It is hard to believe but it is a fact that the majority of women (with a few exceptions) in the United Kingdom had no right to vote until as late as 1928. The reasons for the lack of such a fundamental freedom are to say the least mind-boggling.
It would appear that ‘the reason’ was based on International Commercial Law of the time, which deemed who could and indeed who could not enter into a commercial transaction. It said that ‘individuals unfit due to want of understanding’ – which covered minors, lunatics and drunkards – and went on to include ‘individuals unable due to want of free-will – namely married women’.
If you consider that to be highly insulting, the following will truly boil your blood: ‘By marriage, the personal identity of the woman is lost. Her person is completely sunk in that of her husband, and he acquires an absolute mastery over her person and effects. Hence her complete disability to contract legal obligations; and except in the event of separation by divorce, or other causes, a married woman in the United Kingdom cannot engage in trade’....Leone Levi, International Law, 1863.
It is therefore not surprising that in the late 1800’s; a campaign for women’s Suffrage began in earnest. Emmeline Pankhurst became a leader of the ‘active’ side of things whilst numerous others, including men who were sympathetic to the cause, took the ‘peaceful’ route. There was always conflict regarding the ‘true’ method of gaining equality. In fact, some of their actions put modern ‘Feminism’ in the shade.
In truth, the tactics taken by the ‘active’ side became stronger and more elaborate at the turn of the century. Members would chain themselves to the railings of prominent buildings such as Buckingham Palace and the House of Commons where their arrests would gain the most publicity. Many found themselves imprisoned for what would now be called ‘lawful protest’.
When the ‘prisoners’ went on hunger strike in prisons such as Holloway Prison for Women, they were cruelly ‘force fed’ causing untold damage to their health. When the authorities uncovered a supposed plan to ‘shoot’ the Prime Minister it was taken even more serious when two known activists were discovered practicing revolver shooting at a rifle range.
When it appeared that no progress had been made at the end of the decade, they took their actions to a new level. On the afternoon of 1st March 1912, around one hundred and fifty women were noticed standing in front of shop windows and government buildings in the prime shopping areas of the West End of London. At a given signal they produced hammers and stones from their pockets and smashed all the windows nearby. They did not move to escape but awaited the arrival of police and were promptly arrested.
Another historical and tragic event took place in 1913. Emily Davison was a well-educated young lady who was a staunch Suffragette. She had been involved in all aspects of the struggle. She even planted a bomb at Lloyd George’s house in Surrey causing severe damage.
She had also been discovered a couple of years earlier hiding in the crypt of the House of Commons, but her intentions were not clear at the time. It now transpires that the night in question, 2nd April 1911 was Census Night and having hidden there all night, she was legally entitled to put on her census form, the House of Commons as her address.
The tragic episode of her life occurred on 4th June 1913 when she went to Ascot where the Derby was taking place in the presence of the King. It is unknown what she intended to do there but some form of demonstration is obvious. However, she did have a return train ticket in her purse which would suggest that she intended to return home after she fulfilled her ‘act’. She also had a suffragette dance ticket for that evening.
During the Derby, as the horses approached Tattenham Corner, she was seen to unfurl a Suffrage flag and climb under the railings as the speeding horses approached that section of the racecourse. It is thought that she intended to impede the King’s horse, Anmer, and place the flag either on it or nearby.
Sadly and tragically she was bowled over by the horse and died from her severe injuries four days later. It appears that the King who was present was not in the slightest bit interested in her fate but showed all his concern for the condition of his horse.
The demonstrations, the imprisonments, the force feeding and the indignities suffered by the Suffragettes continued for several years until 1918 when an Act of Parliament gave some of those not entitled to vote the right to do so. However, it was confined to women over the age of 30 years who were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register. This gave the vote to about eight and a half million women………….
It was another ten years of bitterness until in 1928 women were given the vote on the same terms as men – over the age of 21: Representation of the People Act 1928.
So there you have it. After all the trouble that went before them, modern women have the right to vote yet, like a vast number of men, cannot be bothered to ‘make their mark’. Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison must be turning in their graves…..