Item 280 - Copy of a letter from Lord Pethick-Lawrence to G. M. Trevelyan

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PETH/6/280

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Copy of a letter from Lord Pethick-Lawrence to G. M. Trevelyan

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  • 3 Oct. 1949 (Creation)

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8 sheets

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Explains his view of the historical importance of the women’s suffrage movement (in response to views expressed by Trevelyan).

(Carbon-copy, with handwritten alterations.)

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Transcript

3rd. October, 1949.

My dear Master,

You may remember that when I had the honour of dining in Trinity last June {1} I mentioned to you that I should like some day to have a talk with you about the woman’s militant movement for the franchise at the beginning of the century. Thinking it over I have come to the conclusion that it will probably suit you better if I put what I have to say in writing.

I must begin by apologising for troubling you at all about the matter but as you know I have been for a great part of my life a propagandist and I am still incorrigible in my old age. I do not like to think that you, our foremost British historian, should have, as it seems to me, the wrong slant on this movement which I hold to have been of considerable historic importance. The fact that I played a prominent part in it myself entitles me to speak on its behalf though I am free to admit that it also entitles you to charge me with bias. But then you have said (and I agree) that even an historian is none the worse for bias.

My case is:— 1) that any section of the community that has no political rights should endeavour to win them by reason and argument, but that if prolonged peaceful agitation fails to influence those who have the power, then it has no alternative but to use extraordinary and extralegal methods unless it is prepared to acquiesce in its own subjection.

2) that such methods should be designed so as a) to rouse the largest number of the unenfranchised section to a consciousness of their subjection b) to create the greatest difficulties for the Government, and c) to win the support of the bulk of the population by casting odium on the Government for its repressive counter measures.

3) that the militant suffrage agitation acted broadly on these lines (though it naturally made some mistakes), and that it was instrumental—though not exclusively—in creating a situation from which there was no escape except by conferring a measure of enfranchisement on women.

I do not think you will substantially disagree with me on either of the first two points which are borne out by countless examples, the latest of which come from Asia—India and Indonesia, in the former of which I was acting for the Government—but I gather that you do not accept my version of the facts as to the third.

It is to this point therefore that I will specially devote myself.

I was brought up, like you, in the Liberal fold and I still think that we owe much of our national democratic heritage to the great Liberal statesmen of the 19th century. Nevertheless I think that the Liberal Party bungled the case of the women and of the working man and lost its prestige and pre-eminence by so doing. By the time that the militant suffrage movement began women had grown tired of asking politely for the vote and being fobbed off it by discreditable political devices; and some younger spirits had become rebellious.

The militants directed the spear-head of their attack upon the members of the Liberal Government because they were the most vulnerable in that it was contrary to Liberal principles to deny enfranchisement to a section of the community which paid taxes and was subject to the laws made by a parliament in which they were not represented. In the earlier stages of the agitation they abstained from violence and concentrated on questioning Cabinet Ministers, campaigning against Liberal candidates at by-elections and committing technical breaches of the law. As a consequence they were subjected to considerable violence at the hands of stewards at meetings and of the police in the streets and they suffered terms of imprisonment.

I think it is indisputable that in this way they succeeded in rousing the sympathy of a very large number of their own sex. Many thousands enrolled themselves in the militant organisations. They included such prominent women as Dr. Garrett Anderson the Mayor of Aldeburgh, Mrs. Saul Solomon widow of the Cape Premier, Lady Constance Lytton, and leading actresses, novelists and others. Funds were contributed running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. The paper Votes for Women the weekly organ of the movement had a circulation of 30,000 to 40,000. About a thousand women served terms of imprisonment. Moreover after militancy began (and in my opinion, and in the publicly expressed opinion of Mrs. Fawcett the leader of the “constitutional” suffragists, largely in consequence of it) the membership of the non-militant suffrage societies showed a marked and rapid increase.

They succeeded also in directing the attention of the general public to the question. At one time from 100 to 200 meetings were being held every week, some of them vast open-air demonstrations, others in the largest halls of the country which were packed to overflowing. I do not suggest that all the members of the audiences were supporters though many were, but there was little or no hostility; and in the street demonstrations the crowds were mostly sympathetic. In fact in the so-called “raids on Parliament” the women counted on the crowd to protect them from the police.

How far electors were influenced at by-elections to vote against Liberal candidates by suffragette orators and canvassers can never be proved one way or the other but the press frequently alleged that they were, and there is no doubt that Cabinet Ministers were greatly embarrassed and hard put to to defend their attitude. Naturally, as is always the case when coercive action is taken by a Government, the British public opinion reacted against the Government.

During this period of the agitation there was a growing feeling among all parties in the House of Commons that the question of woman suffrage ought to be treated seriously and sympathetically and in 1910 an all-party committee devised a compromise proposal which came to be known as the “Conciliation Bill”. In order not to prejudice the chances of this compromise the militant societies were asked to desist from any militant action. They agreed; and for several months they carried out strictly constitutional and non-provocative activities. But in the end the Liberal Government made it quite clear that they would have nothing to do with the Conciliation Bill and Mr. Asquith remained adamant in his opposition. Militancy was therefore resumed in all its forms. Women continued to go to prison in increasing numbers and suffered violence in the streets and at Liberal meetings for their insubordination.

It was then that some militant women decided upon a change of tactics in the direction of actual violence against property. They were influenced to take this course 1) by the preference for being arrested quickly rather than after being knocked about and 2) by the taunts levelled against them by Cabinet Ministers that their rebellion was trumpery and not of the same account as the riots indulged in by men agitators in the 19th century. The form of violence adopted was that of breaking windows. At first the leaders of the militant movement opposed and tried to restrain women from taking this course but later they recognised it and organised it. A great shop-window breaking raid took place in London and created a sensation. The Government took action by arresting the leaders of the militant movement on a charge of conspiracy. I was one of those leaders and I made a speech in the dock at the Old Bailey in my own defence. I enclose with this letter, a verbatim report of it which you may feel disposed to read (not the biographical note which precedes it which has no relevance to the present issue.) It gives a number of further facts which I have not repeated in this letter. The trial, which was given immense prominence in the press, ended in our conviction, the jury appending a sympathetic rider, and we were sentenced to nine months imprisonment. At the same time several hundreds of the rank and file of the movement were also imprisoned. After serving part of our sentence the prisoners adopted the hunger strike. Some of us were forcibly fed and then released.

Subsequently there was a division in the leadership. Mrs. Pankhurst decided on new and more violent tactics which did not appeal to my wife and myself and we parted company. The Government also adopted new tactics and instead of applying forcible feeding the hunger strikers, took powers in a special Act of Parliament—The Cat & Mouse Bill—to release them and to rearrest them when they had recovered their health. The agitation continued with increasing bitterness on both sides up to the outbreak of the first world war.

Meanwhile of the purely political side there had been many developments. Supporters of woman suffrage did not succeed in inducing Mr. Asquith to support a woman suffrage measure. Instead, he promised that the franchise Bill which would be introduced to extend the male franchise would be open to amendment to include women. In the event the Speaker ruled that the Bill could not be so amended. This created an impasse in which it became evident that though the supporters of woman suffrage were not strong enough to insist on the passage of a Bill to enfranchise women they were strong enough to prevent the passage of a Bill to enfranchise more men from which women were excluded.

The external war brought a truce to the domestic militant campaign and during the war women rendered great services to the nation. When in the middle of the war a new registration and franchise reform measure became necessary a Speaker’s conference was constituted to frame the basis of its provisions and a partial enfranchisement of women was included among them and was accepted as a reasonable compromise and as such was enacted.

I am in no doubt that the women’s war service reconciled a large number of doubters to the inclusion of women in the future lists of electors. But I equally have no doubt that the prominence given to the question by the pre-war agitation made it impossible to ignore their claims and that, without it, gratitude to women for their help in critical hours might easily have fizzled out without the accordance of any tangible recognition of their right to participate in the future governance of their common country.

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{1} 21st. See PETH 6/279.

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Printed as an Appendix in Pethick-Lawrence, by Vera Brittain.

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