Suffragette City

digital image copyright: Museum of London

Police escorting a struggling suffragette away from Buckingham Palace during the riots at Constitution Hill, 21 May 1914. (“Police Remove A Suffragette Demonstrator” (London,1914), Museum of London.)

This week we focused our attention on the relationship between protest and policing in the Capital. Inspired by the recent women’s marches across the world, I decided to focus on the relationship between the police and the suffragettes.

While police presence at protests had been common for a long time, and women  had attended marches and demonstrations in the past , the protests had never been so overtly female before the emergence of the suffragettes.

What I am interested in in this post is not particularly what the women were campaigning for but more, how the women were treated by the police and government.

It has been suggested that it was the fact that the women in the suffragette movement, especially in The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), were middle and upper class women that the police presence and brutality was so shocking to the public, it was the first time that these women had come into close contact clashes against the police and this was not only shocking but was a completely new situation for the public and the police to deal with. (CRAWFORD, 2005, p.488) The issue was exacerbated by the fact that the group were encouraged to attack any members of opposition to their cause, which included the police.(Bearman,2005,pp.375-6)

The relationship was not helped by the reciprocal treatment of protesters by the police. Women were attacked by members of the public for standing in the street , denied a platform on the pavements and forced to stand in the gutters, or in one particular case, bombarded with fruit and veg from the women workers of the Crosse and Blackwell factory. (Purvis,1995,p.93)

The intervention and assistance of the police to protect the women was not a guarantee, and often the evidence shows that they  were responsible for as many attacks against the protesters as the public were. One notorious incident in 1910 known as ‘Black Friday’ is an example of police brutality against the women, who were physically and sexually assaulted by the police force for no reason other than the fact they were campaigning for suffrage by invading a traditionally male space.(ibid,p.93)

digital image copyright: Museum of London

“Charge Sheet Issued To The Suffragette Florence Haig By The Metropolitan Police.” (London, 1908), Museum of London.

The Suffragette motto : “Deeds not Words” meant that militancy and clashes with the police were common until the end of the WSPU’s campaign was won. I will examine the women’s movement in closer detail in the coming weeks but I think that the campaign for suffrage featured policing that was brutal and uncommon for the time, and which has been overlooked by historians for such a long time.

If you look to social theory, especially the W.U.N.C model , the protesters fit the category of ‘worthy’ given their social status as middle class married women, however at the time the suffragette campaign was treat by the police and government along the same lines as a modern day political terrorist organisation (as in one with socio-political aims along the lines of the IRA) and the fact they were middle class was one of the main problems people had with them. Now, however, these women are seen as heroes and their actions seen as admirable.

I can’t say that the actions of The Suffragettes were not influential, as a woman I am inspired by their courage and grateful to them for moving emancipation forward, but at the same time I wonder whether, had they been a movement comprised predominantly of women from working class or minority ethnic backgrounds, would they have been viewed now in such a favourable light?, and would their actions be viewed in hindsight as political revolution or as lower class rioting?

I looked to an article by Stephanie Baker where she refers to the ‘riots’ of the late 1980’s – early 00’s as protests against a perceived social threat or inequality.(Baker,2011) These events occurred in reaction to an incident(s) of racial discrimination, just as the suffragette’s were reacting to gender discrimination, many of the protests turned violent but most did not amount to the same level of militancy that the suffragist campaigns did, so why are they historically referred to, and treated by the police and the government, as riots and not as protests or campaigns,as the suffragettes actions are?

I think there is much investigation to be done concerning the role that class and race plays in the relationship between police and protesters, although there is a lot of reading on modern day race relations (mid 20th C to now) I am curious to read more on the first half of the century, and earlier.




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