As we mark 100 years since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which for the first time extended the vote to some women of Great Britain and Ireland, social historian and author Jane Robinson shares the story of a remarkable march five years earlier in which thousands of people travelled hundreds of miles in support of women’s suffrage
When today remembering the fight for women’s suffrage, we might think of Emmeline Pankhurst’s suffragettes, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), characterised by its motto “deeds not words” and the women who agitated and shocked by attacking property, going on hunger strikes and chaining themselves to railings. Perhaps others will think of June 1913, when a suffragette named Emily Davison died after throwing herself in front of King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby, becoming a tragic martyr for the cause.
Yet during the same summer as Davison’s death, a huge mobilisation was taking place which is perhaps less remembered: a non-militant march organised by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), led by feminist campaigner Millicent Garrett Fawcett. The march brought together thousands of people from all over Great Britain; it saw female and male suffragists travel together from places all over the country over a six-week period and culminated in a rally of some 50,000 people in Hyde Park, London, in July 1913.
In her new book, Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote, Jane Robinson shares the story of the remarkable march, examining diaries, letters and personal accounts to piece together the pilgrimage and tell the wider stories of the fight for the women’s vote. Here, she tells History Extra about the events of the summer of 1913…
Q: The early 20th century was a key time for the campaign for women’s suffrage, but the suffragists had actually been active since the mid-19th century. What had they already achieved and what was the state of the campaign in summer 1913?
A: The suffragettes’ militant campaign was at its height in 1913, so everybody was absolutely transfixed by what the suffragettes was doing. This had really put the brakes on any legislative progress. Before this summer, there had been a number of bills in parliament which had widened the franchise a little bit, inch by inch, gaining considerable support though not yet breaking ground. But by 1913 it became clear that something had to be done to rehabilitate the image of the suffrage campaign which had become stained by the suffragettes’ militancy.
The suffragettes were incredibly colourful and sensational. That’s why they did what they did, to attract public attention. But in doing so they did tend to eclipse the thousands and thousands of other women – and the suffragists included men as well – who were quietly getting on, trying to persuade parliament and the people that giving the vote to women would be a good idea, and that women were ‘responsible’ enough to use the vote wisely.
Q: What arguments were put forward against women having the vote?
A: There were several arguments at the time. The most basic one that was put forward by medics as well as politicians – and by other women – was that because women have hormones and menstruate once a month, there was “much mental disorder” about the whole women’s campaign. There was this idea that we [women] cannot be trusted with the vote because we’re overemotional and we’re all over the place for at least one week a month, so that rules us out altogether!
This was the same argument that people had used against women going to university. The theory was that if you channelled the blood into your brain to think, you were likely to go sterile because you were upsetting the “natural balance of femininity”.
Another argument was that women had a natural sphere in which they had influence already, and that was within the home and within the family. This, it was believed, was where women had their real power and it was thought they should be satisfied with that.
Q: How did the suffragists go about challenging these views?
A: It’s little wonder that people were absolutely terrified by the suffragettes and thought that they were unnatural monsters, because what ‘real lady’ would want the vote and would campaign for it like that?
What the suffragists had to do was fight against that image of women being monsters, while still trying to keep a ‘womanly’ image, if you like. The suffragists had to try to give the impression: “Look, we can still be women, we can still have all the virtues that you suppose we have, and we can use those for the good of society”.
Q: What was Millicent Garrett Fawcett’s role in this campaign and how should she be remembered?
A: I hope a few people will already know her name, as there’s a statue going up outside parliament later this year, which is great news. She was the leader of the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society), which was the counterpart of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union), the suffragettes. The WSPU was Mrs Pankhurst’s society, while Mrs Fawcett’s NUWSS was much larger [it was an amalgamation of separate women’s suffrage societies around the country. By 1914, it had six hundred branches with tens of thousands of members].
Fawcett was an academic and the wife of a Liberal MP Henry Fawcett (his widow actually, for most of the campaign, after he died in 1884 aged 51). She was a great political strategist, very astute and skilled at gauging society’s reaction to the campaigns that she had in mind. She often second-guessed parliament and public opinion and was able to guide the campaign so as to make people sympathise with their cause, rather than fight against it, which was an extraordinarily sensitive and perceptive thing to do. She would have made an amazing politician.
Q: Your book centres around the march in the summer of 1913, organised by Mrs Fawcett and the NUWSS. How was it organised and how did people join the pilgrimage and the rally?
A: It was organised within about two months, which speaks volumes of the communication network within the NUWSS. It was an amazing mobilisation – nationwide and involving thousands of people across the whole of Britain.
There were six major routes around the country: there was Newcastle and Carlisle in the north and then Bangor in Wales. There were routes coming from Cornwall and East Anglia and the south coast. Everybody who walked along these routes would converge, on a date in July, for a mass rally in Hyde Park, so the timetable had to work backwards from this date in July. In Carlisle and Newcastle in the north, for example, they set out at the beginning of June and the idea was that you just walked step by step as a representation of how they were walking step by step towards freedom. This was how the suffragists felt that they could move towards enfranchisement: little by little, not going at it with fury like the suffragettes, but instead just moving towards it.
Anybody could join. There was a nominal uniform that you could wear, but you didn’t have to. The march stopped at villages and towns along the way, on each of the routes, and picked up more people, while others left if they had to go home to look after families. There were meetings each morning and evening. It was absolutely exhausting. Interestingly, some of these women hadn’t been out of their neighbourhoods ever before, let alone for hundreds of miles on muddy roads. It really was an extraordinary feat.
Q: You explain in your book that it wasn’t just headline names like Mrs Fawcett or Mrs Pankhurst who were working towards achieving the vote for women, but ordinary women who would have been going about the campaign quietly and over a long period. Who were some of your favourites?
A: The fact that it was many ordinary women working towards suffrage is one of the aspects of the pilgrimage and the whole campaign that I absolutely love. There’s a song called ‘Nana Was A Suffragette’ [written by Jules Gibb] and people were terribly proud – and rightly so – if there was a suffragette in the family. But I bet that most of us had a suffragist in the family, and we should also be very proud of them.
One of my very favourite examples I came across was a very busy wife and mother in Nottinghamshire who would have loved to have gone on the suffrage pilgrimage in 1913 herself, but she didn’t have the time or the money. So what she did – because she wanted to contribute to the fight for the vote – was save scraps of her family’s food for a week. She packed these up into lunches and when the pilgrims passed by she presented them with these little packages of food to keep them going. That was her contribution and it was really precious.
Some of my other favourites are people who perhaps weren’t suffragist campaigners before the pilgrimage set out. But when they heard what these women and men had to say as they passed through the country they were completely inspired and dropped everything, made whatever arrangements they could, joined the pilgrimage and walked all the way to London.
Q: Having examined letters and diaries of the pilgrimage, what did you find were the feelings of the women and men taking part? What did they expect to come from the march and were they optimistic?
A: Amazingly, given the 50 years of campaigning that had already taken place before this march, so many of them seem to have been optimistic. It was always Mrs Fawcett’s philosophy that people should campaign with a certain amount of joy in their hearts, although that notion might seem a bit sort of ‘wet’ now. She believed it was very important to be positive when you were campaigning and always believe there would be the best outcome. That attitude seems to have sustained the whole pilgrimage, as it really was hard going. These people had to believe that they would make a difference in the end.
It must be said that I think quite a lot of pilgrims faltered when faced with the violence that greeted them in some of the towns and cities. Many people who lived in the places the pilgrims were visiting assumed that they were suffragettes, because they thought that the only people who campaigned for the vote were suffragettes and militants, or terrorists, if you like. So these poor pilgrims were hit with all sorts of horrible artillery: rocks and cow pats, rotten vegetables and dead rats. They were physically assaulted, too – some had their clothes torn from them. At one stage someone tried to set fire to one of the caravans the pilgrims travelled in, with women still inside. The pilgrims had to meet real physical danger. It wasn’t just a long walk; it was a very difficult and dangerous enterprise.
Q: The march took place in the summer before the First World War. The war is often seen as a contributing factor to gaining the vote for women, as it gave women an opportunity to take on more responsibility when many men left for war. How influential was the march in contributing to the Representation of the People Act five years later?
A: I think it was the single most significant event in the whole of the suffrage campaign, either by suffragettes or suffragists.
At the end of the march, Mrs Fawcett led a deputation to the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who had never been a supporter of women’s suffrage. Yet even he was persuaded by the success of the pilgrimage that perhaps women were ‘people’ as well as men; that they had earned the right to be seen as human beings through their courage and steadfastness during this pilgrimage.
The march went a long way to proving that women were responsible and that they had the intelligence and application and articulacy to carry out the new responsibilities that they were given in the First World War, which in turn helped with getting the vote at the end of the war. I think the vote would have come a lot sooner, had the war not intervened.
Q: What would you like people to remember about the campaign and the people who marched?
A: I would like them to know that many of the other significant marches we know today – the women’s marches of 2017 [a series of worldwide marches which took place in January 2017 campaigning for human rights], the Greenham Common women of the 1980s [a peaceful demonstration against Nato’s decision to site American cruise missiles at a site in Berkshire], the Jarrow marches in the 1930s [a march against mass-unemployment in the north of England] – they all have their roots in this great 1913 pilgrimage.
I would also love people to remember that our own great-grandmothers; grandmothers; our grandfathers – all ordinary people – changed parliament and the public’s mind regarding the vote. It wasn’t extremism. The suffragettes couldn’t have done it without the suffragists and vice versa, it was a real joint effort. I hope people will remember that in the summer of 1913, ordinary people came together and changed the world. And that can still happen today.
Jane Robinson is the author of Hearts and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote (Doubleday, January 2018).