Votes for women

Everyone knows about the struggle for votes for women. They know about Emily Davison throwing herself under the King’s horse; about the Pankhursts; about purple, green and white sashes; about breaking windows and setting the odd post box alight; about force feeding imprisoned suffragettes and about how it took until the end of the First World War to achieve. But even that long list is just the highlights.

I’ve just read Emeline Pankhurst’s autobiography and account of the suffrage movement (the source for this article) and I’m overwhelmingly struck by just how long and hard the struggle was.

The first attempts to get votes for women through Parliament started in the 19th century. Over many years private members bills were presented, but if they managed to get listed they got talked out or blocked. At times parliament was in favour of votes for women but on each occasion the prime minister and government crushed it before final reading was complete. Ministers against included Lloyd-George, Churchill and most notably, the prime minister Asquith. Asquith suggested on several occasions at enfranchisement being granted as an amendment but then prevented it or didn’t take it forward. This raised hopes and kept the less militant suffragists placated.

The women tried to meet ministers, present their case to parliament and petition the prime minister on behalf of the King and then the King himself. During these peaceful protests, marches, and delegations they were repeatedly beaten by the police and arrested.

MPs and ministers challenged the suffragists to demonstrate the strength of support through demonstrations  and when the demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands, they were seen as insufficient evidence. When comparison to men fighting for the vote was made as a challenge and women broke windows, avoiding physical harm to people, they were again condemned and imprisoned.

Hundreds of women, some repeatedly, were imprisoned over time. Prison conditions were terrible – cold, poor bedding, no talking during exercise, solitary confinement for not following rules. The sentences were harsh for either no crime or minor breaches of peace or criminal damage and allowance was given for the political nature of the prisoners. The women protested in prison, they broke windows and they refused to eat. Quickly the authorities learned to force feed them using pipes forced up noses and into stomachs. Sometimes this caused liquid food to enter the lungs, often causing internal damage. Eventually the weakened women were released however the government introduced the “Cat and Mouse” Act especially targeted at the suffragists and not applied to others, which released them on License until they recovered from hunger strike and then rearrested them. Some suffragettes including Emmeline Pankhurst also went on “thirst strike” and “rest strike” – refusing liquids and to rest. This caused rapid and severe decline to health.

The women didn’t recognise the jurisdiction of government and courts run by men and in which women had no voice. When on temporary release and strong enough, Mrs Pankhurst evaded re-arrest and broke the conditions by attending speaking engagements. The police were frequently brutal in their attempts to arrest the women and the courts unsympathetic.

When war broke out women had not been successful and militancy ceased. It took until 1918 and a change of government for the first women to be able to vote.

This was a long hard struggle. So many women and men fought, suffered and died to make it happen. This is why your vote is precious.

Re: Read 2015

I’m useless at remembering book titles and authors, the same with films and music. But I’m good at remembering the feeling a book leaves me with. I started thinking about what I read in 2015, and then of course I realised I can’t remember that either, so I scoured the bookshelf and put together a list, more or less, and pondered what was good, what not so. Here, I share a bit of it with you…

Around the start of the year I read the Goldfinch (Tartt), I struggled to get into it but stuck with it and it paid off. The life stories of its characters are a bit bizarre, or maybe they just had a lot going on but it made me think; think about the what ifs of losing your place in society, slipping through the net, of hardships and about making your own way and independence and opportunity. Even when I’d finished it, I wasn’t sure about how much I’d enjoyed it but over time its percolated into me and as a result made it onto the enjoyed list.

In contrast, the Wolf Hall epics (Mantel), lacked the feeling of the Goldfinch and left me thinking I’d simply read the history of the wives and entourage of Henry VIII. It was interesting but I didn’t find the emotion in it. I guess, I just kept wondering what was true, what was history, what was the fiction/story; I think I need to know one or the other.

The non-fiction Kabul Beauty School (Rodriguez), in contrast, built upon the apparent reality of the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul and fed my curiosity of life in Afghanistan, especially for women; its light read augmenting my understanding from previous reads such as the great A Thousand Splendid Suns (Hosseini).

It seems to have been a year for story flipping – between characters in The Shoe Maker’s Wife, (Trigiani) and The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle (Wark), time periods in Elizabeth is Missing (Healey) and places in Us (Nicholls). Sometimes I just wished for a continuous story. Most of these were pretty sad, sometimes touching tales addressing dementia, loss and marriage breakdown leaving me feeling like I could do with a good journey to read about. I’d read Wark (I identified with her places) and Healey (her perspective on dementia helps you think about the experience of the sufferer) again; Nicholls tale didn’t live up to One Day, the characters felt overstated.

2015 was the year I was tempted by technology and became a Kindle user. So far I’ve tapped into the extensive library of free classics that I’ve previously not got around to. This feels like good value and so far I’ve read Bronte and Wilde, maybe after a couple more I’ll buy a Kindle book! But, I’ll certainly never give up the smell and touch of real books!

What about 2016? More classics, hopefully some Tove Jansson or Kathleen Jamie, some journeys and some modern classics. Oh, and I’ll make a list so I know what I’ve read.