CROWBOROUGH, SUSSEX by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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CROWBOROUGH, SUSSEX *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Lady Brassey, Ladies and Gentlemen:
We have come to a point at which the older supporters of Women's Suffrage--going about among the towns and villages of England--see on every side a legion of new friends flocking to the standard. Less and less are the principles underlying this reform denied, or even seriously questioned, by the general public. Of course, if there is anyone here to-night who wishes to be told the grounds for the faith that is in us--he or she will have an opportunity during the evening to put questions.
As a rule, we find that the general public has now accepted the principle that Taxation without Representation is Tyranny; that wisdom is not confined to one sex, and that even more than women are in need of a direct relation to politics--politics, civilised society in general, is in need of the direct co-operation of women.
You might suppose, since these views are now shared by such great numbers, that the persons most interested in this reform might rest on their oars. But never in all these five years' struggle has there been so great a need as now for vigilance,
* At Crowborough, Sussex, Oct. 23, 1911.
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and for active aid, in guiding the Suffrage ship to port. As I have said, where we had a handful of friends--we count now a host. But the task of Suffragists, though immensely more popular and hopeful, is not, as you might suppose, simplified. Rather, it is complicated. In the hour of victory it is imperilled by the fact that, instead of our more formidable enemies being amongst open opponents, the most insidious are found among the so-called friends of the Suffrage. The danger to public welfare that comes eliminating the woman's point of view--the half-view inevitable to the exclusively masculine view--was never more apparent than in the way in which some of our so-called friends approached this great question. Certain members of the Government are, as you know, unwilling to be accounted enemies of Women's Suffrage. But they seem unwilling to give the time and trouble necessary to a thorough understanding of the matter, and they will not take from women the women's view of the Women's Bill. Those members of the Government whom we have in mind spend all their best energies upon other issues. Then they turn to our leaders, and as much say: "It is true that we give the smallest possible attention to this Suffrage question--but with that mere fragment of our mind we easily come to the conclusion that we don't agree with those of you who for years have made the Suffrage your main study." "I think nothing," says Mr. Lloyd George, "of the findings of your
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Conciliation Committee. Why, your Bill doesn't enfranchise a single woman solely on the ground that she is married to a qualified voter."
Now, no man has ever expected to be enfranchised because he was married. But Mr. Lloyd George will not support our Bill unless it submits to some such amendment--an amendment which would bring in something like seven millions as compared with the one million the Bill provides for.
Mr. Lloyd George and those politicians of his way of thinking--they are few, we are glad to think--have been content, from the day they entered public life up to a few months ago, that wives should go voteless. Now these gentlemen suddenly wake up and say with horror: "Here is a Bill which leaves out many of the wives! It is monstrous!"
The married Suffragists themselves have hardly recovered from their surprise at this unexpected and inopportune championship when along comes Mr. Birrell. Mr. Birrell says, in that genial way of his: "Of course, widows and spinsters ought to have the vote. The one thing I bar is that married women should be given a vote." To neither of these gentlemen does it seem to occur that if woman's voice is desirable in public affairs--that voice should be listened to when it says: "We have looked over every inch of this ground, and we find the only path by which women can go forward is the path pointed out by the Conciliation Bill."
We are proud to think that neither the spinster,
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the widow, nor the married woman has ever tried to limit her demand for Women's Suffrage by the conditions of her own private relationships. We find, not Cabinet Ministers, but the Women Suffragists, able to lay aside the individual advantage for sake of the larger good. While men of Mr. Lloyd George's way of thinking on this question show their inability to look at the matter from the point of view of Woman Suffrage as a whole, the Suffragists as a whole say: The individual woman can wait. Even the special class can wait. What cannot wait is the ratifying of the principle.
After an immense amount of hard work, of discussion and adjustment, the Conciliation Bill has been evolved and endorsed by the strongest, most whole-hearted friends of this reform. No other Bill could hope to unite so many in support of its third reading. Yet this is the Bill Mr. Lloyd George so lightly asks us to imperil by widening amendments, which would wreck its chances. Women of all parties, women married or single, rich or poor, are able to distinguish that advantage in the Conciliation Bill which the Chancellor's eyes cannot discern.
Our Bill is the true "Toleration Act," which is the name Mr. Lloyd George has given his Insurance Bill. Speaking at Holborn on Friday night of the difficulties he had to surmount, admitting his Bill to be a compromise, he said his purpose had been to get people into the same Tabernacle, to workship and to work together for at least one particular
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object. That course describes to a nicety the proceedings of the Conciliation Committee, and the attitude of Suffragists towards the Bill. The Bill is the carefully and rigorously considered basis of agreement amongst Suffragists of all parties. No Cabinet Minister calling himself a Suffragist, who yet rejects this Bill, but will lay upon himself a heavy, a most unenviable, responsibility.
October, 1911 - March 7, 1912
THERE were many, both in and out of Suffrage ranks, ready to tell the Militants that their open mistrust of Mr. Lloyd George was both groundless and impolitic. They would feel ashamed when they saw how well he meant by them!
Meanwhile, if the action, or inaction, of certain champions of longer standing were an equivocal air, new allies, about whom no doubts could be entertained, had sprung up on every side. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, in pursuance of an ancient right, had appeared at the bar of the House of Commons to plead with the Government on behalf of the women. All over the kingdom County Councils, to a number which had risien from thirty odd to over a hundred, were sending resolutions to the Prime Minister, calling upon the Government to deal fairly and promptly with the Suffrage Bill.
And so it was that the beginning of November, 1911, found Suffragists of all societies full of hope. The busy months of peaceful propaganda had shown them
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how great a body of adherents, hitherto unsuspected, had been won over to the Cause.
The Anti-Suffragist faction in the Cabinet found itself hard-pressed. That circumstance alone can account for what followed.
Let us remember that at this time, still hoping the revised Conciliation Bill would pass, militancy was holding its hand. Friends of Mr. Lloyd George were not satisfied. Militancy must also hold its tongue. They did not explain how, if the Militants were wrong about the Chancellor, he should have exhibited, not once or twice, but consistently, a maladroitness in dealing with the Suffrage not discoverable in his other public activities. Friends of the Chancellor, unable to explain this fact away, nevertheless, urged that Suffragists, for their own sake, should cease to sharpen their tongues upon an invaluable, an indispensable ally--the one and only person who could (and who, if Militants had prettier manners, would) engineer a Suffrage Bill in all its stages through the House of Commons. That a genuine Suffragist would not do this (if he had the power), however much one group of people doubted him, was a hard saying. And still it was carried to the proper source. It was urged through two hours of private conference. A compromise was at length effected--a peace (extending to the very point of the militant tongue) was to obtain for a given length of time, in order that in the interim, undisturbed even by verbal attacks, Mr. Lloyd George might exercise his miraculous powers upon the Cabinet and in the House of Commons to the end that he, the one man who could, might get "Votes for Women." [NOTE]
While the arch-Militant and the intermediary sat in
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a London club framing the conditions which should leave the Chancellor free even from verbal distractions, free to work his miracles of personal influence--outside the club windows newsboys were calling in the street, "Manhood Suffrage Bill."
It was true. The friend of Woman Suffrage had acquiesced in, if he had not engineered, this disaster to Conciliation.
The enemies of Suffrage threw their caps in the air and danced for joy. Staunch supporters of the Liberal Government like the "Westminster Gazette" said that, though the Prime Minister's pledge still stood good, "it is obvious that the situation is profoundly altered."
"The Times" spoke of "the mine exploded under the so-called Conciliation Bill." [NOTE]
"That Bill the Suffragists hope to carry through the House, in which a large number of members are hampered by pledges hastily given to obviate opposition and perhaps now viewed with regret. They are all provided now with an excellent excuse for doing nothing; for it is obvious that if a truly democratic Woman Suffrage measure is to be in the hands of the House next session, it would be absurd to waste time in tinkering the question. On the other hand, Adult Woman Suffrage is not what many ardent Suffragists desire, and there is the further possibility that the House of Commons may recoil from a wholesale creation of feminine votes."
The "Evening Standard" said of Mr. Asquith and his section of the Cabinet:
"Their new scheme enables them to put the advocates of the Conciliation Bill in a dilemma." . . . "Then our clever lawyer-Premier (with him the equally astute attorney from Carnarvon) has them in his cleft stick. You want women to have the vote? They give it to the ten millions! You don't
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want the ten millions to have it? Then your qualified million shall not have it either. So certain persons of both sexes who have defied and annoyed Messrs. Asquith, Lloyd George, and Winston Churchill are 'had' either way."
The "Evening News" said:
"The advocates of Women's Suffrage will, of course, be furious. Mr. Asquith's bombshell will blow the Conciliation Bill to smithereens, for it is clearly impossible to have Manhood Suffrage for men and a property qualification for women. True, the Premier consents to leave the question of Womanhood Suffrage to the House, but he knows well enough what the decision of the House will be. The Conciliation Bill had a chance, but the larger measure has none at all."
The "Globe" said:
"It is not impossible that the most cogent reason for the introduction of Manhood Suffrage is to be found in the fact that the Cabinet is all at sixes and sevens over what is rather grotesquely known as the Conciliation Bill." . . . "We are no friends to Female Suffrage, but anything more contemptible than the attitude assumed by the Government it is difficult to imagine."
The provincial press echoed the voices of the Metropolis.
"The Government have certainly dealt a deadly blow at the Woman's Suffrage Movement in Parliament," said the "Yorkshire Post."
In the midst of this chorus the voice speaking through "Votes for Women" sounded almost tame:
"In spite of the fact that there is an agitation for giving votes to women which is national in its scope and unprecedented in its magnitude, and that there is no agitation for Manhood Suffrage, the Government are proposing to give more votes to men and none to women." . . . "By associating Votes for Women with the policy of Manhood Suffrage
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the Government have made it a party question, while at the same time they refuse to make it a party measure." . . . "The Manhood Suffrage Bill is simply and expedient for wrecking Woman Suffrage and building up a solid wall against the enfranchisement of women. The Manhood Suffrage Bill is not the answer to a demand for votes for men; it is the answer to the demand for votes for women."
We do not forget there were those calling themselves, even thinking themselves, Suffragists, who said that the consternation of the women was without ground, since they had now two chances. But the people in whom great caring had cleared the vision, saw that the Government's move had lost for Woman Suffrage its Unionist and Moderate Liberal support; and realised, moreover, that a mere amendment not backed by the Government must also be lost for reasons having nothing to do with favour or disfavour towards Woman Suffrage, and everything to do with keeping contentious measures out of the path of Home Rule.
A call went out from the Militant Headquarters summoning women to meet at Caxton Hall on November 21, and to volunteer for a deputation which should endeavour to interview the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and to lay before them the views held by a large section of women in respect of the new crisis which the Government had precipitated.
A letter signed by one of the chief officers of the Union (Mrs. Pethick Lawrence) acquainted the Prime Minister with this design. On six previous occasions the same sort of communication had been made, and had been either evaded, or ignored, with the now well-known consequences. Moved, apparently, by the storm of indignation which had greeted the Government's franchise
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proposal, the Prime Minister replied to Mrs. Lawrence's letter. He stated that he and the Chancellor of the Exchequer had arranged to receive a deputation from various Suffrage Societies on November 17, and would like to know "whether it is the intention of your society to be represented." The reply was, of course, in the affirmative. On the day appointed half a dozen members of the W.S.P.U., with Mrs. Lawrence and Miss Christabel Pankhust as spokeswomen for the Union, appeared with the deputation received at Downing Street. Representatives of Constitutional Societies adopted, as usual, a more conciliatory tone, but the majority of the women present at the interview left Downing Street under a sense of profound discouragement. They asked themselves what less (in view of his publicly given pledge), could the Prime Minister have said than he did say? His speech in reply to the various delegates left the subject precisely where he found it--in very evil case. For persons not content to see Woman Suffrage so left, the question was: What next?
All the previous meetings, the campaigns of peaceful propaganda had not been noticed by (were perhaps not even known to) a Government which considered a political abuse unworthy of serious attention unless such abuse presses upon electors. The Prime Minister's step into the hornet's nest of Manhood Suffrage the previous week, was the final proof of how little the Government was in touch with a great section of public feeling on the Woman Question. Personally, I am quite sure that had he forseen the effect of that step, he would not have taken it at so critical a moment. He reminded the Deputation that he had said the same thing about Franchise Reform three and a half years ago. But three and a
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half years ago the threatened injustice was three and a half years distant, instead of imminent. Above all, three and a half years ago there was no Conciliation Bill towards wich he had assumed responsibilities to be fulfilled "in the letter and in the spirit." That the untimely revival of a Manhood Suffrage Bill at this particular crisis had changed the whole aspect of the Women's Franchise struggle was attested by the public utterances of Suffragists and of Anti-Suffragists of all parties. As witness: the finding of "The Parliamentary Committee for Adult Suffrage," that of the "Unionist Members of Parliament opposed to Woman Suffrage," that of the New Constitutional Society for Woman Suffrage"; attested, too, by Mrs. Humphry Ward, speaking at Salisbury "against"; by Lord Robert Cecil, speaking at Hitchin "for"; by Mr. Ramsay McDonald; by Sir J. Rees, and a cloud of other witnesses.
In the face of all this, I repeat that I am certain the Prime Minister did not fully realise when he made his Manhood Suffrage pronouncement that he was acting contrary to the spirit of his pledge to us--another of the many proofs that, to the importance and the urgency of the Woman Suffrage claim, no clear and consistent thinking has been brought by the Government.
The fact that the Prime Minister had changed the face of affairs he himself tacitly admitted when, in the House a few days earlier (and again to the deputation), he spoke of the Conciliation Bill as a measure whose very promoters might now not care to press--this Bill, to safeguard and to serve which, every Suffrage Society in the kingdom has strained every nerve for many, many months!
Who could hope that our audience of the Prime Min-
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ister had helped us? He said that he was impressed by the speeches. But to impress even such a past master as the Prime Minister with a capacity to make good speeches was not the aim of those who spoke.
With unwillingness, with profound regret, many of us realised that morning that more had been done to win understanding and effectual support for Woman Suffrage by those companies of women who from time to time had set off to Westminster, and who did not see the Prime Minister, than was accomplished to-day by those women who did see him.
For it was an open secret that although the Bill, to which the Government had been induced to promise facilities, went out to the world under the names of a committee of men, its immediate authors were Mrs. Brailsford and Lady Constance Lytton. The spirit that breathed the breath of life into the Conciliation Bill was not born in a committee room. It was born in the turmoil of the street, and nurtured in the solitude of prison.
Women had waited in vain to hear through the chorus of indignation against the Manhood Suffrage measure any voice raised in their behalf among those in power. The silence of their friends was said to be the result of the tradition of Cabinet solidarity. Ministers must apparently endorse even those acts which they deplore. Now to do that seems to the simple feminine mind a misuse, a debasement of loyalty. But if "Cabinet solidarity" had this numbing effect upon our official champions, all the more imperative, in some women's ears, sounded the question: What shall we do next? The answer given by the W.S.P.U. was reiteration of the call to a public meeting the following Tuesday.
Several hundred members of the W.S.P.U., being per-
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suaded of the serviceability of an unprecedented demonstration of the resentment roused by the Manhood Suffrage Bill, went out from Caxton Hall on November 21st and smashed official windows in Whitehall and elsewhere.
Two hundred and twenty women and three men were arrested. A gread deal of ink was spilt, and much breath wasted, in misrepresenting the cause of the raid and the character of the raiders.
The problem for non-raiders thereupon changed its face. It became: How shall those of us who acted according to our best light in abstaining, avoid the pitfall of justifying ourselves by dint of condemning others who acted according to their best light in joining the raid?
No people should be so careful as Suffragists to avoid the mistake of demanding a uniformity of thought and policy amongst women which no one requires (or, at least, has ever got) from the opposite sex. If women are to be left free to follow as various lines of faith and works as men are, then women must also be left free to pursue the ultimate goal in whatever way best accords with individual character and experience. If she is wrong, she pays her penalty. Sometimes she pays her penalty if she is right. Needless to say, the Suffragette raiders paid heavily in the courts, in the prisons, in the press.
In face of the judgments on the women, far harsher than those pronounced upon men doing infinitely more damage under infinitely less provocation, witness-bearing became the duty of those women who had not broken windows, but who were under no misunderstanding about the motives of the women who had done so. One of the wisest commentaries on the event came from outside the Union. Speaking of the latest window-smashing raid,
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Lady Betty Balfour said: "It has nothing in common with hooliganism or mere rebellion for selfish ends. It can never constitute a danger to the State, even if it should lead to bloodshed, because the essence of it is the existence of a spirit without which no State could continue to be great and influential . . . "
Meanwhile, the pledges given by Suffragist members of the Cabinet to keep the Constitutionals quiet, in particular the wide publicity given to the promise of certain Ministers that they would make a great campaign for Woman Suffrage throughout the country--began to have an effect upon the atmosphere of the Cabinet. Posters proclaimed "A Cabinet Crisis over Votes for Women." "The Suffrage question," said one paper, "may represent the Waterloo of Mr. Asquith's career." The "Daily Telegraph" said: "There is deep misgiving as to the probable effect of this momentous question upon Ministerial fortunes." In the opinion of the "Evening Times" "the division in the Cabinet may lead to the break-up of the Radical party."
Then it was that persons calling themselves friends of the Suffrage, but chiefly concerned to rescue the Prime Minister from his difficulty, suggested the Referendum as a way out of the difficulty. This device, when previously urged as a means of settling questions dear to the hearts of politicians, had been denounced. The widespread future use of the Referendum seems not unlikely to commend itself. But the machinery by which it is to work is yet to be tried in England. Neither Liberal nor Conservative Government has yet applied it to any party measure. That it should have been seriously considered as a means of easing the Suffrage tension was merely one more proof of the difficulty politicians find in apply-
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ing to so-called "woman's affairs" the same arguments and principles which they apply to measures initiated by men.
The suggestion of introducing this untried device further to entangle and delay Woman Suffrage increased rather than lessened the tension, and not only as between the practical and the theoretical Suffragists.
The "Pall Mall Gazette" said: [NOTE]
"The cloud, no bigger than a woman's hand, that heralded a depression which has since overspread the whole Ministerial host, has developed a chilly and paralysing atmosphere that has found its way to the innermost recesses of No. 10 Downing Street."
The "Observer" reiterated its view
"that from the Suffrage imbroglio none but a damaging exit is possible, and that this problem is bound to exert a stronger influence upon political destinies than is yet even remotely realised by most politicians."
"The Times," in all the solemnity of a leading article, had said:
"It is daily becoming more evident that the question of Woman Suffrage threatens to produce an acute political crisis."
But not at all. A man might risk the life of a ministry for Home Rule; he might leave the Cabinet on a question of Tariff Reform; but what was Woman Suffrage that a Minister should put himself out for that!
Through the medium of the King's Speech the Government, in February, reiterated its determination to proceed with the programme of Franchise amendment and the Registration of Electors. This might be construed so as to cover the Manhood Suffrage proposals, or merely a Plural Voting Bill. No one could pretend it had any-
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thing to do with Government responsibility towards women.
Yet, as Mr. Lloyd George had admitted, if women were to vote at the next General Election, their Bill must needs be carried in this session in order to secure the benefit of the Parliament Act.
* * *
Spring had come without bringing any serious attempt by persons in power to advance the Woman's Cause. Many Suffragists who had refrained from joining the demonstration the previous November, came, in February, to feel that a sign must be given of their dissatisfaction with an advocacy so tepid, a championship so easily discouraged.
On March 1st a Suffrage raid resulted in the destruction of thousands of pounds' worth of plate glass, and in the arrest of Mrs. Pankhurst and of over a hundred other women. On the following evening a vast crowd responded to the women's invitation bidding the populace to Parliament Square. The police were prepared for this demonstration, of which full notice had been given. Nevertheless, further damage was done to property. More women were arrested. Nearly two hundred were now in prison. The treatment meted out to these political offenders in the courts and in the gaols, the fact that many women were permanently disabled and a man-Suffragist imprisoned in Pentonville had been driven insane by forcible feeding, threw into sharper relief the treatment meted out to disturbers of the peace who were not advocates of Women Suffrage. The historian of the future will hardly find ground for surprise in setting down the fact that in the face of all this the temper of the Militants was hardening. A change in the character
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of their protests, which had been indicated in November, became yet more marked in March. Cabinet Ministers went about the country under a greater vigilance of police protection.
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