The Roots of Modern Protest Movements?
Dowlais has produced some noted historians including the late Gwyn Alf Williams and this month’s speaker, Mr Huw Williams, a lecturer with Swansea University's part time History degree course, was evidently of the same tradition.
Mr Williams began his lecture by bemoaning the fact that his neighbour did not intend voting in the upcoming Welsh election and European Referendum when such sacrifice had been made to ensure universal suffrage. He emphasised this fact by stating that it had taken a hundred years for men to get the vote and only twenty targeted years for women to be enfranchised once their campaign was underway.
He explained that despite the massive amount of material available on the internet on the ‘suffragette’, movement, his interest had been sparked by a recent stamp collection noting “Women of Distinction”. These included the first female doctor, the first female MP, Marie Stopes and Barbara Castle. This was set partly against an age in which access to the professions was barred to women in the main. The very fact that women would need to protest to gain the vote shocked late Victorian and Edwardian society, with even the Queen herself horrified at the prospect.
The movement itself had two separate strands, namely the moderate Suffragists headed by Millicent Fawcett Anderson and the militant Suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The terms were unsurprisingly coined by the Daily Mail. The struggle can be traced back to the demands in the 1830s by the Chartist movement for universal male suffrage and a gradual process led to women gaining the vote at 30 years in 1918 and full equality with men at 21 years of age in 1928. Mr Williams stated that in 1912, Asquith faced three struggles, Ireland, Germany and female suffrage and the greatest problem was Votes for Women. The Suffragettes based their campaign on a belief that no one was listening and therefore a campaign of law breaking was the only way to gain headway. Women of the time were considered (even by mainstream women) as having a moral duty to build a home and some even considered them to lack the intelligence to vote. It is significant that mainstream politicians and trades unionists including Lloyd George and Keir Hardie were lukewarm on the issue
Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulding) was born on the 15th of April 1858, ( she claimed incorrectly to have been born on Bastille Day for greater effect). Even though she herself and many of the other suffragettes comfortably off middle class people she was extremely radical and headed a very militant and direct campaign between 1900-14 .Her husband Reginald Pankhurst a middle ranking politician was influential in gaining women property rights. It is very significant that she called off the campaign on the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, as an act of patriotism for the men were being slaughtered at the front. The war itself acted as a catalyst in the eventual partial winning of the vote.
Mr Williams then outlined the tactics of the Suffragettes, which included gluing post boxes, defacing the coins of the realm, sabotaging the administration of the 1911 Census, vandalising art treasures and disrupting public meetings by hurling flour bombs and eggs. The protestors faced a standard 40 shilling fine, being bound over or spending 14 days in Holloway Prison. The protests usually included a deliberate act of vandalism which carried a fixed penalty,Emmeline Pankhurst herself was arrested over forty times (these tactics can be seen in more modern protests Ed.) The windows of the shops of Oxford Street were regularly smashed, and protestors often chained themselves to the railings of Westminster and other prominent buildings. The “Cat and Mouse Act”, was infamously used by Churchill to forcibly feed hunger strikers.
The most celebrated act of defiance was that of Emily Wilding Davidson, who brought down the King’s Horse in the Derby. It is unknown whether she actually meant to kill herself, having a return railway ticket in her pocket. However, her sacrifice was noted by a funeral through the streets of London in the progressive colours of white, green and purple (also those of Wimbledon tennis today).
As stated earlier, the Great War brought an end to the protests and the jury is out as to what extent the social emancipation of women during the privations of the conflict, bolstered by their in the world of work of a war effort made the government capitulate at its ending. Nevertheless, the prominence given to the Suffragettes in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 showed how momentous the contribution of Pankhurst has been to modern society.
Mr Gwyn Thomas thanked Mr Williams for a most memorable lecture.