Muriel Matters: the well-spoken women’s rights hero
How did an Australian elocutionist become a champion of the British women's suffrage movement? Robert Wainwright explores the surprising career of a very vocal activist
When Muriel Matters arrived in London in October 1905, she had little money but a handful of letters of introduction and dreams of becoming a West End star.
At 28 years old, Muriel had achieved modest success as a comedic actor, and recognition as an orator – a propopent of the art of elocution – having trained alongside Lionel Logue, who later helped George VI overcome his stutter (as dramatised in The King’s Speech). Indeed, she went on to become one of the most famous women in England – though not as an actor but as a pioneering thinker, social reformer and activist.
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Muriel had been inspired as a teenager by the fight for women’s suffrage in South Australia, which in 1894 had given women the rights of voting and standing for election. In London, she was viscerally drawn to rowdy meetings and “drinking in rebellious sentiments”, as she would write. She was soon persuaded that her extraordinary skills and persuasive talents would be wasted if used solely for a stage career.
We have listened too long to the illogical utterances of the men... Attend to the women
“My chances of success on the stage seemed assured, and yet daily the conviction grew that it was not for this that I had been drawn 16,000 miles...” she wrote. “I was a born agitator.”
The women’s suffrage movement in Britain had fractured into three main groups. The Women’s Freedom League, led by Charlotte Despard, filled a niche between the suffragist and the later, sometimes more militant, suffragette camps. It was here that Muriel found her political home. One executive member discussed Muriel after her first speech: “Who was she? She had told us in her speech that she was an Australian, but for the rest we knew nothing … we debated how we could best use her gifts – her enthusiasm, her eloquence, her wonderful, magical voice – for the cause.”
For three months in spring 1908 Muriel travelled from town to town, speaking in halls and fields, addressing the thousands who flocked to hear her. She was frequently flanked by police as violence threatened to erupt, mostly from men who hurled insults and missiles. Nevertheless, WFL membership climbed, and a new political star was born.
The Palace of Westminster had become a focus of suffrage anger, notably a brass grille screwed to the front of the Ladies Gallery in the House of Commons, which physically shielded women from events in the chamber below – a symbol of misogyny.
On 28 October 1908, Muriel and a colleague hid heavy chains and a padlock beneath their skirts, and tricked an MP into allowing them into the gallery. As MPs debated a finance bill, Muriel rushed forward and locked herself to the grille, launching into a speech that shocked MPs into silence: “We have sat behind this grille for too long… it is time that the women of England were given a voice in legislation which affects them as much as it affects men. We demand the vote.” It was the first speech by a woman inside the House of Commons.
Security staff decided to detach the grille panels rather than saw through the chains. Thus Muriel succeeded: the hated grille was removed. After a month in Holloway Prison, she emerged to be proclaimed “the Heroine of the Grille”.
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In February 1909 Muriel boarded an airship for one of the first flights by a powered aircraft over the capital. Just as Edward VII’s golden carriage moved down The Mall, Muriel dropped hundreds of ‘Vote for Women’ leaflets – a daredevil protest that won international admiration.
When suffrage protests turned violent in 1911, Muriel decided to broaden her involvement in the feminist debate; for her, the vote was a symbol of the struggle for equality, rather than the only goal. She turned her focus to women and children living in poverty, spending two years living in the slums of Lambeth, working as a volunteer and a journalist for a prominent Christian newspaper.
She continued her speaking career, becoming involved in industrial turmoil in Ireland and the housing crisis of Scotland. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, she became one of Britain’s most prominent pacifists.
In 1924, at the behest of Britain’s first Labour prime minister, Ramsay McDonald, Muriel stood – albeit ultimately unsuccessfully – for election in Hastings. She retired to to the town, where she lived until her death in 1969 at the age of 92.
Robert Wainwright is the author of Miss Muriel Matters: The Fearless Suffragist Who Fought for Equality (Allen & Unwin, 2017)
This article was taken from issue 06 of BBC World Histories
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