The Women’s Insurrection
February 21, 1913 — Town Hall, Chelsea, London UK
I am very glad to have this one more opportunity of explaining to an audience in London the meaning of the women’s revolution, because it is as much a revolution which is going n in Great Britain as is that series of events taking place in Mexico — a revolution. We here in Chelsea are too far away from Mexico to be able to judge of the merits of the case over there, but one thing we do know, and it is this: that rightly or wrongly a large proportion of the population of Mexico have come to the conclusion that life under the form of government there was intolerable for them, and therefore they have done what men in all the history of the world have thought themselves justified in doing; they have revolted against their government, and they have adopted the usual methods employed by men. They have taken to methods of insurrection.
Now when the treatment of the Franchise Bill and the Woman Suffrage amendments were under discussion in the House of commons, Lord Robert Cecil said that had men in this country been treated as women had been in that matter, there would have been insurrection. There was no doubt about it. Well, I think we have convinced the British public that when women are treated in that way they also take to insurrection. Now if you get the right point of view about what we have been doing, you will realise that our insurrection is characterised by very much greater self-restraint than the men’s insurrections. I read that in Mexico thousands of non-combatants have not merely had their letters destroyed, but they have had their lives taken, and so terrible were the circumstances there that these human bodies had paraffin poured over them and were set alight and burned, in order to put a stop to the danger of pestilence. That is how men conduct civil wars.
Well, you know perfectly well that in spite of the alarmist accounts that you see in the Press, so far in our agitation no human being has suffered except the women who are fighting for the liberty of women. As far as we can secure it, even at tremendous risk to ourselves, that self-restraint on the part of women, and that safeguarding of human life will be maintained until we have won, but short of that we mean to do everything and all things that become necessary in order to settle this question of the status of women in this country once and for all.
“I Am a Law-Abiding Woman.”
Now when people take to methods of insurrection, when they proclaim a civil war, they take upon themselves a very serious responsibility. No one recognizes that more than the women who are fighting in this women’s’ civil war. I am by nature (and so are all our women) a law-abiding woman. Nothing but extreme provocation leads women to break the law. Nothing but extreme provocation would lead women to interfere with the ordinary life of any other human being, but I maintain, without fear of contradiction, that never in any civil war in this country, or any other country, have men had greater provocation, greater grievances than have women at the present time. I accept any challenge to prove that the condition of women, that the dangers to which women are exposed, the grievances of women, are as great — no, are greater — than have been the grievances of any section of any population in any country when civil war has been thought justifiable.
I have with me here to-night a report of women, and men too, who are engaged in dealing with these most unfortunate members of the community who are not safeguarded by law, or the administration of the law, as they ought to be, and who never will be until women possess political power and have a better control over the law. I say to women in this meeting: listen to what I am going to read to you in a few words, and then tell me if you are not satisfied that this sort of thing can only be stopped by a revolution such as ours. I ask you whether we are not justified in everything that we have done in our attempt to wake up to the public conscience of this country, and force the Government of the day to do something to remove these grievances. I tis form a report presented at the last annual conference of that highly respectable and constitutional body, the National Union of Women Workers. These facts are given by a woman who read the paper. Early this year a girl of fourteen and a-half years, expecting confinement, appeared at the Central Criminal Court against a man of forty-five years old. He pleaded guilty. The judge heard no evidence, gave the police no opportunity of showing there was much against the man besides. The sentence was six months’ hard labour, and only this morning women who from the highest motives have broken the law because they have been driven to it by the insult to them, these women were sentenced to the same imprisonment as this man. But this is worse: At the September Sessions this year, a girl of thirteen and a –half, and expecting confinement, appeared against a middle-aged man who was proved guilty and the sentence pronounced was three months in prison. That is only a month more that I got on the last occasion when I was sentenced for breaking a window valued at 3s. At every assizes and at every sessions there are cases like this, and even worse.
In addition to these facts, reference was made at that conference on the need that existed for rescue homes, not for women of full age, but for little children under twelve years of age. Facts were given there, and that was at a meeting where only women were present, because it was considered that these facts were not fit for discussion in ordinary public meetings. They are fit, ladies and gentlemen, so long as these things are permitted to go on. When we read of babies of two and a-half years being brought into these private Lock Hospitals suffering from unnamable diseases because of the awful conditions of our so-called civilisation in great cities, I say, Are women not justified in trying to get some political power to put a stop to them?
“Fight the right way,” says someone. Well, I was speaking the other night in a hall which is named after a great man who fought in this country against absolute monarchy. Cromwell and his army fought against the divine right of kings. Charles I. believed sincerely — and many agreed with him — that kings, because they were kings, had a divine right to rule; they had a divine right o tax the people of this country and spend their money as they pleased without being responsible in any way. Well, you have abolished the divine right of kings, but you have got the divine right of the man voter substituted for it, and we women to-day are fighting against that divine right. You admire the courage of men like Cromwell. We, so do we; but it takes a great deal more courage, ladies and gentlemen, to fight against eight million divine rulers than it did to fight against one.
Rulers by Divine Right.
I know perfectly well that these rulers by divine right of ours are not against women really. I know perfectly well that the average man is fair-minded and reasonable, and I know, speaking of the average voter, he is quite ready to admit that if a woman qualifies for a vote like a man, if she pays her own rent and her rates and taxes like a man, she has as much right to vote as he has. All the public opinion worth having is on the side of justice and fair-play to women, but unfortunately the average man, the average voter, wants to be allowed to go on with his business. He does not put himself very much out of the way about any grievances except the grievances that come right home to himself. Well, we have been trying to rouse him by argument; we have been trying to rouse him by persuasion. You do rouse him sufficiently at a meeting to vote for Woman Suffrage, but he goes home after he has heard a good speech, and goes to sleep after saying what a good meeting it was, and then forgets all about it until he is roused up again. Well, now you are all moved about it. You are all excited about it. You are all interested in it.
Many of you condemn us, especially if you play golf, or if you sent a very important business letter which did not reach its destination, or if you are a shopkeeper and your windows have been broken. I expect the Chancellor of the Exchequer is coming home post haste to see what has happened to his building. You are all roused and you are all stirred up. Well, you say, “What do you hope to get by that? What is the use of making people angry?” Life-long supporters come to me and say, “You are completely alienating my sympathy.” I reply to them: “What did you sympathy do for us, my good friend, when we had it? What use has your sympathy or your life-long support or sympathy been to us? It is better to have you angry than to have you pleased, because sooner or later you will come to the conclusion that this intolerable nuisance must be put an end to.”
Some of you are writing letters to the papers suggesting all sorts of punishments. That won’t stop us. You see in the way of punishment you cannot go beyond a certain point without reversing the whole progress of civilisation for the last hundred years. You know they thought that when they adopted forcible feeding, which is really a torture worthy of the Middle Ages, that that would put down the agitation, but it has not done so, because you see when you take to torture as punishment you can go as far as life will let you, but your victim will escape you into another life, and then your power over that human being ends, and women in this movement have so made up their minds that there is no other way but the way we have adopted, that we shall go on, and if one falls down by the way a hundred will arise to take her place.
I want to show you that we have become not only convinced that ours is the right way to get this question of the political status of women settled, but we feel that there is no time to be lost; that we cannot wait any longer; that while we are waiting these things are going on that we want to have power to put an end to. (A voice: “I want to give you advice.”) I prefer to take the political advice of great statesmen who have had the necessary experience. Et me tell you what Lord Derby said in an article in The Nineteenth Century Review on the Irish Land Acts. “Why have we altered the Irish Land Law? To put an end to Irish agitation. Why have we cared to put an end to Irish agitation? Because it was not only discreditable to England as a ruling power, but a practical obstruction to the transaction of English and Parliamentary obstruction. Now we ask for Parliamentary obstruction for Woman Suffrage, but we have no men in Parliament to obstruct for us, so we are obliged to take to other methods, similar to those which, added to Parliamentary obstruction, led to the passing of the Irish Land Acts. The answer to all the objections which may be made by people who do not like our methods is this: How else than by giving votes to women are you going to govern the women of England! You cannot govern us if we refuse to be governed. If we withdraw our consent from government no power on earth can govern us. Your police force, your police magistrates, your judges, your army, the navy if you like, all the forces of civilisation, cannot govern one woman if she refuses to be governed. Government rests upon force, you say: Not at all: it rests upon consent, ladies and gentlemen, and women are withdrawing their consent. Well, now that is a very serious situation; it is a very paralyzing situation, and I would like our friends who think that they can govern us by punishment and by restriction, to ask themselves seriously how it is to e done. You see two women walking along the street. How are you to know which of those women is a Suffragette? How are you to know which of them has destroyed letters in pillar-boxes, or broken widows, or fired the orchid houses, or blown up Mr. Lloyd George’s home? If you read your papers they say, “Clues to the perpetrators of the outrages to Mr. Lloyd George’s home!” A galosh! Two hatpins without heads! Two hairpins! and they are still searching, and I who have accepted responsibility several times, why have they not taken me? I suppose they know their own business best. I suppose they think it would be more difficult to manage things with me in Holloway than with me outside of Holloway I do not deceive myself into thinking that it is out of any consideration for me. It is very wrong that other women should be sent to prison and punished, as they have been to-day, while I who have incited them should be at liberty.
This situation will have to be ended, and how are sensible men going to end it? You can only end it one say, and that is by seeing that political justice is done to women. This Government will have to give Women Suffrage of this Government will have to go. My advice to you men who have got votes — and you know one voter means more in the minds of politicians than any number of voteless people — make them do it when the session opens, or make them resign office and clear out and make way for people who will. That is what we have set ourselves to do. We have set ourselves to force this Government out of office, and I know that businessmen in this country will help us. Your stockbroker, whose communication with Glasgow was cut off for several hours during very important business hours, does not want that to be a weekly occurrence. Your business man who reads important communications through the post does not want his communications to be interfered with as a regular and permanent institution. He can put up with it once, but if it going on and on and one, he will ant it to be put a top to. Your business man, whose customers mostly are women, does not like the idea that in the interval of buying hats, his customers may be breaking his shop windows; and your insurance companies won’t like to have the drain upon their resources and their profits cut down by having to make good these insurance policies. It is an impossible situation.
“This Fight Is Going On.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, what I want to get into the minds of the people in this meeting is that his fight is going on until women have won the vote. Every right-minded person admits that it is bare justice we are fighting for: justice that for generations we thought we should get by argument, by persuasion, and by constitutional means; but we know perfectly well, and everybody knows, that in this country, whatever it may be in other countries, no great reform has ever been won, or ever will be won, perhaps, until women get the vote, by constitutional means. There is not a man in this meeting to-night who would have a vote if it had not been that in the past men waged civil war to get that vote for men, and yet men can blame women to-day! Have ever men had reasons greater than ours to win their enfranchisement? Look at the industrial position of women in this country. Is it not appalling and earful? Socialists are telling us that the White Slave Traffic is entirely due to the economic position of women. No, it is largely due to it, but not entirely. It is very largely because of our unequal moral standard. This idea that in the pursuit of vicious pleasures women are fair game. It permeates all ranks of society; not only the upper classes. It comes down and down, and the poor woman who is called “fallen,” though her partner is not regarded as fallen goes from serving the vicious pleasure of the upper classes by degrees down to serving those of the lowest. So we have this moral cancer which is destroying the race, which is eating at the heart of the race itself. I want to say to men that from a Parliament elected by men we shall not get laws reforming it. I want to say to you — Is it not very like asking the wolf to protect the lamb? Because even a Government which is responsible for carrying through such legislation has not clean hands in this matter. What about the state of poor women in India or wherever our troops are stationed? What about those women who are looked upon as necessary victims for the British Army and Navy? These are the things that women are fighting. They are only beginning to learn about them for they have been kept form us. We have been told that it was something we must not even think about, but the women of the past generation fought for the right to enter the profession of medicine, and we have women doctors now, and we know that this moral cancer has set up a physical cancer, and that the race itself is being destroyed and undermined by these horrible diseases that come of unbridled viciousness in our social life.
And so women, while they are quite ready to fight for this thing simply for liberty’s sake, so they may say, “We are free citizens of a free country like the men,” are also fighting for power to help the best of men to do what men have have found themselves unable to do, because they are appalled at the social problems they have to fact. Well, women have the courage to come to their aid, and we say we are determined to help men, and stand fide by side as equal citizens with the best of men, so that together we may save the race and may bring about a better and nobler humanity.
Source: 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. 286-291.