It’s election time in the UK, and many of us are still having the same debate we had last time round – if our beliefs and choices are not represented by any party, is it even worth voting at all?
I must admit that I sometimes find myself coming down with a bad case of voter apathy. But then I think about all the brave, dangerous and downright jaw-dropping things the Suffragettes did just so that people like me could even engage in the ‘to vote or not to vote’ debate at all.
1 – They went on hunger strike
Many, many Suffragettes were arrested over the years for a variety of crimes, usually ‘disturbing the peace’ with their protesting. To continue the fight while in prison, they would hunger strike. The first Suffragette to do so was Marion Wallace Dunlop in 1909; she refused all food for 91 hours before being released from prison.
Later, many Suffragettes who hunger struck were force fed through tubes by their jailers. Emily Wilding Davison, having been imprisoned, gone on hunger strike, and subsequently been force fed, barricaded herself into her cell. Magistrates decreed she be forced to open up with water shot from a hose, but she wouldn’t give in and eventually they had to break into her cell.
2 – They ‘Vanished’ for the 1911 census
For the 1911 census, the Suffragettes organised a ‘Vanish for the Vote’ campaign, which urged women to boycott the census with a rallying cry of ‘No vote, no census!’ Some wrote ‘Votes for Women!’ across their schedules, while others hid in their houses with the lights turned out.
Famously, Wilding Davison hid herself in a broom cupboard at the Houses of Parliament for the duration of the census, so she could put her address down as ‘The House of Commons’. Tony Benn later put a plaque in the cupboard in her honour.
3 – They attacked politicians in the streets
There are many recorded instances of Suffragettes yelling or throwing things at politicians, and quite a few cases where the politicians were physically attacked.
In 1909 Theresa Garnett attacked Winston Churchill with a riding crop. She forced her way through his guard and hit him, yelling ‘Take that you brute! You brute! I will show you what English women can do!’
4 – They destroyed property and artwork to get the nation’s attention
Suffragettes took it upon themselves to cause all sorts of expensive damage. They cut telephone wires, defaced currency with their slogans, smashed windows at London clubs, set fire to post boxes and burned yet more slogans onto the greens of golf courses. They even burned down an orchid house at Kew Gardens in 1913, and set off a bomb in an empty house that was being built by Lloyd George, destroying five rooms.
They also caused damage to works of art; among other incidents, Mary Richardson took an axe to the Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in 1914. Several London museums closed due to the attacks, and the British Museum announced that women would only be allowed in on receipt of a letter from someone ‘willing to be responsible for their behaviour’.
Concerning this wave of destruction, Emmeline Pankhurst is quoted as saying:
“We are not destroying Orchid Houses, breaking windows, cutting telegraph wires, injuring golf greens, in order to win the approval of the people who were attacked. If the general public were pleased with what we are doing, that would be a proof that our warfare is ineffective. We don’t intend that you should be pleased.”
5 – They repeatedly put their own lives in danger
Suffragettes would repeatedly get themselves arrested on purpose, constantly taking risks and putting themselves in harm’s way in order to draw more attention to their cause. Many were injured through their campaigning, or became extremely ill due to hunger striking (Pankhurst herself was once re-arrested while being carried to a Suffragette meeting on a stretcher, suffering from the effects of an earlier hunger strike).
Wilding Davison unfortunately lost her life when she ran onto the course at the Derby and was knocked down by the King’s horse; her skull was fractured and she died five days later. The plan had been simply to wave Suffragette ribbons at the racers as they passed by, but Wilding Davison had other ideas.
Don’t vote, some people say, it only encourages them. But if women don’t use our votes come May 7th 2015, we may as well be thumbing our noses at everything the Suffragettes went through on our behalf.