LETTER TO "THE TIMES" by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 288
LETTER TO "THE TIMES" *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
To the Editor:
SIR, Among the mass of printed comment from Anti-Suffrage sources which has come under one's eyes in the last six years, your leader of yesterday is probably the most enlightened. Here at last we have a consideration of causes, not merely of symptoms.
You will not find all men agree that "when enthusiasm brings about a tragedy, there is some error latent in it, however fine its cause may be." To agree to this would be to admit that nothing the world has gained has been worth its price of sorrow. The truth seems to be that the greater good may seldom, in an imperfect world, be bought with any other coin. The amount of attendant tragedy is, we admit, a measure of imperfection. But not always in the enthusiasm. History shows how the sorrier imperfections have been exhibited in the means employed to kill enthusiasm. The harsher means have always failed, when the enthusiasm was great enough in enough people to face obloquy and suffering.
Since you, sir, are not blind to some of the subtler forces behind the Suffrage agitation, can you not help to make clear the fact that, whether for good, as
* March 7, 1912. [NOTE]
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we think, or for ill, the Woman Suffrage Movement has tapped those deep reservoirs of spiritual devotion and consecrated selflessness from which the world has, from the beginning, drawn its moral and religious strength?
The truth is that the ideal for which Woman Suffrage stands has come, through suffering, to be a religion. No other faith held in the civilised world to-day counts so many adherents ready to suffer so much for their faith's sake. Why not try to realise what this means? For to realise it will shorten a bitter time.
We know that some who are not ignorant of the causes behind the recent outbreak nevertheless maintain that for the authorities to treat with those who have defied the law would be wholly without precedent. Such a contention loses sight of the object lesson offered by the former law-breaker, now law maker, and chosen colleague of the Prime Minister; loses sight of the attitude of authorities and public alike, towards General Botha; loses sight of the collective evidence of the past. Yet we are told that because some glass has been broken, any show of understanding, or consideration, towards Militant Suffragists would involve a menace to the foundations of civilisation.
The women's answer to that is that they are fighting against the real, not a fancied menace, and fighting for a less imperfect civilisation.
But perhaps even those who think their own op-
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position to Militant Suffragism is founded on love of law and order, even they may yet ask themselves if they may reasonably hope that the little mops of the magistrates or the bigger broom of the superior court will keep back this tide. Does anyone seriously think that the hundreds of imprisonments, the forcible-feeding torture, the death and insanity already to the credit (?) of the policy of repression have had their indended effect? And yet towards this forty-year-old demand, with half the House of Commons on its side and more than half the Cabinet, the Government's only change from an attitude of cynical neglect is to stronger methods of repression.
The Prime Minister, whose ignorance of the deeper forces at work is still very great, welcomed yesterday the newest of these methods proposed by a Member of Parliament--a Bill to make the recent damage done chargeable to the funds of the society to which the agitators belong. Does he really think that, if he should be able to make forfeit those funds (of which the greater part represent sixpence by sixpence faith and self-denial such as has no parallel elsewhere in the world)--does the Prime Minister seriously think such a course will put an extinguisher on the Suffrage candle?
Rather it will blow the flame to conflagration. And you, sir (I say with all respect), will not be able wholly to free yourself from responsibility in the misreading of the situation on the part of officials--isolated each in the engrossing business of
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his special department, and yet called on to take action in a matter whose significance has been obscured and whose meaning has been travestied by the press. The Prime Minister, in the absence of first-hand knowledge, proposes, he says, to consult the Attorney-General. Let him rather send out some impartial observer to report faithfully the breadth and depth of this disaffection. He will perhaps carry back some idea of the "mandate" left behind by the woman who has gone to prison, the woman whom 40,000 others followed through the London streets last June in token of their adhesion to the governing aim of her life. That assurance she has sent from prison of an "inexhaustible supply" was no vain boast.
You were shocked and astonished at the broken glass. I assure you that many of us have come to read of broken glass with an intensity of relief.
Some of our opponents told us long ago to what the agitation would lead. We scouted the idea--out of faith in the wisdom and right feeling of men, not far from any doubt of how far women would go in pursuit of an end beside which penal servitude itself is slight and negligible.
I am, Sir, yours truly,
Way Stations page 292
March 5th - 22nd, 1912
ON the evening of March 5th the authorities in their turn made a raid. The offices of the Women's Social and Political Union at Clement's Inn were invaded, overhauled, and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence arrested on the charge of "conspiring to incite certain persons to commit malicious damage to property." Of the three other persons named in the warrant, Mrs. Pankhurst and Mrs. Tuke were already in prison, on the lesser charge in connection with the window-breaking of the previous week, and Miss Christabel Pankhurst could not anywhere be found.
The way in which the regular staff and outside friends of the Union related themselves to the changed condtions thus brought about showed that though the last half-dozen years' work had not yet won political freedom, it had won for the women, who stood closest to the Union, a certain freedom of soul. In the midst of the profound excitement created by the clean sweep effected by the Government, with newsboys crying, "Conspiracy!" in the streets, opponents jubilating over "the death-blow" dealt to the forward faction, and predicting fresh arrests--up there, high above those voices, in the midst of premises ransacked and rifled, visitors to Clement's Inn the next morning found the offices open as usual, heads of departments at their posts, and an undismayed activity reigning. From outside, offers of aid--personal and financial--were pouring in, and the work of the Union was going forward with an earnestness and efficiency greater even than common.
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And the quiet of it all! The indifference to the probable wider casting of the net which had emeshed the bigger fish. Now that the Pethick Lawrences were in prison, the leader-writer of the paper and director of the policy of the Union was that arch-conspirator on whom the law had failed to lay its hands. No secret was ever better kept than her place of concealment. An acting-editor of distinguished ability and rare devotion was instantly produced in the person of Miss Evelyn Sharp. At her suggestion others who did not usually write for the paper were called upon to help in the crisis. Persons who responded were repeatedly warned of their foolhardiness. By associating themselves with a society under the ban of the Government, a society whose leaders were about to be tried before the High Court on a charge of conspiracy, friends and helpers of the Women's Social and Political Union laid themselves open to a similar indictment. The probable truth of this was generally admitted. No one was heard to deny it. But the only charge in the aspect of affairs inside the Union was an increased devotion to its service, and an even greater disregard of possible consequences to the individual.
Such fear as the Government's action had evoked was confined to persons outside the Union. Cabinet Ministers went doubly guarded, and sentences of hard labour, intended to intimidate, were pronounced on women for breaking a few shillings' worth of glass. Three hundred women were now behind prison bars. The British Museum, the Royal Academy, and the Royal United Service Institution were closed for the publicly assigned reason--fear of what the Militants might do. This dread extending under the influence of panic to what the Militants might say, carried certain Suffragist Members
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of Parliament clean out of their true course. In the House of Commons and in the press, public notice was given that for fear the Militants would take any vote given now in favour of the Suffrage as a sign that Militant tactis had succeeded--the vote about to be cast would be against the Conciliation Bill. And this, in spite of the fact that under the transformed conditions created by the Government's "Manhood" proposals, the Conciliation Bill had been opposed and denounced by the Militants.
But politicians have not yet thought enough about Woman Suffrage to avoid these glaring inconsistencies. Part of the service done by Militancy was to elicit such inconsistencies and to make other people, if not their authors, recognise them.
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