Uncompromising women: the fight for the vote

2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act; a law which gave the vote to certain women in Britain, as long as they were over 30 and met a property qualification. Ten years later, women achieved the same voting rights as men. We are also celebrating the 40 year anniversary of female undergraduates being admitted to Trinity College. To honour this landmark year of anniversaries, we have compiled a display highlighting a few of our items relating to women’s suffrage drawn from the Pethick-Lawrence Collection.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

Vehement socialist, Emmeline Pethick met Trinity alumnus, Frederick Lawrence in 1900.

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After Emmeline denied him marriage a number of times due to her deeply rooted socialism, Frederick began to move left in his political view. The pair married in 1901, combining their names, and soon became major figures in the fight for women’s suffrage.

The Pethick-Lawrences got involved with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organisation founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters in 1903. However, the WSPU tended towards an extreme and violent approach to attaining the vote for women, which led to the incarceration of both Pethick-Lawrences.

This letter from Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence to the WSPU, written from Holloway prison, emphasises her pride in the union, and describes how comforting it is that her prison uniform is green and white, and her library card “faintly purplish”, the same colours that represent the suffrage movement. The choice of these colours for the organisation is attributed to Emmeline.

 

 

Constance Lytton

Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton (known as Constance Lytton) was an influential British activist and writer in support of suffrage, prison reform and birth control. She is best known for revealing class prejudice in the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes.

Lady Constance was well treated in prison, but when incarcerated under the pseudonym ‘Jane Warton’, a less wealthy suffragette, she had her teeth broken, and was forcibly fed to the point that permanent damage was done to her heart.

 

This note written by Lady Constance highlights her passionate opinion on the necessity of violent protest.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, suffragist and political leader, who was recently immortalised as a statue that faces Westminster Palace in London, was pioneering in the fight for the right to vote. At 20 years old, Millicent was deemed too young to sign the 1866 petition, but went on to dedicate the rest of her life to attaining votes for women. She died in 1929, only a year after women achieved the same voting rights as men.

In this letter to Lady Constance, Millicent suggests that she is trying to enlist the help of influential men in her campaign for suffrage, such as soon-to-be Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

 

 

Christabel Pankhurst

Daughter of known radical Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst wrote this letter to Lady Constance, criticising various powerful men for not doing more to help the cause. She comments on the indignation of suffragettes being incarcerated and abused for such things as “inciting speeches”, while the militant movement in Ulster cost thousands of lives, but the men responsible were walking free.

Christabel’s final words of this letter embody her lively and forthright personality, and confidence in the suffrage movement:

“Thank-goodness we can win without [men] anyhow […] Women winning their own freedom. Glorious thought!”

 

The Pethick-Lawrences: A Radical Partnership

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Visitors to the Wren Library during the next few weeks will be able to see a special display case containing items from the Pethick-Lawrence collection. For those unable to visit, we have devised an online exhibition (click on the top left box labelled Prologue to begin):

 

 

For those who would prefer to examine the exhibits in more detail see below (click on the images to open the document viewer).

PROLOGUE

Emmeline Pethick and Frederick Lawrence, both from middle-class backgrounds, met in 1900 through their involvement in social work in the East End of London.

Emmeline first came to London to manage a club for young working women, and she and her friend Mary Neal had gone on to establish their own club, with a related dressmaking business.

Fred, a Trinity man, had been inspired by the university settlement movement, the aim of which was to encourage university-educated people to live and work in deprived urban areas, and he was working at a settlement house in the East End when he met and fell in love with Emmeline.

Fred had been intending to pursue a career as a Liberal Unionist MP, but Emmeline, a fervent socialist, challenged him to reconsider his political views, and after a period of serious reflection, which included a trip to South Africa to observe the effects of the Boer War, he came to adopt a more radical position.

The couple married in 1901 and took the unusual step of linking their surnames.

PASSION

Emmeline’s l001_peth7_48-p1etter to Fred on 27 June 1901, just after his first proposal of marriage, contains a heartfelt declaration of her commitment to socialism:

… my first consciousness was the clearest, strongest & most inveterate sense of the dignity & worth of the human body & soul above everything else ~ and this has forced me into life long campaign ~ against every sort of bondage, against all sorts of established authorities: and it is [this which] has kept me (not by choice but by inward necessity) always against the stream …  This is the great contest of the coming century: the life and death struggle of human life against material mastery.

VOTES FOR WOMEN

From 1906 the Pethick-Lawrences were at the heart of the peth-6_109-frontmilitant wing of the women’s suffrage movement, which they helped to organise and finance. Emmeline became treasurer of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and devised its distinctive colour scheme of purple, white, and green: “Purple as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity … white stands for purity in private and public life … green is the colour of hope and thpeth-3_272-10e emblem of spring.”

Fred founded the newspaper Votes for Women, which he co-edited with his wife.

 

 

 

 

PRISON

Emmeline was imprisoned six times for her actions in support of the suffragette movement, and Fred also went to prison for the cause. Both endured forcible feeding while on hunger strike. These are some of the letters they were allowed to write to each other from prison:

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CONSPIRACY

Some in the suffrage movement, including Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, felt that violent measures such as the smashing of shop-windows and arson were justified ways of drawing attention to the peth7_170-p22cause.

After a spate of window-breaking in March 1912 the Pethick-Lawrences were arrested and tried for conspiracy, even though they opposed this form of protest. This is the text of Emmeline’s speech to the jury.

The Pethick-Lawrences spent large amounts of money on legal costs and fines, both for themselves and others, and eventually had to auction the contents of their home, though they just escaped bankruptcy.

DIVISION

As a result of their objections to violent protest the Pethick-Lawrences were induced to leave the WSPU, though they continued to edit Votes for Women. These are two of the letters exchanged between the two Emmelines at this time:

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EPILOGUE

In 1918 the suffrage movement in the United Kingdom finally began to see success, with the grant of the vote to certain categories of women over the age of 30.

After the First World War Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence became a well-known international campaigner for women’s rights and peace.

Her husband became a Labour MP. In 1942 he was briefly Leader of the Opposition, and as Secretary of State for India between 1945 and 1947 he was instrumental in the negotiations which led to that country’s independence. He was raised to the peerage in 1945.

Lord and Lady Pethick-Lawrence at the gate of their Surrey home in 1949.
Lord and Lady Pethick-Lawrence at the gate of their Surrey home in 1949.