THE PERFIDY OF SYMPATHIZERS by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 295
THE PERFIDY OF SYMPATHIZERS *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
THERE are suffragists who have been at a loss, up to the last few days, to detect the smallest service done by recent Militancy.
These persons owe to such "sympathisers" as Sir William Byles the knowledge of disguises torn away, and pretences shattered by the events of the last three weeks.
Personally, I do not believe that Mrs. Pankhurst, in her most militant mood, would have ventured to foretell so ironic a proof of the untrustworthiness of politicans as have been offered to the world in the threats of withdrawal on the part of certain friends--"up till now."
Not the words of Mr. Hobhouse at Bristol, not Lord Haldane's contempt for the more patient policy of pinpricks, nothing that has yet been said, sheds so much light on the meaning of militancy as the spectacle of these lesser "Sympathisers" finding in broken glass an excuse for breaking promises.
We have had, to be sure, Lord Lytton's commentary: "Members of Parliament are just as hyster-
* Published in Votes for Women, March 22, 1912.
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ical as women, lose their heads just as readily, and are just as apt to fly to extremes upon the smallest provocation."
And still, many a Suffragist has read the papers with astonished eyes, taking in, only gradually, the fact that here was proof upon proof of a truth veiled before from all but the more astute.
The simpler-minded are learning not a little from the object-lesson afforded by the spectacle of these champions tumbling over one another, in their haste to run away from a great principle--which we would have thought they would be all the stauncher to defend, the more they honestly thought that principle endangered.
One of the greatest difficulties the Suffrage leaders have had to deal with has been the problem of how to prevent their followers from being lulled into a false security; how to guard the rank and file from reposing a too implicit confidence upon politicians content to call themselves friends, and "leave it at that."
The difficulty presented by this deadlock is fast disappearing. A touchstone has been applied which enables the Suffragist, with an irrefragable certainty, to detect the pinchbeck in political sympathy from the gold.
The simplicity which I have admitted has not been all on the side of the women.
The "Pall Mall Gazette" of March 6th was so good as to tell us who those were who had been
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"driven into the Anti-Suffrage camp by the window-smashing."
There were "those who were lukewarm."
Another paper says: "Hitherto the mass of men have listened to the appeal of women for votes with kindly toleration" (the italics mine). The paragraph ends: "There are ominous signs, however."
These signs and omens are precisely such as were needed by, as I say, the more confiding type of Suffragist. Many a woman has come with difficulty, and only in these last two weeks, to see that with a certain number of men (a small number, we are glad to believe) the promise to support Woman Suffrage bore no relation to conviction on the subject.
Not patience alone has suffered by that discovery, but the respect which we find no difficulty in feeling for straightforward opponents.
Much has been made of the surface differences between the Suffrage camps. Yet we are at one not only in the prime article of our faith. We take precisely the same view of the perfidy of "friends" both in and out of the House of Commons.
Members of the W.S.P.U. are the first to say that, if punishment of all Suffragists, for the militant acts of a section, represents men's idea of fairness--it certainly does not represent women's.
The carrying out of these poor threats will be taken by the W.S.P.U., and ultimately by the public, as further justification of that cumulative distrust of the so-called friends of the Suffrage, and that cumu-
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lative abhorrence of bad faith which lately found public expression.
Many women feel an unconquerable, vicarious shame on looking into the record of certain of our "friends."
Leaving out of count the more flagrant cases of bad faith, we find that members of Parliament seem to think themselves active in our behalf, even generous, almost daring, when they have repeated the forty-year-old conviction: Women should be represented as well as taxed.
But when the mere iteration of that conviction has come to sound damnable in ears strained to catch the logical conclusion--when women have shown they are not as content, as men seem, with talking and writing about reform--when, casting about for some means to force a skulking "sympathy" into the open, women succeed at last in driving such sympathisers first out of hiding, and ultimately out of the field, they find they have done the next best thing to making an honest friend.
What remains to be found out is not someone's opinion of militant methods as a means of drawing public attention to an urgent matter too long neglected--though few will say that end has not been achieved. What tens of thousands of women want to know is: How much verifiable foundation was there for the belief in the bad faith of certain "supporters"?
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The world has already seen with what amazing celerity certain gentlemen have sprung forward to answer that question with public justification of the worst suspicions of the Militants.
The Suffragists Member of Parliament who finds an excuse for his supineness in women's impatience with that very defect in him, the man who cries out: "Look at me, while I wriggle out of my pledge through a hole in the window!"--owes the public an explanation of why he ever gave himself the trouble to endorse a principle which, by his own confession, means for him so little.
Did he endorse Woman Suffrage because he thought he might count on ample time to fondle the theme in public, and to attitudinise on platforms as the champion of woman? Or was he a Suffragist because he felt sure that never would any woman be a Suffragist in stark earnest--as passionate for freedom as a man?
However he may answer these questions, he may rest assured that the "sympathiser" who at this crisis withdraws his support will be recognised for what he is.
One of the hopeful things about the coming of women into public affairs is that women are not hypnotised by party shibboleths, nor blinded to plain issues because those issues are given misleading names.
Nothing so surprises women, nothing so shames
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humanity in their eyes, as the shifts and insincerities certain public men permit themselves.
In the face of men's shoulder-shrugging at our ignorance of politics and law, few women will be found to envy the erudition and experience which enable that eminent publicist, Prof. Dicey, for instance, to acknowledge without shame his hope that those of his sex who have endorsed the principle of Woman Suffrage have endorsed that principle without being convinced of its justice or concerned to see justice done.
Without contradiction, Prof. Dicey was represented by the press last autumn as saying: "It is idle to count up the number of M.P.'s nominally pledged to the principle of Woman Suffrage. I refused to be imposed upon by the political fiction that all these pledged M.P.'s have made up their own minds to sanction the most novel, and one of the most hazardous, of social and political experiments."
Truly, Militancy beside that seems not only respectable, but austerely moral.
Certain critics of the W.S.P.U., knowing that the trifling and insincerity of politicians was the root cause of the Militant outbreak, now represent the Union as rejoicing over the latest illustration of the ground for distrust. If that supposed view of the Militants is to be justified to the full, let more, and yet more, of our "friends" in Parliament show to the world the base metal of their support.
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A CONDITION of grave industrial unrest had for weeks been a cause of profound uneasiness to employers of labour, to the Government, and to the general public. Not only in English collieries, but in Scotland, and notably in Wales, the discontent of the miners had culminated in a practically universal strike. Mills and furnaces were shut down, blacklegs who attempted to open them were mobbed and mauled, industry was paralysed. Great employers of labour, and their representatives in the press, were urging the Prime Minister to employ the troops in coercion. Instead of doing that, Mr. Asquith, disregarding the passionate adjuration of the capitalist class, laboured without ceasing to frame some compromise which would meet the demands of a great body of workmen armed with voting powers. Vested interest redoubled its denunciation of the Prime Minister, and pointed ironically to the reasons for his action. These were rated at sixty-seven, that being the number of seats controlled by miners' votes. Meanwhile, from platform and press came demands for arrest of the demagogues who were inciting the strikers to violence. But male inciters were left at large.
The voice of privilege was also raised to advocate confiscation of those Trade Union funds which kept the strike alive. "The Times" said: [NOTE]
"The whole subject assumes a new aspect when organisations and funds are used to stop or paralyse the entire trade of the country; when crowds are made desti-
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tute, and when, as must happen, mortality and disease must increase."
Then from Durham a different note. A Justice of the Peace wrote to the press:
" . . . We read that a number of women have been arrested on warrants charged with 'conspiracy to commit wilful damage to property.' In the same issue, under the heading of 'Strikers' Terrorism,' you state that hundreds of miners at Tarbran Colliery, in Midlothian, armed with sticks, waited at the pit-head for the men working underground, and threatened if they did not cease work they would be thrown into Cobbinshaw Loch, and they were forced to return home.
"Now this is a gross offence against the liberty of the subject, and a far more serious crime than any attack on private property and smashing of windows, yet I do not see any trace of the Treasury having issued warrants against these ruffians. I presume the reason is that the miners have votes and the women have not, and that the law is to be enforced against the non-voter while the voter can defy it with impunity."
This dinstinction, long clear to Suffragists, was further emphasised by "The Times'" suggestion of penal servitude for the Suffragists leaders whose case was still sub judice. The editorial added: "It remains also to be seen whether the law cannot reach those who, behind the scenes, plan and provide funds for these demonstrations."
There was no secret about the contributors to the Women's Social and Political Union. The published list would have furnished a very pretty basis of indictment had the numbers and the character of the contributors not damped the ardour of official reprisal. Mr. Bodkin
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had much to say at Bow Steet in stating the case for the prosecution about "aiding and abetting"--which apparently could be done to a degree legally indictable by the appearance of sympathisers at W.S.P.U. meetings [!], and by their mere sitting there without protest while others preached rebellion. Since this expert opinion was listened to without protest by the other men of the law present, Mr. Bodkin's view of the law must be supposed to have done no violence to the law.
Members of the Union looked daily for further arrests in pursuance of the policy of intimidation. But the authorities had their hands full. No new arrests were made. A rumour was diligently spread that, for clemency's sake, bygones would be bygones. But from this time forward, whoever ventured to speak in favour of, or subscribe a penny to, the Women's Social and Political Union, would be dealt with according to the law of conspiracy.
There was no assurance whatever that this was not true. A good many women who had not themselves broken windows or tried to force a way into the commons, must have found in this threat a call to bear witness to their conviction that the impatience of Suffragists was justified.
One the evening of March 28th, when the Conciliation Bill was once more under debate in the House of Commons, a meeting was held at the Albert Hall by the Women's Social and Political Union. In the space of a few minutes £10,000 was subscribed to the Fighting Fund.
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