What today’s feminists can learn from the suffragettes
Mocked and abused, they still kept on fighting – and they won
Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, re-enacts smashing the windows in Dublin Castle pictured being arrested by RIC man Rob McCarthy. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
More than a century ago, a cartoon appeared in the Irish media featuring a glamorously dressed woman smashing a window with a hammer. On each pane were the words, “Support for the cause” and beneath the image was the caption: “Nothing for their ‘panes’: The Militant Suffragettes (again at work in Dublin) are by their destructive methods alienating a lot of sympathy for their cause.”
Irish suffragettes had made headlines in June 1912 when several women, including Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, broke windows in several government buildings. The following month, after an English suffragette threw a hatchet at prime minister HH Asquith during his visit to Dublin, a suffrage meeting outside the Custom House was disrupted by an anti-suffragette mob who attacked the speakers and their supporters so violently the police had to escort the women to safety, and a young suffragette was seized and almost thrown into the Liffey.
Women who wanted the vote were seen by their opponents as so disruptive and dangerous, so radically threatening to the status quo, that they had to be stopped by any means necessary. And while the events of the July weekend in 1912 were so violent even the newspapers that were against women’s suffrage were horrified – the general media opinion was that militant suffragettes did themselves and their cause no favours.
I couldn’t help thinking of those finger-wagging commentators a few weeks ago, on February 6th, as I stood at the Ship Street entrance to Dublin Castle and gleefully cheered on the academic Micheline Sheehy Skeffington as she re-enacted the famous window-smashing carried out by her grandmother Hanna in June 1912.
Sheehy Skeffington was smashing the windows (made of sugar-glass this time) not just to celebrate the centenary of (some) Irish women getting the vote. She was also celebrating the admirable decision by Dublin City Council and the Office of Public Works to erect a plaque commemorating Hanna’s smashing time. A temporary plaque was put up on the day, revealing, pleasingly, that the Irish for suffragette is sufraigeid.
It was a joyful event, a reminder that the suffragettes’ daring deeds continue to capture our collective imagination. I’ve been fascinated by the movement ever since I first heard Mrs Banks in Disney’s Mary Poppins sing (truthfully) that “our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done, Sister Suffragettes!’” And based on the reaction from many young readers to my two novels about Mollie and Nora, young would-be suffragettes in 1912 Dublin who, in Mollie on the March, get caught up in the aforementioned riot, it seems that today’s small girls are equally intrigued by the idea of women and girls breaking the rules for a good cause.
But the delighted crowds at Dublin Castle, the positive media response to the event and above all the plaque are reminders that if history proves them right, yesterday’s radicals can be embraced by the mainstream.
What made the suffragettes so radical was their willingness to break laws
Recently, there has been talk in Britain of a retrospective pardon for the actions of militant suffragettes. Jeremy Corbyn promised that a Labour government “will pardon the suffragettes and give an official apology for the miscarriages of justice and wider persecution they suffered”. Even the Scottish branch of the Tory party were considering the issue.
An apology for the appalling treatment endured by the suffragettes at the hands of the British establishment – the police brutality, the horrific force-feeding, the so-called Cat and Mouse Act which enabled the government to release suffragettes who were on the verge of starvation and then imprison them again as soon as their health recovered – would be totally appropriate. But I can’t help thinking that pardoning the arson and criminal damage perpetuated by women who intentionally broke the law to make a political point would not.
Suffragettes were militants who believed in destroying property (though not, as a rule, injuring people), as opposed to suffragists who believed in campaigning for the vote through political advocacy. What made the suffragettes so radical was their willingness to break laws to draw attention to their cause in a society that tried to silence them and refused to allow them to vote for the parliament that made those laws.
For them, breaking the law was a political act; they went on hunger strike because they demanded to be treated as political prisoners. And their bravery and willingness to go to prison for a cause they believed in is what still captivates us.
Today’s feminists don’t advocate smashing windows, but we still get told by those who disagree with us that somehow whatever we say and whatever we do is damaging to our cause. We are still told we’re asking for too much, too soon. A hundred years after their first great victory, the suffragettes remind us to ignore those voices, and to keep on fighting for equality. After all, they may have been mocked, abused and threatened with violence. But in the end, they won.