Amazing articles on just about every subject...


Mrs. Pankhurst

( Originally Published 1907 )

IT was at the memorable meeting at the Albert Hall at which Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman made his first public utterance as Prime Minister that the meaning of the women's war dawned on me. There had been one or two preliminary skirmishes, at Manchester and again at the Queen's Hall. But here was the first general engagement. The time was well chosen. The spirit of that meeting can never be recaptured in our day. It was the hour of triumph, a moment such as one cannot look for twice in a lifetime. The Balfour Parliament was dead at last. The long reign of Toryism was over and Liberalism was born again after twenty years of obliteration, qualified by one feeble flicker of office without power. We stood on the threshold of a new time. All the nightmare of the war and Chinese serfdom, of adventure abroad and wrong at home, was behind. We looked, as it were, under an arch, wherethrough Gleamed the untravelled world.

It was like a vast thanksgiving as, after long years in the wilderness, the exiles entered the land of promise. Suddenly I became conscious that something unusual was happening. There was a murmur below, as though a light breeze had ruffled the great sea of humanity that filled the area. All eyes were turned from the platform to a point in the boxes near me. I looked out and my eyes encountered, hanging from the box next but one to mine, a banner with the legend " Votes for Women." It was the signal of a new Mrs. Pankhurst attack in the rear. Another Richmond was in the field. The Tory host was in ruins; but the Amazons were upon us.

Now, whatever may be our private views as to the campaign of the militant women, we cannot deny that it revealed quite brilliant generalship. It may not have been magnificent, but it was war. It was extremely "unladylike," the exaltation was some-times unpleasantly like hysteria, the drama often bordered on the wildest farce. Occasionally there was the sense of an astonishing lack of humour, as when some of the Suffragettes lashed themselves to the railings in Downing Street. The world would have said that that was typically feminine, but for the fact that as an achievement in futility it was easily surpassed by the police, who, instead of leaving them in the pit they had digged for themselves, solemnly rescued them and then put them in the lock-up.

But with all its elements of comic opera, the campaign was the most brilliant piece of electioneering in our time. It discovered a masterly strategy, a sense of the moment to strike, a daring and a fertility of resource that commanded admiration, if not approval. It was a revelation of the woman in action, shrill and tempestuous, with the velocity of the wind and a sort of sleepless fury that threw every convention to the winds. It was startlingly unlike the warfare of men. Men in their ultimate political expression are brutal. If you are a Minister of whom they do not approve they will smash your windows. But the women were more subtle. They got inside the hall; they hung on to the door knob; they besieged you back and front. They made life intolerable with pin-pricks. They murdered the orator's best periods, and left his peroration in rags. They marched on the House in battalions; they stormed it in furniture vans; they penetrated the keyholes. You watched the river for suspicious craft, lest they should scale the Terrace; your eye roved the sky, lest they should descend by parachute from the clouds. It was a war divorced from all the rules of war. It was feline in its activity and cunning. It was unlovely, but it was business. It made the cause. Women's suffrage had been an academic issue for half a century : it became actual and vital, as it were, in a night. It was a pious opinion, discussed as you might discuss the Catiline conspiracy: it became an issue about which men were ready to fight in the last ditch.

Who was the Moltke of this amazing campaign? Who was it who prepared her battalions and her strategy in such secrecy that no whisper of the menace was heard until the whole cannonade burst on the new Government as it entered into office? I was presiding one afternoon at one of the sittings of the Conference on Sweating at the Guildhall when a small woman with a tired and rather sad face rose to speak. She spoke quietly in a monotone, as if she were soliloquising. It was as if an abstraction had found voice, so remote did it seem from any personal emotion. With great ingenuity her remarks drifted from sweating to the subjection of women, who are the victims of sweating, and then, before the closure could be applied, the concealed battery was unmasked in " Votes for Women." It was Mrs. Pankhurst making one of her raids.

At the first glance it is difficult to associate this slight and pathetic figure with the authorship of so much tumult and with the inspiration of a movement so bizarre and frenzied. But soon the truth is apparent. She is not a woman; she is an idea. One idea. Now the dominion of an idea, provided it is sane, is the most potent thing in the world. Most people have either no ideas or are burdened with so many ideas that they are useless. They are like the normal committee described by Mr. Chamberlain. " On every committee of thirteen persons," he once said, " there are twelve who go to the meetings having given no thought to the subject and ready to receive instructions. One goes with his mind made up to give those instructions. I make it my business to be that one." Mrs. Pankhurst does instinctively what Mr. Chamberlain did by policy. She leads by virtue of an obsession. She is the symbol of the potency of one idea held to the exclusion of every other motive and interest in life.

The idea is this, that women are the victims of an age-long tyranny imposed on them by men. That tyranny varies with time and latitude and social conditions. In its crudest form, among the savage tribes, it treats woman frankly as a slave, a beast of burden, a hewer of wood and drawer of water. In the East it imprisons her in the harem and regards her as the plaything of idle moments. In mediaeval England she was held " Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse." In Victorian England she was the graceful decoration of life, a symbol of sweetness and innocence, a creature with pretty, kittenlike ways, but having no relevance to the business of the world. Today she is emerging into sex consciousness and beating at the bars of circumstance. The cage is enlarged; but it is still a cage. She goes to the University and is bracketed with the Senior Wrangler; but she is denied her degree. She qualifies for the Bar, as Christabel Pankhurst did, but she is denied the right to practise. She enters the inferior walks of life, and finds that there is one standard of payment for men and an immeasurably inferior one for women. She falls, and finds that society has smiles for the betrayer and the flaming sword for his victim. At the bottom of the abyss, in the sunless court, she fights the last silent, helpless battle between starvation on the one hand and the lash of the sweater on the other. Everywhere she sees herself the chattel of men. If she is happy she may be serenaded and garlanded with jewels; if she is unhappy she may be trodden in the mire. But one thing she cannot have. She cannot have equality of treatment. She cannot have simple justice, for she is a woman in a world made by men. "Madame," said Charles XI. of Sweden to his wife when she appealed to him for mercy to some prisoner—" Madame, I married you to give me children, not to give me advice." That was said a long time ago; but behind all the changes of the centuries, it still represents much of the thought of men in relation to women.

It is not until one has entered sympathetically or otherwise into this conception of the serfdom of woman that one can understand Mrs. Pankhurst and her campaign of violence. She is a woman to whom the thought of this sex oppression is like a raging fever. It has burned up all other interests. It has driven her in turn from one political party to another, from Liberalism to the I.L.P., and from the I.L.P. out into a sort of political wilderness. She has deliberately chosen the rôle of Ishmael, her hand against the whole institution of society, whether the immediate cause be good or bad, for that institution represents to her only a single lurid fact the dominance of one sex and the subjection of the other. She sees everything in life hinge upon that fact. At the Guildhall meeting to which I have alluded, she rose to put a question after Mr. Pember Reeves had spoken. " Was the anti-sweating legislation in New Zealand," she asked, " passed before or after the women had the vote? " And a wan smile of triumph greeted the admission that it was after. The fact covers her whole sky. It hangs like a dark pall over her spirit, shutting out the sunshine. As Mr. J. J. Mallon says in a sketch of her which appeared in the Woman Worker: What she has to say springs from dark and somewhat bitter waters. Her metaphors are shapes of gloom. But at her best, as on one memorable day in Manchester, when we commemorated the Russians slain on Bloody Sunday, there is that in her voice and mien that stays in the mind for ever. Then she passes from recital of particular hardship to an impassioned contemplation of all suffering:

> The whole of the world's tears, And all the trouble of her labouring ships, And all the trouble of her myriad years."

Her sombre face glows with impersonal pity and appeal; her sad lips deliver the plaint of a sex. You no longer hear a woman's voice: you hear the voice of woman.

It is the gloom of fanaticism, of a thought gnawing ceaselessly at the vitals, and growing by what it feeds on. The spirit was inherent, for Mrs. Pankhurst comes of a revolutionary stock, and her grandfather narrowly escaped death at Peterloo. But it has been cultivated by circumstance. As a student at Paris she was a room-mate of the daughter of Henri Roche-fort, and caught from her the spirit of Republican France. Back in Manchester, she met and married Dr. Pankhurst, a barrister, whose political enthusiasm equalled her own, and who made the original draft of the Married Women's Property Bill giving married women the control of their own property which subsequently became law. Together they worked feverishly for many causes, Mrs. Pankhurst herself serving on the Manchester School Board and the Board of Guardians. Then they leapt into national notice in connection with the battle for free speech in Boggart Hole Clough. They won, but the victory cost Dr. Pankhurst much, and was not unconnected with his premature death. Left with a young family, Mrs. Pankhurst became a Registrar of Births and Deaths, a position which, bringing her into direct touch with the tragedy of the poor, fed anew the flame within. Her purpose ripened. There were four children. They should be prepared, like Cornelia's " jewels," for the cause and flung into the arena. She formed the Women's Social and Political Union, and out of the little group of half a dozen unknown women who used to meet in a room in Manchester has emerged the movement which has shaken the whole fabric of politics.

She has in a high degree, apart from that intensity which is the soul of leadership, the gift of command. She has something of the aloofness of Parnell. She nurses, as it were, a fire in secret, has that independent life of the mind which seems unconscious of all external motive, and invites neither help, advice nor sympathy. She seems to have no personal life and no emotions except that overmastering one of abstract justice a Stern, tyrannie thought that makes All other thoughts its slave.

She has the masterful will that evolves laws for her-self, and is indifferent to formulas. When challenged to act on the democratic constitution of her union, she replied that democracy and constitutions are of times and seasons, and are not sacrosanct in the realm of varying impermanent groups a declaration of thinly veiled autocracy that led to a disruption. As a debater she has a mordant humour and a swiftness of retort that make her a perilous foe. " Quite right! " shouts a voice from the gallery as she protests against the provision of the Children's Bill which makes mothers punishable in certain cases of mischance to children. " Quite right ! " she flashes back. " Before the law the father is parent, the mother is forgotten; forgotten, forsooth, until there is punishment to be borne. Then they drag out the woman and it is ' Quite right.' " She is, above all, a leader in that her passion is always governed by the will. Her exaltation is kept at white heat, but never, as in the case of some of her followers, gets out of control. Her extravagances are considered: they are not touched with the taint of hysteria.

Her astuteness is evidenced as much in the limitation as in the violence of her campaign. Not a word of access to Parliament. You would gather that that was an ideal to which she was indifferent. It is, of course, the crown of her purpose, the end to which the present agitation is the preliminary. For she stands for the complete civic and political emancipation of woman, for full and equal citizenship, and out of that equality of citizenship she believes there will emerge that equality of social condition and that equal justice which will remove the wrongs that afflict her sex. Whatever we may think of her methods, we cannot doubt that they have shaken the walls of Westminster and made a breach through which future generations of women are destined to enter into undisputed possession of citizenship, with con-sequences fateful and incalculable. It may be that the methods will be carried too far that their success as an advertisement will lead to their adoption as a policy. In that case the cause will suffer, for the English people are not easy to coerce.

Home | More Articles | Email: info@oldandsold.com