Remembering the Suffragettes

On Friday November 18th 1910, a group of about three hundred suffragettes from all over Britain travelled to Westminster to protest outside parliament. They were protesting because they were justifiably angry that the government of the day had decided not to give any more time to debating an important bill which would have finally granted the vote to at least some of Britain’s then wholly disenfranchised women. This bill was, admittedly, a compromise, but it was seen as being a necessary starting point in obtaining the wider female suffrage that many groups up and down the country like the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), led by Emmeline Pankhurst, had long been campaigning for.

When they reached the Houses of Parliament, the women were met by a huge number of police officers who were determined, by any means necessary, not to let any of the suffragettes anywhere near parliament or any members of the government who had dropped the bill. The police, and a large group of rowdy and aggressive bystanders, waded in to the massively outnumbered group of women, meting out appalling levels of brutality that resulted in many of the suffragettes being arrested, physically injured, or even sexually assaulted in some particularly unpleasant cases. At least one of the female protesters tragically died as a result of the injuries she received on that day.

And that day became known as ‘Black Friday’. Having been dismissed (yet again) by the all male government and then brutally attacked by the police, what happened on that Friday went a long way towards escalating the militancy and anger of women’s suffrage groups like the WSPU in the years before the First World War. It wasn’t until after the end of this terrible conflict, in 1918, that the government finally decided that some women (those over the age of thirty) had earned their right to the vote, despite the fact that women of all ages and all social classes had proved their ability time after time in so-called ‘men’s jobs’ during the war, when they had been called upon to replace their menfolk who had been called up to fight. This initial granting of a limited female suffrage was, again, a compromise – British women did not actually get the vote on an equal basis with men until ten years later, in 1928, only a few weeks after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst at the age of 70.

On 18th November 2010, exactly one hundred years after Black Friday, a group of activists met on College Green, opposite the Houses of Parliament, to remember these brave and determined women who fought, suffered and (in some cases) died to give the women who came after them the right to take part in the democratic process. Organised by the women-led Climate Rush group, who are direct action climate activists inspired by the example and the methods of the women’s suffrage movement, many of those attending this vigil came distinctively dressed in Edwardian-style mourning clothes, complete with black veils and red sashes, similar to those the suffragettes themselves would have worn. In the darkness of College Green, candles were lit, a banner unfurled (see photographs – click on any image for a larger version) and first-hand accounts of the events of Black Friday were read to a hushed crowd.

This was followed by a short but impassioned speech from the Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas, who told the story of how Emily Wilding Davison, one of the more notorious of the suffragettes, had managed to sneak into parliament the night before the 1911 census was taken in order to be enumerated at Westminster and thus make a point about the lack of representation for women. Davison had hidden in the crypt (and was indeed enumerated as such in the census!), where there is now a plaque commemorating her night in parliament – which was only put up due to the efforts of the indefatigable Tony Benn, who rediscovered this forgotten corner of parliament, the scene of such an unusual moment in the history of women’s suffrage.

Taking up our candles, the vigil then moved silently around Parliament Square, stopping outside the gates of the House to chant the suffragette slogan ‘Deeds not Words’ before moving on to the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in the nearby Millbank Gardens, where a wreath was laid by the suffragette leader’s great granddaughter and great-great granddaughter Helen and Laura Pankhurst.

This event had a personal resonance for me – my great-great aunt was a suffragette; a fact that I will always be very proud of and honoured to commemorate. However, as a politically-minded feminist and an historian, attending this vigil was equally important to me as a more general concept. Despite the fact that there is still some way to go before there is full equality between men and women in Britain, much has been achieved in the hundred years since Black Friday – but we cannot and should not forget the suffragettes and the battles they fought.

Because many of the freedoms that women do have (and often take for granted) today would have been unimaginable to our female ancestors – but not all women, everywhere, have them. Because less than a fifth of all MPs in the British parliament are female (still). Because the majority of those displaced by climate change and the majority of victims of war are women. Because women all over the world do not have the kind of democratic rights and freedoms that allow me, as a woman, to attend such a vigil. That is why I remember the suffragettes.

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  1. Pingback: RIP Tony Benn | Another Kind Of Mind

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