The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930

The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930

The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930

The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930

Synopsis

The image of middle-class women chaining themselves to the rails of 10 Downing Street, smashing windows of public buildings, and going on hunger strikes in the cause of "votes for women" have become visually synonymous with the British suffragette movement over the past century. Their story has become a defining moment in feminist history, in effect separating women's fight for voting rights from contemporary issues in British political history and disconnecting their militancy from other forms of political activism in Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Drawing upon private papers, pamphlets, newspapers, and the records of a range of suffrage and political organizations, Laura E. Nym Mayhall examines militancy as both a political idea and a set of practices that suffragettes employed to challenge their exclusion from the political nation. She traces the development of the suffragettes' concept of resistance from its origins within radical liberal discourse in the 1860s, to its emergence as political practice during Britain's involvement in the South African War, its reliance on dramatic spectacle by suffragette organizations, and its memorialization following enfranchisement. She reads closely the language and tactics militants used, analyzing their challenges in the courtroom, on the street, and through legislation as reasoned actions of female citizens. The differences in strategy among militants are highlighted, not just in the use of violence, but also in their acceptance and rejection of the authority of the law and their definitions of the ideal relationship between individuals and the state. Variations in the nature of protest continued even during World War I, when most suffragettes suspended their activities to serve the nation's war effort, while others joined peace movements, opposed the state's reduction of civil liberties in wartime, and continued the struggle for suffrage. Mayhall's revealing account of the militant suffrage movement sheds new light upon the social history of gender but, more importantly, it connects this movement to the political and intellectual history of Britain. Not only did militancy play an essential role in the achievement of women's political rights but it also contributed to the practice of engaged citizenship and the growth of liberal democracy.

Excerpt

On 25 June 1909, Marion Wallace Dunlop, member of the British militant suffrage organization, the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), stenciled the following words from the Bill of Rights (1689) on a wall in the outer precincts of the House of Commons: “It is the right of the subject to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.” Wallace Dunlop was arrested and incarcerated, whereupon she refused to eat in protest against the court's adjudication of her actions as having criminal rather than political motivations. Her hunger strike, in fact, is the reason Wallace Dunlop remains one of the most well-known suffrage activists of the Edwardian period. Like Emily Wilding Davison, who died after hurling herself at the king's horse at the Derby in 1913 in protest against the government's treatment of suffragettes in prison, Wallace Dunlop, the “first hunger striker,” emerges in histories of the militant suffrage movement as an exemplar of some British women's willingness to sacrifice their bodies for the achievement of political rights.

Suppose, however, that Wallace Dunlop's act itself—the stenciling of a portion of the Bill of Rights on a wall within the environs of Parliament— becomes the object of scrutiny, rather than her hunger strike once she was imprisoned. The original act and its central claim—that the subject has the right to petition the king for alleviation of grievances—says much about militancy in the campaign for women's suffrage in Britain. Wallace Dunlop's deed connects the Edwardian suffrage movement to a long tradition of radical protest and highlights suffragettes' use of the constitutional idiom, which they deployed to great effect while asserting their rights as citizens and resisting the government they had played no role in choosing (see figure I.1).

This book seeks to shed light on the rationale at the heart of Marion Wallace Dunlop's protest by exploring suffrage militancy as a political idea and a range of practices. It arises out of two parallel historiographies of the lateVictorian and Edwardian periods—British political culture and the women's . . .

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