Select Page

A Spirit That is Indomitable

March 28, 1912 — Women’ Social and Political Union rally, The Royal Albert Hall, London, England


No one, of however little authority, can speak in public in days like these without a sense of responsibility. That sense has carried some of us to the police courts. We have sat there watching as the evidence piled up, facts emerge which the prosecution did not intend to elicit. We saw evidence of the new solidarity among women; of that resolve, so perplexing to the easy-liver, not to endure any longer with patience certain evils, which the mass of men leave untouched, some evils which the mass of men do not want mentioned, evils which we would like the happier women not to know. These evils are beginning — only beginning — to be better understood. And that is why the prisons are filling. I wish you knew what it was like to see Mrs. Pankhurst waiting two weeks for the facilities necessary in the preparation of her defence, facilities freely given to the swindler and to the fomenters of a devastating war. Imagine her standing there hearing the magistrate say last week that he had no power to grant her facilities; imagine her being told this week that facilities had now been granted, although the fact was that by a series of, let us say, misunderstandings between the Home Office and the prison authorities, Mrs. Pankhurst was still without these facilities. Understand we are not stating in this connection anything which is not proved. Whether the order from the Home Office was misinterpreted, or whether the Home Office was misinformed, the fact remains, through all those anxious days Mrs. Pankhurst was without the opportunity of preparing her defence. And when she tried to explain on two separate occasions, what do you think was the answer of the magistrate? “Next case.” I wish that you had had the opportunity of seeing Mrs. Lawrence giving there, in prison and in the dock, that great object-lesson in calmness to excited editors and hysterical doctors. I wish you had been able to come and see the man whom we are so proud to call our friend. What other body of women can boast men friends ready to give up their personal ambitions, ready to sacrifice their livelihood, ready to risk life and limb? This Union has such friends. But if not for the wider gratitude that all women owe to men, then for the sake of one man the members of this Union will be able to renew their faith in brotherhood by thinking of Mr. Lawrence.
These last days have emphasized the fact that the Government is trying to crush a spirit that is indomitable. We have been told that the militant suffragists miscalculated the anger and resentment they were arousing. No, they were occupied in calculating a different problem, one which had nothing to do with anything that they may be called upon to suffer. They are indifferent to anger and resentment. Now, when you get a section of the public in that frame of mind, the situation is serious. The authorities have withdrawn the principal leaders. Those who love law and order owe more than they are aware to the militant leaders. You know the acts which the leaders have sanctioned; you do not know the deeds they have prevented. The authorities have withdrawn them. They have left a body of people inflamed by injustice, left them without those captains to whom the rank and file are accustomed to look. That, too, is a responsibility. For the essence of this agitation is that in the eyes of certain women patience has not only ceased to be a virtue, it has ceased to be decent. You may choose to be patient in bearing your own miseries, but is patience in bearing other people’s miseries so fine a thing that you must maltreat those who refuse? The suffrage forces, as we have seen, can be led from the prison and the dock. They can be inspired by a leader whom we cannot see, and whom others cannot see; a leader with the power of making herself invisible to all her enemies and very present to all her friends — that spirit of air and fire called Christabel.
The warrant for her arrest has given her seven league boots, has given her wings. She has obviously been in Persia. The late Financial Agent of that Government has been telling an audience in America of the extraordinary activity shown of late by the Persian women, activity not only of the sustaining kind, but militant. That word “militant” gave the secret away. We were prepared after that to hear that this gentleman had never seen the faces of those militants. They always wore their veils. Probably one was a motor-veil. This wandering spirit of militancy grows bolder as she goes on. You heard what she had been doing last week in China. The “Times” told us that all of a sudden — it has all happened since a certain date — the Chinese suffragists became dissatisfied with the lukewarm approval given to votes for women and ratified in the National Assembly at Nanking. If we fail to recognise the accent of that dissatisfaction, we shall recognise the hand in what followed. Still quoting the “Times,” I may tell you the Chinese suffragists proceeded to break the windows. They mauled the police. They “terrorised” the whole assembly, and though soldiers were sent for in order that the legislators might be protected, the episode ended in the re-opening of the question of Votes for Women. There is no country in Europe free from this wandering influence. Without any slavish copying of methods, the Americans have taken fire from the English torch. The flame has spread from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from ocean to ocean. No fair minded person can deny that in those great States, the State of Washington, and the State of California, women have got their political freedom through the influence of this new spirit; the spirit that is typified for us here in the name of Christabel. And this spirit that ranges the hemispheres is going to be shut up in Holloway Prison!
While we are here making speeches on this subject persons in another place are also making speeches. We know those speeches. The academic arguments in favour, the more passionate objections against. What are they in essence, those objections? Called by a dozen names they may be summed up in one — fear. Fear has always had much to do with retarding justice. In this particular question we find the Tories afraid that the majority of women will turn Radical. We find the Liberals afraid of the well-known Conservative element in women. Your Indian administrator is afraid of what the subject races may think of the superior race. Your very soldier is not afraid to own himself afraid, afraid of women’s love of peace. Your peace-lover is afraid of women’s susceptibilities to martial glory. Afraid, afraid! Well, fear has been our pit-fall, too. That is why we do well to emphasize what has been the greatest victory so far gained in this fight. The victory over fear. Our worst enemies are those which walk in that dark legion recruited out of our own fears. They have a hundred disguises to deceive us. When we have beaten them off the ground of our own individual danger they reappear under the cloak of our genuine fear for others. We have to remember that in the long climb up from barbarism courage was always leading us on, and cowardice was always dragging us back. There is nothing so paralyzing, nothing so de-humanising as fear. In the early ages, lived through by all the races of the earth, before the altar where the human sacrifice lay bleeding, crouched that figure of fear. When patriot men had driven it out of their hearts, when the deeper thinkers found that the dominant world-force was not malevolent but beneficent, still the great mass of women, shut out from that wider knowledge which is experience, women, not allowed to face the common enemies in the open, became as those who hide and evade must always become — the special prey of fears. To have sent that dark host flying, to have found as hundreds upon hundreds of women have found that they cannot any more be made afraid — that is the outstanding victory. I do not mean that they no longer shrink from some specific act. I mean far more. I mean that however they conduct their campaigns in future, they will be delivered from that old tyranny of dreading pains and penalties. There is a very steading quality in that same fearlessness. It has no relation to the miscalled courage which finds expression in any cruel outbreak. Nothing in this world except doubt of our final triumph, only despair could deaden in women’s minds their sense of the sanctity of human life. For us who think we know the value of life to seem to join with those who hold life cheap, would be to desert our colours. It would be to resurrect that fear which we have buried.
One last instance of the tyranny of fear, and I have done. A member of the present Cabinet being in a frame of mind that might be described as “almost persuaded” asked a little while ago: Why should England be the first great nation to try this great experiment? One could only say that it seemed natural that England should lead the way. The answer might have been in the terms of that proud boast of Milton’s, and I do not think the passion of patriotism has ever found finer expression. “It would not,” Milton said, “be the first nor the second time since our ancient Druids that England hath had this honour vouchsafed from heaven: to give out Reformation to the world.”



Source: Votes for Women, April 5, 1912, p. 424.