every other suffrage society by the methods proper to writers.
The qualification for membership is the publication or production of a book, article, story, poem or play for which the author has received payment, and a subscription of 2s. 6d. to be paid annually, financial year ending December.
Women Writers are urged to join the League. A body of writers working for a common object cannot fail to influence public opinion.
Publications dealing with the enfranchisement of women are issued from time to time, and it is hoped that members will ensure ventilation of the subject in such ways as are open to them--by writing articles, taking part in newspaper correspondence, etc.
Amongst the members of the League are--Olive Schriener, Alice Meynell, May Sinclair, Sarah Grand, Beatrice Harraden, Violet Hunt, Mrs. Israel Zangwill, Mrs. Havelock Ellis, Evelyn Sharp, Gertrude Warden, George Paston, Madeline Lucette Ryley, etc.
Subscriptions and communications should be addressed to the Hon. Secretary.
[The W.W.S.L. has held, besides its Annual General Meeting in each year, At Homes and other public entertainments, at most of which speeches were made and literature sold of a propagandist nature.
At the Waldorf Hotel Reception, May 4th, 1909, the speakers were: the President, in the Chair; Mrs. Philip Snowden, Miss Evelyn Sharp, Mrs. Nevinson, Miss Cicely Hamilton, Mr. Zangwill, Mr. Pett Ridge. Hostesses: Mrs. Cohen, Madame Sarah Grand, Miss Beatrice Harraden.]