THE BRILLIANT BITCHES THAT STARTED IT...

REEK perfume founder, writer and activist, Sara Sheridan writes about the bitches who started it all… the suffragettes. 

My grandmother, Eva, drummed into us when we were kids that we had to vote ‘especially the girls.’ She was born in 1909 and remembered the first time her mother cast her ballot in the general election of 1918. In the UK, it was our very own damn rebel bitches who ignited the call for the female vote – the Jacobite women. After the 1745 uprising huge amounts of Jacobites were arrested – including many female rebels. The UK’s prisons were straining at the seams and the women (mostly Scottish) landed themselves in court. Many were fined for their part in the rebellion and, to the shock of their English counterparts, paid with their own money. In Scottish law these women were able to own property. In England at that time women were property and any fines would have to have been paid by their closest male relative. The bitches did not hang around when they spotted the difference and 1746 saw the first call for female members of parliament – made by a group of upper-class English women who wanted the same property rights as the Scottish women they’d seen in court. They were laughed out of Westminster. It took 172 years before the first female MP was voted in – Constance Markievicz, an Irish republican who, as a Sinn Fein representative refused to take her seat.

That women gaining the vote (or suffrage) was clearly linked to female members of parliament is not surprising. The lengths to which they had to go to achieve that basic right is. In Scotland (home of most of the Jacobites) the greater legal status of women helped to fire progress on women’s rights – particularly in education and the professions. The University of Edinburgh’s early admission of female medical students (who were sent home on ‘male’ anatomy days, which were considered too shocking for women – honestly!) was revolutionary and the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ the first group of matriculated female students at any British University, began their studies in 1869. They were prevented from graduating – in fact their participation in anatomy exams sparked a riot in 1870. However, many became pioneers not only in their own field, but also in the fledgling suffragette movement. They were also instrumental in starting female medical schools across the country.

Overall, Britain was behind in terms of women’s rights – especially considering the position of world power it occupied at the time. Different countries proposed different solutions – giving the vote to women who owned property or women past a certain age but gradually universal female suffrage was becoming common. Swedish women had been voting since the 1700s. New Zealand passed legislation in 1893, Australia in 1903, Finland in 1906 and Norway and Denmark in 1913. During World War I several central and eastern European countries started to extend voting rights to women and one of the first acts of the new parliament after the Russian revolution in 1917 was to extend the suffrage to female citizens, but Britain still hadn’t done so.

It’s difficult to underestimate how radical women demanding the vote was viewed in the UK or the anger around it. Those involved in the movement were subject to abuse and were treated in the same way radical terrorists might be today. They often operated under police surveillance and many were arrested. When they went on hunger strike in prison they were force fed, being held down and having tubes inserted directly into their stomachs. This was a horrific practice which many of the women underwent twice a day, hundreds of times. Sylvia Pankhurst described it ‘I struggled as hard as I could, but they were 6 & each one of them much bigger and stronger than I. They soon had me on the bed & firmly held down by the shoulders, the arms, the knees, the ankles. Then the doctors came stealing in behind. Some one seized me by the head and thrust a sheet under my chin. I felt a man’s hands trying to force my mouth open. My breath was coming so quickly that I felt as if I should suffocate. I felt his fingers trying to press my lips apart and I felt them insert a steel gag running around my gums and feeling for gaps in my teeth. I felt I should go mad; I felt like a poor wild thing caught in a steel trap. I heard them talking: ”Here is a gap.” ”No; here is a better one—this long gap here.” Then I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted- I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat. I was struggling wildly. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but struggling for at last I heard them say, ”That’s all” I vomited as the tube came up. They left me on the bed exhausted, gasping for breath & sobbing convulsively. The same thing happened in the evening; but I was too tired to fight so long’

The government passed a ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which meant women who were too weak to continue in jail could be released and then re-arrested when they had regained their strength – meaning that even short sentences could drag on over months with force feedings – a form of torture.

This didn’t deter the suffragettes from a programme of civil disobedience that seems breathtaking today including women who gave their lives to highlight the cause – the most famous being Emily Davison who died after being run over by the King’s horse during the Derby in 1913 when she stepped onto thetrack to raise the green, purple and white suffragette flag. At public meetings it was common for women to be assaulted by men in the audience and there are multiple reports of suffragettes being punched and kicked,  sometimes losing teeth in the affray. The movement was split with some women favouring non-violent protest and others keener to fight back and, crucially, prepared to damage property, setting post boxes alight, burning down empty houses and attacking exhibits in galleries – including on one occasion forcing the Tate Gallery to close. Clubs seen as particularly male (or which excluded women members) were also attacked – golf courses had suffragette slogans cut into their greens and cricket pavilions were torched. Suffragettes who chained themselves to railings outside public buildings in protest were routinely sexually assaulted by police.

During WWI the argument to withhold the vote became insupportable while British women (trained by the medical pioneers from the Edinburgh Seven onwards) joined male combatants at the front. Famously Dr Elsie Inglis set up field hospitals but she wasn’t the only woman by a long chalk. That these brave female doctors and nurses remain uncommemorated on war memorials in the UK to this day, is a national disgrace which activist, Leslie Hills has already written about on this blog.  However, the women who initially got the vote were, in the main, not the women who had gone to war. At first it was the middle class over 30s only – or at least those who owned property (or their husbands did). From there our rights extended.

My favourite of the medical, suffragette pioneers remains Grace Cadell who attended one of the medical schools for women set up by Sophia Jex-Blake, the instigator of the Edinburgh Seven. President of her local branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Grace refused to pay taxes in a protest against her vote being withheld and as a result, she had her furniture taken by bailiffs and sold in the street. Grace showed up and turned the sale into a suffragette meeting. When she was fined for another act of disobedience, she paid her fine in coppers as an act of defiance. She also acted as a doctor to the many women who were in and out of prison and who were released into her care when they were too weak to continue in jail. In 1914 at the trial of Maude Edwards, charged with slashing a portrait of George V, Grace was so outraged she ended up being carted out of court by police officers for causing an affray. She was a single woman in a time when that was socially disadvantageous but Grace died leaving a huge amount of money in her will to her four adopted children – all ‘saved’ from a local orphanage and brought to live in her house. As with so many amazing women, there’s no monument to stand testament to her huge spirit, her generosity and her determination but now, 100 years on, it is important that the memory Grace, and indeed of these women has not been forgotten. Far from it. When we march today, we march in their footsteps and when we militate for change, our voices echo theirs, part of something far larger because ladies we are not there yet. Not by far.