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Votes for Women: How should it be taught?


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 25 April 2004 - 07:26 AM

For many years I have been concerned about the way the ‘Votes for Women’ issue is presented in school textbooks. I am especially concerned about the impression students might get about the way women got the vote.

Those women who believed it was morally right to use violence in order to get the vote were in a very small minority (the suffragettes). At its peak, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) only had around 2000 members (Of these, over 1,000 went to prison). This was to fall dramatically in 1913 when it began its arson campaign. Several of its most important figures left at this point. They also disagreed with the WSPU’s new strategy of arguing in favour of a limited franchise (an attempt to get them the support of the Middle Class). This lost them the support of socialists like Sylvia Pankhurst who was fully committed to getting the vote for all women. By 1914 the WSPU only had a few hundred members. It was a broken organization with all of its leaders either in prison or living in exile.

In contrast, the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was still growing and had over 100,000 members. The suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, was this group that the government was really frightened of. It was an organization that refused to resort to violence. In fact, the tactics of the NUWSS were later adopted by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The suffragettes were equivalent to the Blank Panthers.
Most textbooks falsely give the impression that it was the suffragettes who got the vote for women. It was in fact the suffragists who played the most important role in this. It is also interesting to compare the different ways that the suffragettes and suffragists behaved during and after the war. The suffragettes campaigned for all out war with Germany whereas the suffragists campaigned for a negotiated peace.
The suffragettes accepted the limited franchise whereas the suffragists continued to fight for equality between the sexes. Suffragettes ended up in the Conservative Party or the British Union of Fascists whereas NUWSS members continued to play an active role in the reform movement via the Liberal and Labour parties.

In schools today we rightly use Martin Luther King as a role model of how you can use peaceful methods to achieve social change. It is strange we do not study Millicent Fawcett and the NUWSS in the same way.

http://www.spartacus...co.uk/Wwspu.htm

http://www.spartacus...o.uk/Wnuwss.htm

My worry is that history teachers are sometimes guilty of stressing the role played by violence in the way historical change takes place. If so, why do we do that?

#2 Mr Lyndon

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Posted 25 April 2004 - 07:52 PM

You raise a number of very interesting issues here John, and as usual with a lot of conviction. I have taught about 'votes for women' for a number of years, and wrote my Masters dissertation about a small Suffrage group, the Jewish League for Women's Suffrage, and I teach almost exclusively about the Suffragettes. Why is this? I think partly it is because of what I was taught (not at school - even in the 1980's women were still 'hidden' from the school curriculum) at University - the course itself focused mainly on the WSPU.
I accept the points that you make about the splits in the WSPU, particularly over the continuation of militancy and the restricted franchise (which is ultimately what was granted in 1918), but it is interesting to note that despite the large opposition to the militants they were still able to hold fund raising meetings in June 1914 that raised the equivalent of a quarter of a million pounds. this would suggest that they were far from being a 'broken organisation'.

Most textbooks falsely give the impression that it was the suffragettes who got the vote for women. It was in fact the suffragists who played the most important role in this


I would be interested to read your supporting evidence for this statement - I am sure that a historian of your standing would not be so mono-causal - what about the role of the First World War, or the resignation of Asquith?

As an aside, I recently gave an assembly for International Women's Day. One of the people that I had studied for my MA, Hugh Franklin, was a member of the Men's Political Union, affiliated to the WSPU, and the first prisoner to be released under the Cat and Mouse Act. I was 'pulled up' by one of the members of staff for a number of reasons - i) that I had chosen to talk about a man on international women's day ii) that I gloried in the 'violence' associated with the Suffragettes. I had to reflect carefully on the comments that were made, but I don't really have an answer to your final point.

#3 John Simkin

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 08:27 AM

Most textbooks falsely give the impression that it was the suffragettes who got the vote for women. It was in fact the suffragists who played the most important role in this


I would be interested to read your supporting evidence for this statement - I am sure that a historian of your standing would not be so mono-causal - what about the role of the First World War, or the resignation of Asquith?

I did not mean to give the impression that the suffragists were the only factor in women getting the vote. Clearly the role of individual politicians also played an important part in this. So did events such as the First World War (although I believe the impact of this – especially the reward of the vote as a result of women’s contribution to the war effort has been over emphasised).

My point was that the way the information is presented in textbooks distorts the link students make between cause and effect. With so much time spent on the actions of the suffragettes before and war and the role played by Emily and Christabel Pankhurst in the recruitment campaign (something the suffragists refused to do) it is not surprising that students make a link between these events.

My argument is that textbooks should devote more time to the campaign adopted by the suffragists. They should also spend more time at looking at these amazing women who suffered greatly for the stand they made against traditional values.

I do not believe the emphasis placed on the role played by the suffragettes in textbooks has any political dimension. I suspect the real reason is that the suffragettes provide a more exciting and dramatic narrative. Another reason is that the Pankhursts were fascinating women (although I would prefer more time spent on Sylvia than Emily or Christabel). However, I think that there are some fascinating suffragists that would be just as interesting. Here are just a few of the women that could be studied in the classroom: Katharine Glasier, Selina Cooper, Margaret McMillan, Marie Corbett, Margery Corbett-Ashby, Mary Macarthur, Helena Swanwick, Lydia Becker, Isabella Ford, etc.

I also think the textbooks should look at those women who were originally suffragettes but left the movement because of Emily Pankhurst’s decision to launch the arson campaign and to accept the limited franchise (Teresa Billington-Greig, Charlotte Despard, Margaret Nevinson, Hannah Mitchell, Evelyn Sharp, etc. – in other words, the founders of the Women’s Freedom League).

http://www.spartacus...co.uk/women.htm

#4 Mr Lyndon

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 09:29 AM

I think it would also be interesting to look at the group of 'Radical Suffragists', who were mainly based in the northern industrial cities - there was an excellent book by Liddington and Norris, called 'One hand tied behind us' that uncovered these women for the first time. This is what Jill Liddington wrote about her work:

Living in the Manchester area in the mid-1970s, I began to uncover the neglected story of the radical suffragists from Lancashire, whose commitment to the Votes for Women campaign sprang from their industrial experience in textile mills and factories and from their involvement in the early labour and trade union movement. These weavers, winders and tailoresses took their grassroots suffrage message to women at the factory gate and the cottage door, to the Women's Co-operative Guilds and trade union branches. Drawing upon little-known archival sources and upon tape-recorded interview with the last surviving daughters of these suffragists, in One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) Jill Norris and I unearthed the forgotten history of the courageous radical suffragists. It was indeed an instance of the 'digging deeper' that Rowbotham had flagged; and it formed part of a 1970s renaissance of women's history, rooted in both women's liberation and labour history, which gave weight to both sexual difference and to class.


I also wonder if you have got your chronology correct with regard to the WFL and the Arson campaign - The WFL was set up in 1907 by Charlotte Despard, but as far as I can remember and I don't have my books with me at school , the Arson campaign was closer to 1911/12.

Of course, I totally accept your argument that the teaching of womens's struggle to gain the vote should take in the wider picture, but to be honest I wonder how many schools even devote more than a lesson or two to the topic?

Finally, I would (in my best teacherly fashion) ask you to proof read your work more carefully. I have noticed a very important error in your discussion about the leadership of the WSPU!!

#5 John Simkin

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 10:08 AM

I think it would also be interesting to look at the group of 'Radical Suffragists', who were mainly based in the northern industrial cities - there was an excellent book by Liddington and Norris, called 'One hand tied behind us' that uncovered these women for the first time. This is what Jill Liddington wrote about her work:

Living in the Manchester area in the mid-1970s, I began to uncover the neglected story of the radical suffragists from Lancashire, whose commitment to the Votes for Women campaign sprang from their industrial experience in textile mills and factories and from their involvement in the early labour and trade union movement. These weavers, winders and tailoresses took their grassroots suffrage message to women at the factory gate and the cottage door, to the Women's Co-operative Guilds and trade union branches. Drawing upon little-known archival sources and upon tape-recorded interview with the last surviving daughters of these suffragists, in One Hand Tied Behind Us (1978) Jill Norris and I unearthed the forgotten history of the courageous radical suffragists. It was indeed an instance of the 'digging deeper' that Rowbotham had flagged; and it formed part of a 1970s renaissance of women's history, rooted in both women's liberation and labour history, which gave weight to both sexual difference and to class.


I also wonder if you have got your chronology correct with regard to the WFL and the Arson campaign - The WFL was set up in 1907 by Charlotte Despard, but as far as I can remember and I don't have my books with me at school , the Arson campaign was closer to 1911/12.

Of course, I totally accept your argument that the teaching of womens's struggle to gain the vote should take in the wider picture, but to be honest I wonder how many schools even devote more than a lesson or two to the topic?

Finally, I would (in my best teacherly fashion) ask you to proof read your work more carefully. I have noticed a very important error in your discussion about the leadership of the WSPU!!

You are right to suggest that the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) was established before the start of the arson campaign. In 1907 some leading members of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) began to question the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women objected to the way that the Pankhursts were making decisions without consulting members. They also felt that a small group of wealthy women like Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence were having too much influence over the organisation. This was linked to the decision that the Pankhursts were willing to accepted the limited franchise for women. It was argued that this reflected the interests of the middle-class women in the movement who would benefit from this type of reform. The socialist members of the WSPU were only willing to accept the vote for all women. They were primarily concerned by the condition of working-class women who were being exploited by their lack of political power. They did not think this problem would be solved by giving middle class women the vote (in fact it would probably make the situation worse as middle class women were at this time more conservative than their conservative counterparts).

Therefore in the autumn of 1907, Teresa Billington-Greig, Elizabeth How-Martyn, Dora Marsden, Margaret Nevinson and Charlotte Despard and seventy other members of the WSPU left to form the Women's Freedom League(WFL). Like the WSPU, the Women's Freedom League was a militant organisation that was willing the break the law. As a result, over 100 of their members were sent to prison after being arrested on demonstrations or refusing to pay taxes. However, members of the WFL was a completely non-violent organisation and opposed the WSPU campaign of vandalism against private and commercial property. The WFL were especially critical of the WSPU arson campaign.

The arson campaign began in the summer of 1912 (the first target was a house being built for David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer). Once again, this decision was taken by Emily Pankhurst without consulting the issue with her members (a bit like Tony Blair and the Labour Party). Some leaders of the WSPU such as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, disagreed with this arson campaign. When Pethick-Lawrence objected, she was expelled from the organisation. This led to more women leaving the organization and joining the Women’s Freedom League (WFL). Others like Elizabeth Robins showed their disapproval by ceasing to be active in the WSPU.

#6 Mr Lyndon

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 05:45 PM

You do mean EMMELINE Pankhurst, don't you? not to get confused with EMILY Wilding Davison of Derby Martyrdom fame

#7 John Simkin

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Posted 26 April 2004 - 07:09 PM

You do mean EMMELINE Pankhurst, don't you? not to get confused with EMILY Wilding Davison of Derby Martyrdom fame

Emily is short for Emmeline. All her friends (and her critics) called her Emily. Emily Wilding Davison was also Emmeline.




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