For a week bookended with International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, last week was a tough one for women – and it’s only been getting worse since.


First, we watched as the search for Sarah Everard escalated from a missing person’s case to a murder investigation. Then, we gazed on horrified as footage of women being pinned down and handcuffed by police officers emerged from a vigil held in Sarah’s memory on Clapham Common.


Protestor Patsy Stevenson at Clapham Common on Saturday


Those shocking photos raised questions, once again, about people’s right to protest – an age-old debate made even more complicated by the current lockdown, which has seen restrictions to reduce the spread of Covid-19 repeatedly clash with Article ten of the Human Rights Act, enshrining our freedom of expression.


It was these very restrictions that put the vigil’s original organisers, Reclaim These Streets, in the awkward position of having to ask permission to mourn a 33 year-old woman, and then appealing to the High Court when that request was denied. With the official vigil subsequently cancelled, a group of other women’s organisations then held vigils in their place, leading to those unsettling scenes of heavy-handed policing and, more latterly, a divisive conversation about the tactics women could, should or should not be using to make their voices heard.


Image: Twitter @HannahRoseWoods


Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, a new policing bill continuing to progress through the Commons threatens to crack down on people’s right to protest. The fact that the same bill will increase the punishment for anyone caught damaging memorials well beyond the minimum sentence for rape led many women, including historian and writer Hannah Rose Woods, above, to wonder – would we be taken more seriously by the police if we were to dress up as statues?  


Lessons from the past


What is easy to forget, however, in the midst of all of the anger over the curtailment of our civil liberties is that these arguments are not new. Violence and protest have always gone hand-in-hand, however reluctantly. Even during protests with peaceful intentions, violence wafts along behind like a bad smell. 


History just seems to prove this point. In fact, jump back 110 years and while BLM and #MeToo were as yet unheard of, London’s streets would have instead been occupied by Suffragettes, likely smashing up windows, marching on parliament, and chaining themselves to railings.


What’s fascinating – and a little troublesome – about the Suffragettes is that they didn’t even pretend to be unconfrontational. They didn’t ask for permission. These women were violent. Intentionally, purposefully, proudly violent. 


More than 300 suffragettes marched on Westminster on Black Friday, 1910


Take Mary Leigh as an example. The Suffragette was imprisoned 109 years ago  after flinging a hatchet – yes, that’s a small axe – at Prime Minister Herbert Asquith in Dublin. It missed, but later that day she and a rag-tag team of radicals tried to set fire to a theatre Asquith was attending. Then again, who hasn’t tried to burn down a projection booth on a girl’s weekend in Dublin, am I right? 


The point is, attacks like this weren’t uncommon during the suffrage period and no politician was safe. Even a young Winston Churchill was thrashed with a horse whip on a Bristol train platform by Suffragette Theresa Garnett in 1909. The same year, the Suffragette Lady Constance Lytton was imprisoned for throwing rocks at a car thought to be carrying the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. As it turned out, it wasn’t him, so some bloke must have had quite the shock…


Females with fire power


Lytton’s accomplice in that particular debacle was Emily Wilding Davidson, who herself is best known as the Suffragette who died after stepping in front of the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. Lesser known is her habit of setting fire to post boxes, which became a popular Suffragette tactic from 1911.


In fact, the activists became increasingly fond of fire power and, while Lloyd George’s car had been spared before, his summer house was not so lucky. The empty home was a victim of a Suffragette bomb in 1913.


The group was even responsible for a 1914 explosion in Westminster Abbey, planting a bomb under the centuries-old Coronation Chair. While their homemade explosives may have failed to do any serious damage, they certainly sent a message: the Suffragettes meant business.  


Image: Unsplash


At their peak, the Suffragettes were such a threat to peaceful society – and health risk to politicians and postal workers – that historians are still debating whether they can rightly be labelled as ‘terrorists’. To add my two pennies worth, I vote ‘yes, obvs’ – however, this is where things get confusing for us modern 21st century types.


How do we connect the dots between the Suffragettes’ violent actions and the fact the first women gained voting rights in the 1918 Representation of the People Act? Is this proof that violence is key to bringing about change?


Protest and progress


Let’s jump back to summer 2020 for a moment and to the message of our most recent Pride Month. With lockdown putting a real dampener on the party and anti-racism protests escalating worldwide, LGBTQ+ organisations pushed for a very different approach.


Instead of parties, many organisations encouraged people to support the anti-racism movement by emphasising Pride’s more violent roots. By this, I mean the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which were just that: riots. The National Centre for Lesbian Rights tweeted at the start of June that “right now we are reminded that the 1st #Pride wasn’t a party or celebration, it was a RIOT led by queer POC [people of colour]”.


Image: Biscayne/Kim Peterson


And here’s the thing. When we learn about social movements and the fight for many of the human rights we now take for granted, the more violent realities of how these were achieved are often brushed under the rug of History (with a capital ‘H’). The story we’re left with is one that’s faded in the wash somewhat.


One of the key reasons we’re taught a more sanitised version of, say, the Suffragette movement, is probably the same reason I was hesitant about writing this feature: no one wants to be seen promoting violence as a way of initiating change. It’s not a particularly fantastic message to send. 


Fortunately for my conscience, in the case of the Suffragettes at least, that message may not be entirely true. In fact, many people – then and now – have argued that the Suffragettes’ more militant actions were actually a hindrance and not a help to their cause. 


The downside of disruption


We remember the Suffragettes because they grabbed headlines, had a killer marketing strategy, and were dedicated to a colour scheme with a determination that any bride would admire. However, in reality, the Suffragettes were a small part of a much larger suffrage campaign and the truly militant Suffragettes, those with a panache for arson, made up an even smaller percentage.


By the time the Suffragettes burst onto the scene in 1903, the fight for women’s suffrage had already been rumbling for four decades thanks to the Suffragists. These peaceful protesters tended to work with politicians in an attempt to bring about political change, a strain of activism that was more admin heavy and less likely to make headlines.


A women’s suffrage poster


After 40 years of pummelling parliament with petitions and paperwork, it’s easy to understand why some campaigner’s patience started to fray. The ‘direct action’ of the shiny new Suffragettes must have been awfully tempting and, for the first few years, the two factions not only coincided but often overlapped. 


Now, while I’d happily turn this into a historical TED talk, let’s just say that as the Suffragettes became increasingly violent – swapping placards for horsewhips and all that – divides began to appear. The Suffragists had this crazy notion that by irritating, threatening, and out-right attacking politicians, their Suffragette sisters were rather ruining their chances of ever entering the polling booth. Political engagement, rather than agitation, was their preference.


Image: Unsplash


Many Suffragettes themselves even jumped ship and swam to more peaceful protesting shores, and as the years went by, the Suffragette movement became ever smaller and more militant. In fact, in 1913, 50,000 Suffragists took to the streets in a peaceful march designed to separate them, in the public consciousness, from the violent tactics of the fire-happy Suffragettes.


Five years (and one not-inconsequential world war) later and the first women were able to vote. So, where does that leave us? Who was more effective in gaining votes for women: the peaceful protesters who worked with the government, or the violent protesters who threw hatchets at its honourable members? Could it, perhaps, have been the combination of both?


Annoyingly, I’m not sure I’m qualified enough to answer that question, but I will leave you with this: while the Suffragettes make for some fantastic history, if you’re diving into the past looking for protest role models, perhaps the Suffragettes aren’t the ones on which to hang your placard. I’ve heard good things about a chap called Gandhi – though I’m not entirely certain he ever waited for permission either…


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