SERMONS IN STONES by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
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SERMONS IN STONES *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
THE great majority of Suffragists of all societies are lovers of peace. They believe in peace not as merely a humane sentiment, but as the only sound political economy.
Those who are not taken in by the fallacy that physical force is the basis of civilised government, are more anxious than the most scandalised official that the evil example of men in revolt should be avoided by women. That is not to say that the most fanatical peace-lover is necessarily blind to the fact,--which only sentimentality can ignore--that women are quite as human as men. Women are liable to be pleased and won by fair promises; women are liable to be angered and antagonised by betrayal.
Why not? Hath not a woman eyes? Hath not a woman hands, organs, dimensions, sinews, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, treated by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as her brother is?
The answer should bring us close to thankfulness that, in spite of provocation, women, so far, have
* Reprinted by permission of the Contemporary Review.
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not, in their struggle for freedom, emulated the more violent deeds of men. Nevertheless, the Militant Suffragists have succeeded, in the words of "The Times," in bringing about "the marked and profound change which has taken place in public opinion, which formerly treated the agitation with tolerant amusement."
Since that is not only a great achievement, since to do away with tolerant amusement is precisely what the forward party set out to effect, no one can be surprised that the tactics of that party should have roused a passion of opposition never accorded to the milder propaganda. The so-called militant tactics are those which have most seriously embarrassed the opponents of Woman Suffrage. They are the tactics which have rallied the greater numbers, and the larger financial backing, to the Cause. They are tactics which have breathed new life into the very societies which denounce Militancy.
To defend the anti-Government by-election policy, or the interruption of Cabinent Ministers' meetings by persons unable otherwise to record their strong convictions on matters of public importance, would be too easy a task. Let us, therefore, consider those actions yet more bitterly denounced, actions held in many quarters to be not only unpardonable, but inexplicable, as coming from reputable educated women. Looking first at one of the immediate effects of the militant acts, is not the most casual critic given pause, by reflecting that the great body
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of respectable women who compose the Social and Political Union have not repudiated these tactics?
Anyone who wishes to know the sort of women who support the Union has only to look down the columns setting forth the subscribers to the funds. Such examination will show that the sinews for this moral war were provided by working wives and mothers, by doctors and nurses, by painters, musicians, teachers, domestic servants, "great ladies," and a number of the first men in England. The few hundred who are punished and held up to obloquy for doing the militant acts are sustained by the ever-growing army which stands behind, supporting and, if not rejoicing in these deeds, sympathising with the state of mind of which they are the outcome. That would be a superficial power of analysis which should set down this support to delight in lawlessness. In all communities women form the law-abiding section. Exceeding men as they do in most populations, in all prisons, in every reformatory, women are in the minority.
If respectable wives and mothers, girls from the Universities and girls from the mill, stand firm behind the individuals who do the inconvenient and (for themselves) dangerous acts, it is because they understand--as their critics do not yet understand--that although the sum of good-will now in the world is probably greater than it ever was before, good-will is ineffectual until it is applied. The need for its "operant power" must be made manifest
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before it will move. Not active opposition--apathy is the arch-enemy of reform.
At a heavy price (and one does not mean the sum of the plate-glass bill) apathy seems to have been broken.
But by stone-throwing! You shrink from that. Especially you shrink from the thought that the act was committed by women of repute. You may not quite comfortably despise it, whatever your creed or temper. And for this reason: no one can deny the close relationship between a deed and the motive for that deed. The motive here (however mistaken you may judge it) was no ignoble motive. You cannot dissociate character from its expression. And the "character" of these women is held in respect wherever they are best known.
I do not wish to deny that, from the first, the stones have been stones of stumbling to many a good Suffragist. Some soothed their dismay by saying, what is perfectly true, that this movement has grown too big to include only women of philosophic temper. By its universality of appeal to women who know life it has attracted to it, the apologists said, certain reckless spirits, impossible to keep within bounds. And after all (thought some of the women who were most disturbed by the stone-throwing) we know that the need for reform is so much greater than anyone of us has been able to say, that if it is not to come by quiet means, come it must, even if it comes with tumult. Is it not as well, such women ended
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by asking themselves, that the mass of men (who are still so ignorant of the movement) should be given this sign? Many better things have failed. Perhaps the cruder means will be better understood.
There was this in the way of the first stone-throwing being understood. It was the work of only a few isolated cases, people said, of that well-known feminine malady "hysteria." The first stone-throwing had no more significance for most men than any other unrelated instance of disagreeable eccentricity. But when the continued inaction of Suffragist Members of Parliament multiplied these instances of eccentricity by hundreds, there were found at last to be enough of these "departures from the norm" to form a class. Enough to mean something. What it meant was held by certain women, as well as by certain men, to be very terrible.
No more here than elsewhere does any act stand unrelated. Let us glance for a moment, then, at a sequence of events which I have scant space to recapitulate, but of which too many are ignorant. I mean the Woman's Movement of the forty years prior to 1906. After the Liberal leaders' betrayal of the women in 1884 (when it was chivalrously decided that "the women must be thrown overboard to lighten the ship), [NOTE] the Suffragists of those days fought patiently, quietly, a losing battle. They kept it up for ten years longer, losing ground little by little, till, in 1894, men who where opposed to such share as women had won in local government, seeing
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the Suffrage Cause had so declined, felt it was safe for its enemies openly to show their hands. And it was safe. When the new County Councils were formed women were shut out of them. Women were turned off the Education Boards. If, in consequence of all this, women made any protest against such injustice, their protest was not of such a nature as to be heeded, or even to be generally heard. The fact was that most of those women who had worked longest and most faithfully had now lost heart. The movement languished, and by the general public was forgotten. In the autumn of 1906, at Ladybank, the present Prime Minister, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, when asked what were his views upon the Suffrage, could say publicly that it was a question in which he had formerly taken some interest, but he had not thought about it for fourteen years. Strange as such an utterance would sound now from any Member of the Government, no one felt in 1906 that it probably in the least overstated a responsible Minister's undisturbed indifference to the greatest and most fundamental reform in the history of civilised states. This was the condition of affairs that confronted the younger generation of Suffragists six years ago. They saw how the spirit of the older women had been broken, and they knew in pursuit of what policy this result had come about. They saw that the Cause was not only not going forward, it was going back. The older Suffragists had long been at the end of their resources. For they had
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tried in vain every "constitutional" means. And there seemed no other.
But there was.
To undersand how women justified to themselves the adoption of these other means, we must recognise that those who knew most about the condition of working-class women and children, not only believed in Woman Suffrage as a general proposition--they were convinced of the urgency of the reform.
To recognise (if only for argument's sake) this urgency, places those who care to understand the movement at the women's point of view. Now, if you believe that you are fighting, not only for the oppressed, but for the final triumph of civilisation, you are ready (for the achievement of ends so momentous) to make some sacrifice. There are women who would even sacrifice a few panes of glass, if the crash of that breaking would break the spell which has bound men under the Upas tree of an evil tradition.
Remember, that in attempting to break this spell women were confronted by an even more difficult task than, for long, they realised. Among other discoveries by the way, women found to their astonishment that men, whether by nature or training, are the less reasonable sex, the more superstitious, the more helpless before custom. Every generation of schoolboys exemplifies this afresh. Whether it is woman's commerce with the child that has kept the great mass of women close to reality and common
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sense, I do not pretend to know. But there would seem to be ground for thinking that being called on to answer the child's eternal "Why?" woman's recurrent need to give a plain and rational account of conduct to minds as yet untampered with, as yet unmuddled--this necessity may have kept her own mind clear of much of the rubbish that has been misnamed knowledge, may have kept her sense of proportion true to the great primitive facts of life and love, of suffering and death.
The man, relieved of the necessity constantly to re-envisage life in its simpler, more fundamental aspects, has always tended to make idols of word-spinners. He hypnotises himself with what he calls Philosophy of Life and Science of Government, and is the bondslave of outworn forms. Even in the new republics he makes a fetish of that which should be the simplest, plainest vehicle of justice, namely, the common law. Clogged as it is by all manner of antiquated mummery, man accepts without misgiving, and without humour, this abracadabra of ancient forms and ceremonies. He educates a special hierarchy to administer the rites. He will talk to you in the twentieth century of indentures and of seals, though no indenture is now made, and in lieu of wax is a pinked round of scarlet paper. If such matters are trifles, the same cannot be said of other survivals. In trying those grossly misunderstood cases of infant murder, the judge retains the hideous mummery of the black cap and the solemn death-
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sentence, though he does not any longer expect to have the unhappy woman killed. But the effect upon the victim of social injustice and puerperal mania may be imagined by the women, if not by men.
Again and again we have seen how in Parliament an authentic account of gross injustice has left the legislators' calm unruffled. But, if in her desire to get redress for some intolerable evil, a woman, as actually happened about three years ago, comes unbidden on the floor of the House of Commons, legislators are stirred to their depths by the breach of decorum. The woman is harried out of the place as though she were some unclean, wild animal. One gentleman, reporting the disgraceful scene for the press, said: "Before anyone had presence enough of mind to stop her, the woman had almost reached"--the reader may well hold his breath and wonder, "reached" Whom, or what Holy of Holies?-- "she had almost reached the sacred mace." Yet the woman had come in the name of that which the mace typified. She brought the spirit, and on that occasion bore sole witness to the sanctity of the symbol which, lacking that, is so much silver-gilt.
But one woman's crossing the floor of the House, horrible as was the spectacle, might have been due to mental aberration. What seems to have unnerved the authorities is the idea that not merely one hysterical woman, but hundreds, should not only offer to the Government that disrespect which it had earned, but should offer violence to property.
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Men who know the horrors of real war, and in cold blood prepare for it, are unspeakably revolted at the idea of women using what men call "force"--of no matter how innocuous a character, or in any cause, however worthy.
Now, these things are very significant. They give women fresh food for thought. Obviously, a great many men are not at the beginning of an understanding of whereabouts women are in this matter. Yet we see that historians and statesmen, looking at the great issue of political liberty steadily, see it whole when it applies to their own sex. Mr. Gladstone's words in this connection have been often quoted. (See page 31.) [NOTE]
"I am not," said Burke, "of the opinion of those gentlemen who are against disturbing the public repose. I like a clamour whenever there is an abuse. The fire-bell at midnight disturbs your sleep, but it keeps you from being burnt in your bed. The hue and cry alarms the country, but preserves all the property of the province."
When dealing with women's application of these truths, the judicial sex shows lack of a sense of proportion. The press, last November, dwelt in a paroxysm of horror upon the fact that, among the women fighting for freedom, one sent a stone through the window of the Westminster Palace Hotel, where--oh, enormity beyond belief--a Bishop was dining!
The Bishop was quite unhurt.
But, a Bishop--! And at dinner, too.
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As a Minister of the Crown has reminded us, when men wanted votes they did not interrupt a Bishop's dinner. They burnt down his palace.
Those in authority who, instead of concentrating their energies upon furtherance of a World-Peace, devote their high training, their experience, their influence to the formation of new army schemes and vaster naval programmes; these people, actively engaged in preparation for war, are amongst those most outraged and aghast if a woman breaks a window. Nevertheless, the woman's act was of the same nature as the breaking of the class case which must be done before you can ring the fire-alarm. It is the preliminary to warning people of a danger that threatens the community. Precisely so the stone. Not to injure anyone, but by way of sounding an alarm. A thing done to draw attention. How well the women aimed is proved by the result. The stone succeeds where all the other means have failed. Reason, right feeling, statistic array of facts, an amount of constitutional propaganda, beyond that at the service of any other franchise reform--proof of these gets no further, if so far, as the porches of the officials' cars. The stone cuts them to the heart. The very armament-providers profess a detestation, and they actually feel a great fear of even the symbol of women's rebellion--the symbol being all that women have yet shown in this agitation.
No creature was hurt by any of those stones. No one was intended to be hurt. In comparison with
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the measures adopted by men under less provocation, women are still pursuing a policy of pin-pricks, hoping still that a prick, after all, may rouse the men of the nation.
But no one in authority seems yet to have set himself to find out whether behind the awful disorderliness of window-breaking there might be a desire for a better order. At present all that men can see in it is violence pure and simple. And, apparently, from the armament-provider to the jingo "mafficker," your apologist for war will insist that women shall not only stand for peace--they shall stand for his idea of peace. He excuses his own preoccupation with preparations for the slaughter of human beings on a vast scale by saying that all this is done in defence of the home. Women answer, with truth, that the one and only aim that could have brought the Woman's Movement to its present proportions is protection of the home. It is woman's discovery (calling, in truth, for no profundity) that the most obvious objection to armies and navies is that they do not, and cannot, "defend the home" from any of the worser evils.
They are useless allies in that conflict in which uncounted thousands yearly suffer and die. They die for lack of proper housing; for lack of uncontaminated milk; for lack of segregation of contagious diseases; through the absence of State-trained midwives; through the dangerous trades. In the sweatshops are the struggling legions who do worse than
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die--they breed disease. And there is the legion who do worse than die in unspeakable dens on infamy.
Innocent childhood and honourable old age, the Holy Places in our pilgrimage--to resuce these from the unbeliever is the goal of the New Crusade. Among the friends and supporters of the Women's Social and Political Union, not all can submit themselves to a struggle with the police. They see that there are many ways to work for this reform. Each must do the part which nature and training have made "her part." Not in this field, any more than in the fields of business or of art, are we all fitted for the same service. If we would not suffer that warning pain, characterised by Charlotte Brontë as "the result of estrangement from one's real character," we must act in accordance with our individual nature and qualification. The women do that who help in the less heroic ways. The women who encounter public pains and penalties are accepting the heavier burden. They will have their public reward in the end, as well as, meanwhile, the unfaltering justification of their own conscience and the grateful devotion of their comrades.
For the public must not suppose that, of the Suffragists who stand outside the physical conflict, all of them are pluming themselves upon finer feelings, or a dignity any more sensitive than those who fling themselves against the cordons of Westminster police. Some of the women who feel they cannot do that, may know that they would not come out of the
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ordeal as sane and as unsmirched as we know these other women do. Of such as refrain there may be those who recognise that something of the horror of physical struggle would stain the memory forever, blurring the good they sought; something of degradation survive a conflict which they lack the power to spiritualise. Not all of us can take it simply enough. Perhaps we are too far away from the worser evils.
Yet such considerations make a poor foundation upon which to rear a sense of superiority. Those who justify themselves for not bearing a share in the public struggle will not easily justify themselves for making no effort to understand these others who, at such personal cost, are fighting the battle in their way. Unnerving as are the particular scenes under consideration, even to think about, there is in them an implication more unnerving still. For we have here hundreds of women ready to accept the disapproval (and all that may involve), not only on the part of the powers that be, and not only of the general public, but of their dearest friends and staunchest followers--if by that single sacrifice, or any other, they can break through the apathy that makes men and women permit the greater evils that afflict the world.
To speak, in conclusion, of the founder of the Militant Union, she is not in search of martyrdom. So little is she enamoured of sacrifice, that it is precisely her impatience before the useless sacrifice women make which goads her into protest. She
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would seem to be an economist in means. She will advocate, or herself do, only as much as is necessary to fulfil the end she has in view--that of compelling attention to matters long unregarded.
If you should talk to her of "dignity," is it not conceivable that, thinking still of women broken, and of girls defiled, she would turn upon you with: "Whose dignity?"--and so make my dignity or yours cut a sorry figure weighed in the balance against that womanly dignity she cries out unceasingly to see established on the earth.
Persons of this temper can do without approval. Yet allies they never dreamed of are found upon their side. A philosopher as grave and decorous as Emerson, for instance, with his assurance that "every project in the history of reform, no matter how violent and surprising, is good when it is the dictate of a man's genius and constitution."
Very probably Emerson, as well as Burke and Mr. W. E. Gladstone, might hesitate to include women among mankind.
AFTER much official opposition and many delays brought to an end at last by the persistence of Mrs. Pankhurst's friends, she was allowed to leave the prison-cell (to which police-court proceedings had consigned her), in order to prepare her defence before the higher court.
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Dr. Ethel Smyth and Dr. Garrett Anderson also had friends whose influence was great enough to secure the release of these ladies. Some two hundred more, lacking this advantage, were still in prison. Failing other help, they presently fell back upon that grim ally, the Hunger Strike. By this means some concession, under Rule 243 a was wrung out of the authorities.
The prolonged duel in prison and out, between the women and the Government sharpened the contrast in the treatment of women rebelling against intolerable injustice and the treatment of men (leaders and rank and file alike) rebelling against minor wrongs. Opponents of Home Rule for Ireland had become more violent in rule and deed. Ulster leaders (or, to be more precise, men living in England and having careers in England, who passed over to Ireland in order to incite a section to rebellion) effected the arming of Irishmen--not with stones and hammers, to smash glass, but with rifles to kill their fellow-creatures. In open defiance of the Unlawful Drilling Act, and under the eyes of the police, Ulster citizens were set practicing the arts of warfare. Sir Edward Carson publicly defied the British Government and preached the duty of rebellion. "Your Home Rule Bill," he declared, "has no moral force, we will not accept it, and as you have treated us with fraud, if necessary we will treat you with force."
Another Member of the English Parliament, Mr. F. E. Smith, had already said: " . . . I utterly decline to be bound in my resistance . . . within the strait-waistcoat of constitutional resistance. So far as Home Rule is concerned, I will shrink from nothing," etc. etc.
"Violence," said the "Pall Mall Gazette," "is always deplorable, so is bloodshed. Yet violence and
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bloodshed in Ulster would be incomparably a smaller misfortune than cowardly acquiescence," etc. etc.
The "Morning Post" echoed: "In a supreme crisis, where the vital interests of the State are at stake, weapons must be used which are not employed in normal and quiet times."
Those who uttered the above opinions were not arrested, and neither were the rioters in Belfast. But persons with a lesser degree had put such utterances as the last into practice, were still in prison; and May 15th saw their leaders on trial at the Old Bailey for conspiracy.
The appearance on behalf of the Government by a member of the Government, appeared to satisfy men's idea of justice better than it satisfied women's. There was irony, at all events, in the chance which threw the weight of this particular prosecution on the shoulders of a man who believed in the justice of the women's Cause. A man, too, who appeared to be not insensible to the evidence of unselfish purpose and high moral character in the prisoners, and who, out of his own mouth, had publicly offered explanation and justification of just such acts as these on the score of which he was now urging punishment.
Two years earlier, speaking of the contrast between campaigns for other reforms and that against the Lords' Veto, he had said: "Formerly, when the great mass of the people were voteless, they had to do something violent in order to show what they felt; to-day the elector's bullet is his ballot. Let no one be deceived, therefore, because in the present struggle everything is peaceful and orderly, in contrast to the disorderliness of other great struggles in the past." There is no better summing-up,
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alike of the evidence of enemies and the speeches of the Suffragists in defence, than that recorded opinion of the prosecutor with reference to he reformers of the past: "They had to do something violent until they had the vote!"
The altered mental attitude toward the voteless of this Suffragist Attorney-General was an inevitable subject for censure. We do not know whether he would have been ready to give up, temporarily, his public career, rather than perform at the Old Bailey trial what could only have been a hateful office. Yet had he refused to fulfil the task which his position put upon him, many besides those on the Government side of the controversy would have said that he did so out of fear of the Militants. For many unnerving rumours were afloat at the moment as to what weapons the more determined among the women were prepared to use against their enemies. Possibly the Attorney-General found his task at the Old Bailey a degree less unendurable than the imputation of having shifted a dangerous, as well as odious, job upon another man.
Those who paid the heaviest felt the object-lesson of the Conspiracy Trial worth its "cost." A wider, a totally different, public learned something of the true meaning of the Woman's Movement; of the great financial resources of the Women's Social and Political Union; of its vast organisation; its power of concerted action, and its discipline, as rigorous as it was voluntary. Men opened their eyes as the very enemies of the Union bore witness to these great qualities. Yet what counted most, there as elsewhere, was the revelation of personal character behind the outward manifestation. Lookers-on felt that the speeches made by the defendants were winning
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understanding, winning something like sympathy, even in the ranks of professional opponents. As to the "general public," among those who day by day crowded into the court, after waiting at the doors in the fashion of the theatre-queue--there were women and men who had hitherto felt only curiosity, or mere irritation, over the events which had landed Suffragists in the Old Bailey dock. And now, under influence of the speeches in defence, these critics had fallen to cheering, and had to be threatened with expulsion from the court. Upon the jury, to whom the much-misrepresented militant acts were now for the first time fullly explained, the effect of the prisoners' speeches were marked. So much was plain to anyone who watched the jurors, as day succeeded day. Suffragist faith in the probable intelligence and common sense of twelve chance-chosen citizens rose steadily till the hour of the judge's charge to the jury. Again women rubbed their eyes. Was this even-handed justice? Had we not known, we would have taken it for a second prosecution. Yet, in spite of its defects in fact, in form and, above all, in temper, the jury, with admirable independence, added a notable rider to their verdict, guilty of the charge of conspiracy. "We desire," said the foreman, "unanimously to express the hope that, taking into consideration the undoubtedly pure motives that underlie the agitation which has led to this trial, you would be pleased to exercise the utmost leniency in dealing with the case."
Upon that the sentence was delivered: "Nine months in the Second Division, with the costs of the prosecution."
Well might the Liberal "Daily News" ask: "Would the jury have convicted if it had known in advance what
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Mr. Justice Coleridge understood by the utmost clemency?"
Well, the justice of men was done. We saw those three brave, public-spirited people led off by the prison warders.
Early in the following month the justice of men was invoked for the non-militant--for thse women who had fallen into the hands of White Slavers, and had had the power to fight crushed out of them. The following article appeared in "The Times" of June 10th. No contradiction reached the general public of this version of the ground upon which Parliament, spurred on by the friends of the late. W. T. Stead, consented to concern itself on behalf of the most wretched and most non-militant amongst women.
LIBERALWOMEN AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC BILL
Apart from its merits, there is another reason which impelled the Government to take up the Criminal Law Amendment (White Slave Traffic) Bill, the second reading of which is the second order in the House of Commons to-day. At the opening meeting of the Women's Liberal Federation last week a resolution wa proposed on behalf of the executive that the rules defining the constitution of the Federation should be altered so that it should no longer be possible to affiliate to the Federation associations which did not have as their object the admission of women to the Suffrage. This was carried, and also another resolution stating that if the Government's Reform Bill became law without the enfranchisement of women, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the federation to sustain their present amicable relations with the Liberal Party. Copies of the latter resolution were sent to the Cabinet and to the Whips, and the Government were taken aback at this, and regarded the threatened loss of the support of the Liberal ladies rather seriously. There was even some fear that the Federation
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might transfer their support to the Labour Party. It is understood that communications were then made to the Federation on behalf of the Government, and that the Federation was asked to say what steps the Governement couuld take at the moment to appease them. It was suggested that facilities might be given to one of the measures which the Women's Liberal Federation had at heart, and as a result the Government adopted the White Slave Traffic Bill. This has eased the situation, and members of the Government hope that in return the Women's Liberal Federation will not put into force their resolution that no associations shall be affiliated to the Federation except those promoting Woman Suffrage.
Meanwhile those so largely responsible for awakening the public conscience were suffering the rigours of the Second Division in prison. Memorial after memorial poured in upon the Home Secretary. Each and all pressed earnestly for granting the treatment of first-class misdemeanants to Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence--"political prisoners, against whom," as the Oxford memorial recapitulated, "not even the prosecution alleged any moral turpitude, and to whose undoubted purity of motive the jury drew particular attention."
An International Petition on the same lines was signed by world-famous names.
In any event," (said the "Daily News," so often inimical to the Movement and to its more earnest champions), "the thought of these three devoted persons imprisoned in felons' cells is a torture and an outrage to every sensitive mind, that sees a world so plentifully lacking in nobility of spirit and so bitterly in need of it."
Finally, the Home Office, acting yet again from no inner prompting, but only under pressure from without, was brought to reconsider the propriety of treating
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patriots and reformers like the lower sort of criminals. Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence were placed in the First Division.
There they were on the date long fixed by the Women's Social and Political Union for the mass meeting of June 15th, 1912. Miss Christabel Pankhurst's whereabouts was still a mystery to the authorities and to the general public.
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