Key Facts & Summary
- It was an act that allowed the English police to release and rearrests the women who were at the forefront of the Suffragist movement.
- Emmeline Pankhurst was the leader of the Suffragist movement.
- The government at that time opposed the idea of women being allowed to vote.
In the British Empire, during the second half of the nineteenth century, it was Queen Victoria who ruled England for decades. Yet women were considered “second class citizens”.
Whether rich or poor, peasant or very wealthy, worker or noble, they had no more rights than a criminal, a child or even a mental patient. For the same job, women earned one-third of what a man earned and did not have access to education. What about married women? Their identities belonged to their husbands. She had to be submissive to her husband.
This retrogressive conception of women did not go well with some women. As a result, some tried, at all price, to make it change. They were therefore convinced that this improvement in the living conditions of women should include the right to vote. “The Suffragists, as they were referred, gave their all to fight for English women so that they can be allowed to vote.
The Suffragists: First Engaged
Only wealthy and wealthy white men have the right to vote in this constitutional monarchy then England. Even noble women have the right only to live in the shadow of their husbands.
They are rich enough but since they are women, they are excluded. From 1884, things are changing. A law gives them the right … to own their own body! Women, therefore, become individuals, and from then on they can legally claim all other rights.
That arranges the affairs of a certain Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Born in 1847 in a rather liberal family, she militated in the 1870s to obtain the right to vote for women. Widowed that same year, 1884, she devoted herself fully to politics.
Persuaded that by putting pressure on the MPs, they will convince them that they are fit to be part of the political system, Millicent sensitizes women to the issue of the right to vote: these groups of women activists become “Suffragists”. By asking questions such as “Who defines the laws? Who decides who is a citizen and who is not? “According to which criteria? Suffragists undermine the whole system of Victorian England.
The oppositions are immediate. This “revolution appears as a real threat. The role of women is different from that of men: they are first and foremost wives to raise children and take care of their homes. If women are involved in politics, who will take care of the home? Those who dare to speak in public are described as hysterical.
It was inconceivable for many men and women of the late nineteenth century that women move from the private sphere to the public sphere.
In 1897, Millicent Garrett took the helm of a brand new organization that brought together all the suffragist societies of the country: the National Union of Women’s Suffrage. Under his leadership, the NEWS, which includes both female and male sympathizers, became the leading suffragist movement in the world.
Gathered under a single campaign for more efficiency, Suffragists multiply militant actions, always in the legality. Selina Cooper, an emblematic woman in the world of the textile industry, is trying to mobilize women workers for the right to vote for women and joins the suffragist movement.
In 1900, 29,859 signatures were presented to London deputies. However, no improvement under the sky of politics. It’s been 30 years since Millicent Garrett Fawcett fought for women’s right to vote.
Suffragettes: “actions, not words”
Other women do not intend to wait another 30 years. On October 10, 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).
A member of the independent Labor Party, an authoritarian and strongly committed woman, Emmeline Pankhurst wants the WSPU to focus on concrete actions, hence their slogan: “actions, not words”. But his daughter Christabel wants to go further. Like many women of her generation, she is frustrated by the legalistic methods of Millicent Garrett and her peers who, she says, have come to nothing.
In 1905, Christabel and a friend were ejected from a political rally for asking the question of the right to vote of women by raising the tone because of no one designed to answer them. Christabel spits on a policeman. This lack of respect is immediately turned into an offense: young women are arrested and imprisoned, 7 days for Christa, 5 days for her friend. All the press speaks about it.
Realizing the power of demonstrations and brilliant actions, Emmeline Pankhurst agrees with her daughter and opts for a strategy of confrontation.
Those who are pejoratively called “Suffragettes” will now draw the public’s attention to their cause by seeking to make people talk about them at any price, for good or bad.
Theresa Billington Greig, a 28-year-old former teacher who has been working full-time for the organization since its inception, says it’s almost a moral duty for women to break the law, since “they’ve been done without them and against them.”
Violent activism VS. Legal militancy
The Suffragettes multiply banned demonstrations, untimely speeches, interruptions of public meetings, follow the gates of the Parliament or the street lamps: deeply shocking behavior, but it is now impossible for the Government to ignore the movement.
Millicent Garret, leader of Suffragists, does not approve or collaborate with Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of Suffragettes. Although she acknowledges that Suffragettes are pushing the women’s cause so fast, Millicent continues to believe in her weighted, legal, constitutionalist methods. On February 7, 1907, the Suffragists organize a big demonstration: 5,000 women of all social origins and of all age cross London, in the cold and in the rain.
In 1906, the Liberal Party took power after 11 years of Conservative rule. Finally! But the new hopes are quickly disappointed: this government is certainly reforming, but not for women, quite the contrary. The Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, is anti Suffragists and Suffragettes. It plays on the fact that women do not want this right to vote. If they do not mobilize in sufficient numbers, it is because they are not interested!
Suffragettes decide to take up the challenge. June 21, 1908, takes place in Hyde Park a gigantic demonstration under a radiant sun. 50 000 women in white dress parade, 200 000 people are present. But the government remains deaf, no one wants to commit to the right of women. Even the Labor Party hesitates between fighting for the right of the workers or integrating the workers. After years of struggle, the disappointment is heavy. Suffragettes lose activists, who revolt against the violent manners employed by the WSPU, and the too despotic personality of its founder Emmeline Pankhurst.
Theresa Billington Greig secedes and creates the “Woman Freedom League”: by quieter actions, its members militate passively by refusing to participate in the census of the population or pay their taxes.
Cat and Mouse Act
The Cat and Mouse Act is the name given by journalists to the 1913 Temporary Discharge for the Ill Health Act in the United Kingdom. This law sought to thwart the hunger strikes of imprisoned suffragists.
In their fight for the right to vote, suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) resorted to vandalism (broken windows, arson, outrages on agents) and were regularly imprisoned. But their passage in prison was still an opportunity for them to publicly protest against government methods during hunger strikes. Prison authorities were then forced to release them on medical grounds, making the government’s arrest policy ineffective.
The latter came to order feeding by nasal probes recalcitrant. But this practice led to long-term illnesses that were again denounced to the public as abusive treatment of suffragettes.
The promulgation of this law made it possible to put an end to the forced feeding of incarcerated suffragettes, which was beginning to be badly perceived by the population. Suffragettes on hunger strike, for example, received no care until their health became a concern and they were released. Anything that could happen to them once liberated was no longer the responsibility of the state, and the women were thus put out of harm’s way until they regained strength and the authorities arrested them. again for any reason whatsoever so that they serve their entire initial sentence.
The law was not only reproved by public opinion, but it did not allow effective control of the most turbulent suffragettes who, once released, were supported by a network of sympathizers.
It ends up being seen as an attack on the fundamental rights not only of the suffragettes but of all the prisoners. The nickname given to the law (Cat and Mouse Act) reflects the sympathy felt by the population for suffragettes and the denunciation of government cruelty. These decisions had a significant impact on the popularity of Herbert Asquith’s government.
The law ultimately benefited the Labor Party, which at the time supported the struggle for women’s suffrage. The philosopher Bertrand Russell thus left the Liberal Party of Asquith and wrote a pamphlet to denounce the anti-liberal and unconstitutional character of the law promulgated by his former party. A large proportion of the liberal middle classes turned to the Labor Party on this occasion.