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The Comedy of Errors

Celebrating 100 Years of Women Gaining the Vote with Midlands Suffragettes

23 November 18 words: Sarah Hannah

6 February 2018 marked 100 years of 8.5 million women gaining their right to vote. Although it will be another decade before we celebrate 100 years of all women gaining the vote, it was a huge milestone in the step towards women’s rights being achieved...

illustration: James Hemington

In 1918 The Representation of the People Act was passed, so women over the age of thirty who owned or rented land, or who were married to someone who did, were eligible to vote. However, all men over the age of 21 were given the vote.

Many suffragettes were born here in Nottingham, and a lot of the action was seen in the city. In December 2017, the city of Nottingham was chosen as one of six to be given a share of £1.2 million of the government’s money for celebrating the 100-year anniversary, with Nottingham being an integral location for the cause.

This year, we celebrated these women in a few ways: Nottingham Council House in Old Market Square was lit up in purple; there was a diverse and constructive discussion panel in the same building, featuring the likes of Sandeep Mahal and Valentine Nkoyo; and the National Justice Museum held their Right to Vote exhibition, giving a brief profile on several pioneering women and men, while recalling the events that played out.

One of the women featured in the exhibition was Emily Davison, who threw herself in front of the king’s horse in Derby, and died from serious injuries four days later. She’s since gone down in history as a martyr for the women’s rights movement.

Going back to the beginning of the movement, Millicent Fawcett began to rally women together in the late 1800s, as plans were formulated that would be the first heroic leap to the growing equality that women have today. Fawcett became president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (the NUWSS) in 1907 and remained in the position until 1919.

Fawcett believed in using peaceful, non-militant methods and gained many followers, with thousands of women joining in for the petitions, meetings and the spreading of propaganda for the women’s vote. Fawcett's role was important in securing the women’s vote, as was Emmeline Pankhurst's, who broke the peace and shook up the status quo.

Pankhurst, believing that more radical methods should be used, went on to found the Women’s Social and Political Movement (WSPU), whose members believed in methods such as violent protests, arson, bombing, vandalism and much more. Many people believed the suffragettes’ methods to be extreme, to which Pankhurst said: “I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”

This is where the difference between the suffragists and the suffragettes lie: suffragists like Fawcett believed in non-militant methods; they used peaceful protests, held talks and used propaganda to raise awareness. Suffragettes believed that violence was the only way for change to happen. Helen Watts, who was a part of the Nottingham Suffragette scene after hearing Emmeline Pankhurst speak in Nottingham, said that their long fight “will not be won with drawing room chatter… it has got to be fought for in the market places, and if we don’t fight for it, no-one else will.”

Another woman who played a big role as a part of the Nottingham branch of the suffragettes was Eileen Mary Casey – sometimes known as Irene – who was arrested on numerous occasions for fighting for equality. In 1913, she was arrested for placing noxious gas substances in a letter box; the following year Eileen was arrested for possessing explosives in Nottingham Market Square the day that King George V visited. A newspaper clipping from the National Archives, reported that she was found with a “fuse 20ft. long, a detonator and five quarter-pounds of cheddite” and found with a “map of Nottingham with pencil marks around the Marketplace.”

Casey was subsequently arrested for attempted assassination and while in prison went on a hunger strike, like so many other women. The hunger strikes within prison was one of the suffragettes’ main methods of protesting to be acknowledged as a political prisoner.

Those who were force fed were tied to a bed or chair, and tipped back with a 45cm tube shoved down their throat or nose, and into their stomach. Many of the women who went through this turned violently ill as the tube would go through their windpipes, pushing food into their lungs, causing pneumonia and other illnesses which, in a lot of cases, killed them. Women often suffered strokes or heart attacks during this barbaric procedure, and would die from the panic, stress and trauma.

In response to the number of women dying after being force-fed multiple times, the government implemented the “Cat and Mouse” Act of 1913 which meant that women could be released if they had fallen ill, but would have to return to prison upon feeling stable, meaning a longer sentence for the women and prolonged torture. Eileen herself went through this after she fell ill due to force feeding but soon recovered. She’s been quoted as saying “I hope I shall be more dangerous before I finish” at the time.

Through multiple prison sentences and prolonged abuse, Eileen still remained loyal to her cause. It wasn’t until the war began that they stopped force feeding women as Emmeline Pankhurst agreed to stop militant action to focus on women working for the war effort. The war helped women gain their vote as many factories were being built or remodelled; in Nottingham, King’s Meadow and Chilwell produced uniforms and shells. Women were earning good money, and gained both independence and respect from their male counterparts; both of which helped their cause when the Representation of the People Act passed when the war ended.

In the years following women first gaining the right to vote, women have made huge strides in achieving equality in England. In today’s feminism, there is more work on changing attitudes in gender equality than actual legislation. There is still work to be done, and there are still voices to be heard, but we can all take a minute to reflect on just how far we’ve come thanks to these women.

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