Great Albert Hall
October 17, 1912 — Great Albert Hall, London UK
From all over the world come messages to this great meeting. Of these messages I have selected two representing the rest which I think of special importance at this particular moment. The first comes from the seat of war in the East to the seat of war in England — to this meeting. It is from our friend, Mr. Nevinson — and I think when he wrote it he had not only in mind the events of which he was a witness, but he had in mind the situation at home and the enemy with whom many have to deal in this war of ours. He says: “My thoughts are with your meeting. Forward against all Turks.”
Unity of Purpose.
Whenever I stand upon this platform in the Albert Hall I can never feel that I am speaking to an ordinary political meeting. It seems to me rather that I am assisting at a review, and tonight I feel more than ever that we are reviewing our forces. We are considering and measuring our strength, we are seeing where we stand, considering the force of the opposing army, deciding how our campaign is to be pursued. One thing is essential to an army, and that thing is made up of a two-fold requirement. In an army you need unity of purpose. In any army you also need unity of policy. In the Women’s Social and Political Union, from its initiation until quite recently, we have had complete unity of purpose, and we have had complete unity of policy. That unity of purpose is still the same. I cannot continue my speech without referring to a statement which has been published by the agreement of all parties concerned, in two Suffrage papers to-day — in “Votes for Women,” which is so well known to you all, and in the new infant of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which henceforth will be its official organ, “The Suffragette.” That Statement is signed by four persons — by Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, by my daughter and myself. When unity of policy is no longer there, then I say to-night, as I have always said, a movement is weakened — and so it is better that those who cannot agree, who cannot see eye to eye as to policy should set themselves free, should part, and should be free to continue their policy, as they see it, in their own way, unfettered by those with whom they can no longer agree. I give place to none in appreciation and gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence — for the incalculable services that they have rendered to the militant movement for Woman Suffrage, ,and firmly believe that the women’s movement will be strengthened by their being free to work for Woman Suffrage in the future as they think best, while we of the Women’s Social and Political Union shall continue the militant agitation for Woman Suffrage initiated by my daughter and myself and a handful of women more than six years ago.
Now for the resolution. In that resolution we declare that we mean to continue the militant agitation for Woman Suffrage, and that we offer uncompromising opposition to the Government and its allies. We have to deal not merely with a Government composed of members of one party, we have in this country a Coalition Government. That Government is kept in office by the coalition of three parties. You have the Liberal Party, which is nominally the governing party, but they could not live another day if it were not for their coalition with the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party. And so we say, not only to the Liberal Party, but we say also to the Nationalist Party and to the Labour Party, “So long as you keep in office an Anti-Suffrage Government you are parties to their guilt, and from henceforth we offer to you the same opposition which we give to the people who are kept in power by your support.” We have summoned the Labour Party to do their duty to their own programme and to go into opposition to the Government on every question until the Government do justice to women. They apparently are not prepared to do this. Some of them tell us other things are more important than the liberty of women than the liberty of working women. We say, “Then, gentlemen, we must teach you the value of your own principles, and until you are prepared to stand for the right of women to decide their lives and the laws under which they shall live, you, with Mr. Asquith and Co., are equally responsible for all that has happened and is happening to women in their country in their struggle for emancipation.”
Property to be Attacked.
What do we mean when we say we are going to continue the militant agitation for Woman Suffrage? There is a great deal of criticism, ladies and gentlemen, of this movement. We have critics whose intentions we have every reason to suspect when they criticize us. It always seems to me, when the Anti-Suffrage members of the Government criticize militancy in women, that it is very like beasts of prey reproaching the gentler animals who turn in desperate resistance when at the point of death. It seems to me that gentlemen who do not hesitate to turn out armies to kill and slay their opponents, who do not hesitate to encourage party mobs to attack defenseless women in public meetings when we get criticism from them, their criticism scarcely rings true. But we have friendly critics. I get letters from people who tell me they are ardent Suffragists, but who say they do not like the recent developments of the militant movement, and who implore me to urge the members of our Union not to be reckless with regard to human life. Ladies and gentlemen, the only recklessness militant Suffragists have shown about human life has been their own lives, not the lives of others; and I say here and now that it has never been, and it never will be the policy of the Women’s Social and Political Union to recklessly endanger human life. We leave that to men in their warfare. It is not the method of women. No; even from the point of view of policy, militancy affecting the security of human life would be out of place. There is something that Governments care for far more than they care for human life, and that is the security of property. Property to them is far dearer and tenderer than is human life, and so is through property we shall strike the enemy. I have no quarrel with property, ladies and gentlemen, and it is only as an instrument of warfare in this revolution of ours that we make attacks upon property. I think there are a great many people who own property who understand it very well, but if they would only understand it a little more quickly they would do what we want them to do. We want them to go to the Government and say, “Examine the causes that lead to the destruction of property. Remove the discontent; remove the sense of outrage; remove the outlawry; then women, who always have been law-abiding — although they have no voice in making these laws — will return to what they formerly were, the most law-abiding member of the community.” But I say, from henceforward the women who agree with me will say, “We disregard your laws, gentlemen, we set the liberty and the dignity of women and the welfare of women above all such considerations, and we shall continue that war as we have done in the past, and what sacrifice of property, what injury to property occurs will not be our fault. It will be the fault of that Government which admits the justice of our demands, but refuse to concede them without the evidence — so they have told us — without the evidence afforded to Governments of the past that those who ask for liberty were earnest in their demands.
Why we are Militant.
Now, why are we militant? There are women in this hall who still think it right to be patient, who still think they can afford to wait until there is time to deal with the enfranchisement of women. I tell you, women, in this hall that you who feel like that, you who allow yourselves to be tricked by the excuses of politicians, have not yet awakened to a realization of the situation. The day after the outrages in Wales I met some of the women who had exposed themselves to the indecent assaults of that mob. I say “indecent” advisedly, because in addition to the facts reported in the newspapers — facts verified by photographs — in spite of the contradictions of Mr. Lloyd George, in addition to what found its place in the newspapers, those women suffered from assaults of a kind which it was impossible to print in a decent newspapers. There was one woman whom I saw the day after, a woman with grown up children, the mother of a son twenty-five years of age. She described to me the way in which she had been assaulted. She said she did not feel she could even tell her husband or her son the nature of the assault, and then I said to her, “How could you bear it! It seems to me that is the hardest thing of all to bear.” And she said, “All the time I thought the women who day by day, and year by year, are suffering through the White Slave Traffic — and I said to myself, “I will bear this, and even worse than this, to help to win power to put an end to that abominable slavery.” In our speeches on Woman Suffrage, we have not dwelt very much on that horrible aspect of women’s lives, because some of us felt that to think of those things, to speak very much about them, was apt to cause a state of feeling which would make it impossible for us to carry on our work with cheerful hearts, and with courage and with hope; but it seems to me that recent developments — legal developments — with regard to that question have made it essential that we should use that question to rouse women to a realization of the simple fact that until women have the Vote, the White Slave Traffic will continue all over the world. Until by law we can establish an equal moral code for men and women, women will be fair game for the vicious section of the population inside Parliament as well as outside it.
Women will be fair game for the worst section of the population, inside Parliament as well as outside. People will tell you that in order that you may live happy and protected lives it is necessary. That is a lie. But even were it the horrible truth, there are other things we women have to deal with. Even if we tolerated the degradation of the grown women, can we tolerate the degradation of the helpless little children? When I began this militant campaign — in the early days of the movement, I was a Poor Law Guardian, and it was my duty to go through the workhouse infirmary, and never shall I forget seeing a little girl of thirteen lying in bed, playing with a doll, and when I asked what was her illness I was told that she was on the eve of becoming a mother, and she was infected with a loathsome disease, and on the point of bringing, no doubt, a diseased child into the world. Wasn’t that enough? A little later, in a byelection campaign against the Government candidate in Leeds I had occasion to visit a Salvation Army hotel in that city, and in the matron’s room there was a little child eleven years of age. She didn’t look older than eight, and I said: “How was it she was there? Why wasn’t she playing with other children?” And they said to me: “We dare not let her play with other children. She has been on the streets for more than a year.” These, women in this meeting, are facts. These are not sensational stories taken from books written to attract the attention of those who like to think about matters that we have been accustomed to believe ought not to be spoken about. These I vouch for from my own experience, and they are but specimens and examples of a horrible state of things which flourishes in every so-called civilized centre of Europe and the whole world.
A Great Mission
Now, I say to the men in this meeting, can you put an end to this horrible degradation of the race without our help? It is you who are responsible for the present state of things. You have inherited it. It is not the men of today who are directly responsible, but you are responsible so long as you refuse to women the right to help you to deal with evils which you are admittedly unable to cope with yourselves. We women Suffragists have a great mission, the greatest mission the world has ever known. It is to free half the human race, and through that freedom to save the race. You, women in this meeting, will you help us to do it? Well, then, if you will, put aside all craven fear. Go and buy your hammer; be a militant. Be militant in your own way. Those of you who can express your militancy by going in your own way. Those of you who can express your militancy by going to the House of Commons and refusing to leave without satisfaction, as we did in the early days — do so. Those of you who can express their militancy by facing party mobs at Cabinet Ministers’ meetings, and remind them of their unfaithfulness to principle — do so. Those of you who can express your militancy by joining us in anti-Government by-election policy — do so. Those of you who can break windows— those of you who can still further attack the sacred idol of property so as to make the Government realize that property is as greatly endangered by women as it was by the Chartists of old days — do so.
And my last word is to the Government. I incite this meeting to rebellion. You have not dared to take the leaders of Ulster for their incitement. Take me if you dare! But if you dare, I tell you this, that so long as those who incite to armed rebellion and the destruction of human life in Ulster are at liberty you will not keep me in prison. You will not keep militant Suffragists in prison anymore than you kept Mrs. Leigh and Miss Evans. As long as men rebels and voters are at liberty we will not remain in prison, first division or no first division!
Women in this meeting! Although the vote is not yet won, we who are militant are free; our souls are free, and you who have free souls forget all about the body. Remember only the freedom of the spirit, and join in this magnificent rebellion of women in the twentieth century.
Source: “Great Albert Hall” in Speeches and Trials of the Militant Suffragettes: The Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1918. ed. Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), pp. 277-282.