Books interview with Fern Riddell: “Can we call the suffragettes terrorists? Absolutely”

Fern Riddell speaks to Ellie Cawthorne about her new book on the activist and bomber Kitty Marion

Fern Riddell.

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Historian, author and broadcaster Fern Riddell specialises in the history of suffrage, sexuality and entertainment in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. She has acted as a historical consultant on dramas Ripper Street and Decline and Fall, as well as the upcoming BBC One documentary How Women Won the Vote.


Your latest book looks at the life of suffragette Kitty Marion. Who was she?

Kitty Marion (1871–1944) arrived in England aged 15, as a young German immigrant fleeing her abusive father. She’d always dreamt of a life on the stage and began trying to forge a career as an actress in the music halls. However, she found that every time she met an agent or manager, she was threatened with assault, or expected to trade sex in return for a job. Kitty thought this was absolutely outrageous and vehemently rejected the idea that women should have to trade their bodies in return for independence. She banded together with other actresses to give evidence to the London County Council to try and improve the situation, but no one would listen.

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However, just as Kitty was becoming incredibly despondent about the lack of progress, the suffragettes appeared and she discovered an organisation of women who had a very different approach to demanding change – through increasing violence. The suffragettes of the WSPU [Women’s Social and Political Union] immediately gave her the opportunity to showcase her dedication to ‘deeds not words’ and she quickly became one of Edwardian England’s most dangerous women. Under the suffragette banner, Kitty carried out a nationwide arson and bombing campaign, burning down MPs’ houses and leaving bombs in parks – she was really going for it. Inevitably, she was caught, and suffered some incredibly brutal treatment during her imprisonment. Over the course of one sentence she was force-fed 232 times.

Even though Kitty had been living in England for the majority of her life, when the First World War broke out, the Home Office suddenly seized on the fact that they might be able to get rid of this incredibly dangerous woman by accusing her of being a German spy. So with the police on her tail she went on the run, as a number of high profile suffragettes worked tirelessly to get her out of the country by any means necessary. She went on to become a leading light in New York’s emerging birth control movement, lecturing across the US and UK.

What can Marion’s story tell us about changing attitudes to gender and sexuality in Edwardian Britain?

Kitty’s motivation for joining the suffragettes wasn’t that she wanted the vote. What she really wanted was protection from abuse and harassment in the workplace, and she knew that the vote was the only way to achieve that. We forget that a whole host of working women saw the suffrage movement as a way to express the fact that they wanted to feel safe, wanted independence and wanted to be respected as equals. A number of women who felt as Kitty did – desperate, ignored, abused – had been radicalised by the violence they had experienced in their everyday lives, and this is part of what led them to carry out such extreme actions in the name of the suffragettes. You cannot separate our understanding of women’s suffrage from our understanding of sex and power more generally. All of these things were integral to one another.

For me, Kitty’s story – of an actress fighting to change the corrupt power structure in her industry – has strong parallels to today’s #MeToo movement. One of the things that made me so angry when the Harvey Weinstein scandal first broke was that Kitty was fighting against the same thing almost 100 years ago, yet we’re only just getting somewhere with it today.

How dangerous and widespread was suffragette violence?

Anywhere in British society that you could find a woman, you could find a suffragette bomb. Every facet of economic and social life was attacked, from Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland to churches in Somerset, from St Paul’s in London to theatres in Dublin. The suffragettes set fire to post boxes and MPs’ houses, and planted bombs in railway stations and train carriages. They cut down telegraph wires between London and Glasgow. That’s the equivalent of wiping out the internet today – can you imagine the impact?

The risk was huge. Dangerous phosphorus chemicals were placed in post boxes, resulting in postmen suffering horrendous burns. One of the bombs discovered at the South Eastern District Post Office contained enough nitroglycerin to blow up the entire building and kill the 200 people who worked there. And the violence was escalating. By 1914, the suffragettes had started to use guns. When police searched the house of train bomber Jennie Baines, they found a half-made bomb, a fully made bomb, a revolver and a shotgun – all loaded.

One of the things that most surprised me was just how many suffragette bombs there were. In just one month in May 1913, of the 52 attacks the suffragettes carried out across the country, the majority involved bombs or arson. Not surprisingly, the police were absolutely convinced that the suffragettes – not the Irish, not the anarchists – were the most dangerous organisation operating in Britain at that time.

At school we are taught about marches and window smashing, but we aren’t often told about the bombs or the arson attacks. No one knows about this part of our history, which I think is very interesting. It’s been hidden from us, but I think it’s now time for us to examine it properly.

You’ve suggested that the legacy of the suffragettes has been sanctified and sanitised. Why?

In the 1930s, the Suffragette Fellowship (which compiled the sources on the movement that most historians use) decided that they were not going to talk about the bombings. That was partly from a desire to protect former suffragettes from prosecution, but it was also an attempt to step away from the violent rhetoric and to change cultural memory about the suffragettes.

Historians can only really work with the records that they have and so a lot of the stories about the true extent of suffragette violence have been hidden in archives, forgotten, ignored, or passed over. This means that young historians like me are now discovering them for the first time, which is incredibly exciting.

Can we call the suffragettes ‘terrorists’?

Absolutely. The question of whether or not we should call the suffragettes of the WSPU ‘terrorists’ is redundant to me, because they so clearly were terrorists. We’re talking about a hugely skilled and highly organised group, whose actions – bombing, arson, acid attacks – clearly match up with what we understand as terrorism today and what was understood as terrorism 100 years ago. Newspapers were actually calling it ‘Suffragette Terrorism’ at the time.

Acknowledging that fact is something that I have found incredibly uncomfortable, especially having lived through active campaigns in our society at the hands of Isis and the IRA. But we have to recognise that the WSPU weren’t embarrassed by or ashamed of their use of violence; they were proud of it. Emmeline Pankhurst declared that the suffragettes committed these violent acts because they wanted to terrorise the British public, who would then put pressure on the government to give votes to women. Her daughter, Christabel Pankhurst, published weekly double page spreads in the movement’s newspaper, The Suffragette, featuring that week’s devastating bomb and arson damage under the headline ‘Reign of Terror’. They really were committed to demonstrating that if the government refused to acknowledge that women had the same capacity to speak as men, they would soon learn that they had the same capacity to fight, scare and terrorise as men. It was a very dramatic, dangerous, grabbing of equality.

However, it’s important to remember that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Every civil rights movement – from the Chartists in the early 19th century to the the American civil rights movement of the 1960s – has had a violent, extremist element.

To what extent did the violence of the suffragettes contribute to women getting the vote?

On the one hand, there was a huge public backlash against these ‘suffragette outrages’, and I think in social terms, the violence was detrimental. There’s no question that it made the suffragettes very unpopular with many people. But you can’t ignore the impact it had on the government. In the years leading up to the First World War, the suffragettes were becoming more and more dangerous, and the government was fully aware of that fact. God knows what would have happened if war hadn’t broken out. If the police were unable to cope with the escalating violence before the war, just imagine how difficult it would have been to deal with while trying to put the country back together. So, yes, I believe suffragette violence was certainly a factor in women finally being given the vote.

How should this greater acknowledgement of suffragette violence shape the way we remember them today?

Addressing a difficult truth about a movement that is widely idolised can be upsetting the first time you hear about it. My research certainly triggers an emotional reaction for many. But I think that we have to know our history in its totality. A half history or a sanitised history serves no one – it’s a corruption. History shouldn’t be comfortable and it shouldn’t be safe. It should always challenge you and should always be challenged. That’s why we have to look again at these women in all their light and shade. If we don’t, we ignore the incredibly difficult decisions they had to make in the fight for the rights we enjoy today.

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Death in Ten Minutes: Kitty Marion: Activist. Arsonist. Suffragette by Fern Riddell (Hodder & Stoughton, 352 pages, £25)