Review of “The Scottish Suffragettes”

This is a summary of an excellent book written by Leah Leneman and distributed and published via the National Museums of Scotland Publishing Limited. It’s £6.99 at the moment. The author has written extensively on women’s issues. Other books are: “A Guid Gause- The Suffrage Movement in Scotland (Mercat Press)”,
“Elsie Inglis: Founder of the Battlefront Hospitals run entirely by Women” and “Into the Foreground: A century of Scottish Women and photographs” (both via National Museums of Scotland Publishing).


Short Introduction:

The term “suffragette” applied only to members of the militant branch of the movement, but the book is also about the non-militant “suffragists”. Scottish is hereby used as for any woman having a substantial connection to Scotland. But the main activities of the suffragettes lied in London, chaining themselves to railings, marching, breaking windows, being arrested and forcibly fed in Holloway. But there was far more local democracy and far less centrality of political life as we know it nowadays.
The non-militant “suffragists” outnumbered the “suffragettes” but were scarcely remembered en masse, let alone as individuals. The suffrage movement was mainly active between 1860 and 1918. Women were excluded from voting, not even in local government elections, they could not obtain higher education (and certainly not a medical one), and the property laws were iniquitous for married women.


In 1860 the parliamentary franchise was extended beyond landowners to include the rising middle classes. In the 1832 Reform Acts, voting was restricted to male persons. When the bills for the English and Scottish Reform Acts of 1867 and 1868 were going through parliament, John Stuart Mill put forward a women’s suffrage amendment. It led to the formation of the women’s suffrage societies in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. There were suffrage bills debated nearly every year, but none of them got anywhere, and in 1884 the Third Reform Act gave many more men the vote – but no women. Progress was made on other fronts: higher education was opening up, married women ‘s property acts were being passed, and women could vote in local government elections. Also, the parties began to rely on the unpaid assistance of women. However, the tactics they employed, like petitions to parliament, were those which had proven unsuccessful since 1867. A whole new approach was needed, this came from an English widow, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. They formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester 1903. So they began heckling speakers at political meetings and opposing candidates whatever their view on women’s suffrage. In 1907 some members broke away from the WSPU and formed the Women’s Freedom League, they believed more in a democratic organisation, whereas Christabel Pankhurst insisted that the WSPU was fighting a war that demanded blind loyalty and obedience from its followers. All the organisations had their own newspapers, the WSPU had “Votes for Women”, the WFL “The Vote”, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) “The Common Cause”.
In 1909 the first militant demonstrations in Scotland took place in Glasgow and Dundee, where a group of women tried to force their way into a political meeting. Whether one agreed or disagreed with militant tactics, they kept the suffrage campaign in the news, and more and more women flocked to join the cause. A grand suffrage pageant and procession in October 1909 took place. In March 1912 a three-day window-smashing raid in London resulted in over 200 arrests and imprisonment. And then, guerilla warfare and secret arson were proclaimed by the Pankhursts. At the beginning of 1913, the favoured form of militancy in Scotland were attacks on post boxes. Corrosive acid was poured into pillar boxes to destroy letters. The scale of the attacks on property escalated, with racecourse stands, cricket pavilions, Farington Hall in Dundee, various mansions, and Leuchars railway station burnt down. Many public buildings- including Holyrood Palace – were closed for the fear of attack, and security was tightened around others. If a suffragette was caught and imprisoned, they would go on hunger (later hunger and thirst) strike. Forcibly feeding caused damaging publicity for the government, so for a while, it was not attempted. When the health of the prisoners got endangered, they got released and should return to prison as soon as their health was recovered, but then, of course, they didn’t return. The level of arson attacks was stepped up, and the Whitekirk in East Lothian, one of Scotlands most beautiful churches, was burnt down. Then it was decided to introduce forcibly feeding in Perth, where Dr. Fergus Watson, who had forcibly fed Ethel Moorhead to double pneumonia as a result of food getting into her lungs, was now an officer. The women in Perth prison underwent a terrible ordeal. They were in solitary confinement. Attempts were made to feed two women by the rectum, and when this was discovered there was a terrible outcry.
On 4 th of august, war was declared against Germany, and the WSPU announced a truce on militancy. Although Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst threw themselves into the war effort as fervently as they had thrown themselves into the suffrage struggle, not all women followed them. Many got involved in peace organisations. And the war opened up many opportunities for women to work and earn a good wage. Dr. Elsie Inglis created all-women hospital units to serve Allied armies in the field.
It was inconceivable, that working-class men who were fighting for their country would not be granted the vote, and when this happened it would be crucial to see that women were also included. The right was restricted to the over-30s, and in the new statute passed on 6 February, 1918 women got the right to stand for parliament. In 1928, by which time it was clear, that women voters did not upset the system in any way, the franchise was extended to the under-30s.

Many of the former suffragettes kept on working within feminist organisations.

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