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It is still all too easy to dismiss the scope and radicalism of the early 20th century British women’s movement. A case in point is the standard response to the question — what happened to the movement after outbreak of war in August 1914?
You are likely to hear comments along the lines of “Didn’t it all just stop?” or “The Suffragettes stopped attacking buildings and pillar boxes and instead started handing out white feathers to men who didn’t rush to join the military.”
If you are lucky you might find someone who knows something of the women suffragists who embraced the peace movement. Perhaps they might mention the International Congress of Women meeting at The Hague in the Netherlands in April 1915.
Surely the history of the women’s movement has more to it than this? What about the thousands of other women who had joined the myriad of women’s suffrage societies to campaign for an end to the exclusively — albeit partial — male parliamentary franchise?
My talk at the Tolpuddle festival, Keeping the Suffrage Flag Flying, focuses on one of these societies, The Women’s Freedom League (WFL), and considers the ways some of its 5,000-plus members responded to the outbreak of war and the impact the conflict had on them.
“Patriotism before politics” was the position adopted by the British Establishment in August 1914. The message to the suffrage societies was clear — it was selfish for women to continue to demand political rights when the country was at war.
And yet, while Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst and other suffrage campaigners were won over by such sentiments, others were less convinced.
Among them was Charlotte Despard, the revered president of the Women’s Freedom League, who declared that war “was the decisive damnation of a corrupt society.”
Although many of her comrades found it impossible to follow her into the peace movement, a significant number agreed that it was vital to keep attention focused on women’s demands for an equal voice in the politics of the nation.
The Women’s Freedom League’s long-standing commitment to the principle of resistance to government without representation remained broadly intact through the years of war.
An example was the decision of one member, Florence Underwood, to continue to refuse to pay income tax on her earnings. The league also moved swiftly to accommodate the wishes of their members who wanted to offer service to their country by channelling some of their considerable organisational skills into supporting working women, mothers and children who had been affected by the war.
The Women’s Freedom League’s commitment to the principles of equality produced what might seem a rather incongruous stance on alcohol — viewed by many as a national scourge in wartime.
However, in Hartlepool in 1917, the entire branch membership rose en masse to protest at the exclusion of women from licenced premises at certain times of the day. It was they claimed “not only an injustice but an insult to women!”
The Hartlepool campaign was just one of many forays taken by the league into debates around civil liberties.
Other campaigns highlighted equal pay, prostitution, sexual abuse and the treatment of women by law courts — topics that are largely still relevant to feminists and radicals today.
Yes, war meant that the women’s movement in Britain was probably organisationally weaker. There was less accord, less publicity and less wealth.
And yet over the same period some important principles relating to women’s rights to work, equality with men, rights of mothers as well as meanings of national identity and citizenship, were tested by women and found wanting.
It was feminism as much, if not more, than suffrage that flourished after 1914. There are some lessons for us there today, surely.
Claire Eustance is senior lecturer in history at the University of Greenwich. She will be giving a talk at the Tolpuddle radical history school.
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