The Protest of the Women in the Lobby

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The Protest of the Women in the Lobby

W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. XXXIV, November, 1906, pp. 458-460

The reassembling of Parliament demonstration in favour of woman’s suffrage, which has brought us perceptibly nearer the inevitable enfranchisment (sic) of the sex which is still outside the pale of the Constitution. A deputation from the Woman’s Social and Political Union waited upon the Prime Minister to urge upon him the importance of conceding the vote to women. As Sir Henry refused to do anything, a few of the more determined leaders of the movement made a demonstration in the outer Lobby. It was a very harmless affair. A few sentences of indignant protest, promptly cut short by the police, fell from the lips of the first speaker. Mrs. Despard, sister of General French, a grey-haired matron who has devoted herself to charitable works in South West London, promptly took the place of the silenced speaker, only to be as promptly silenced. The police then removed the protesting ladies, and there the incident ought to have ended. But no sooner were the women removed from the precincts of Parliament than several of them were arrested, including at least one bystander, Miss Annie Kenney, who had never been in the Lobby at all, and who had refrained from taking any part in the demonstration. Mrs. Despard, who was one of the chief offenders, protested against Miss Kenney’s arrest, declaring that if any one deserved arrest it was herself. The police, however, refrained from arresting General French’s sister, saying that they had their instructions. So Miss Kenney, the factory girl was marched off to prison, while Mrs. Despard was left at liberty, in order apparently to demonstrate that even in dealing with women there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.


Next day the ladies were brought before the Westminster police magistrate. They were not represented by counsel, and they one and all declared that they ignored the jurisdiction of the Court. They regarded themselves as outlaws, shut out from the pale of the Constitution. Several persons who had witnessed the proceedings tendered themselves as voluntary witnesses, but they were not allowed to give their evidence. The police, therefore, had everything their own way, and the magistrate convicted the whole batch, ordering them to enter into recognizances and bind themselves over to keep the peace for six months. As they refused to do anything of the kind they were ordered to be imprisoned as ordinary criminal convicts for two months. One of the Misses Pankhurst, who was accused of attempting to make a disturbance outside the Court, was sentenced to a fortnight’s imprisonment on the evidence of the police, which was flatly contradicted by three independent respectable witnesses. The prisoners were then removed from Court and conveyed in Black Maria to Holloway Gaol. The most disreputable feature of the proceedings was the deliberate and malignant misrepresentation of the conduct of the accused by the hooligans of some of the daily papers. The cowardly brutality of some of the scoundrels who lend their pens to this campaign of calumny is a melancholy illustration of the extent to which some newspapers are staffed by Yahoos.


The ladies, on arriving at Holloway Gaol, were treated exactly as if they had been the drabs of the street convicted for drunkenness. They were stripped, deprived of their own raiment, made to wear the clothes, none too clean, of previous prisoners, and shut up in verminous cells in solitary confinement. Two of their number, Mrs. Pethwick-Lawrence, the wife of the last proprietor of the Echo, and Mrs. Montefiore, broke down in health. To avert fatal consequences their medical advisers insisted that they should enter into recognizances for good behaviour and regain their liberty. One of the others who was ill was sent into the hospital. The others, among them Mrs. Cobden-Saunderson, a daughter Richard Cobden, stood firm and took their gruel without complaint. They were prepared to “stick it through” to the end. Neither they nor any of their representatives made any appeal to the Government for any amelioration of their condition. They protested vigorously to the Governor against the filthy state of their cells. Tardy measures were taken to extirpate the bugs from which less distinguished prisoners have long suffered, but they were less successful in their protests against the rats and mice. When I was at Holloway as a first-class misdemeanant twenty years ago, one of my liveliest recollections is that of mice running over my head as I lay in bed. Things do not appear to have improved much since then.


If the victims of this prison dispensation were silent, a sense of the brutality of it all began to dawn upon their captors. It became evident that the cesspool of abuse, of denunciation and of ridicule that had been emptied upon the heads of these devoted women had produced a reaction in their favour. Even the rags which had derided them began to protest against the treatment of political offenders as if they were hardened criminals. In the House of Commons, to its shame be it spoken, not one of the 420 members who are pledged to woman’s suffrage opened his mouth to protest against the denial to women of the privileges conceded to men as diverse as Colonel Valentine Baker, Dr. Jameson, Colonel Willougbby, and myself. Protests began to be heard from all parts of the country. Women as far removed from the suffragettes as Mrs. Fawcett, Mrs. Creighton, and Miss Elizabeth Robins spoke up nobly for their imprisoned sisters. Public meetings passed strong resolutions of sympathy. At last Ministers gave way, and on October 31st, the magistrate who sentenced them, with the assent of the Home Office consented that they should be treated as first-class misdemeanants. From the point of view of the cause of woman’s suffrage nothing could be better than this vindictive prosecution and this tardy concession to the claims of justice. When the prisoners come out of prison they will head an agitation for woman’s suffrage the like of which has not been seen in our day.


The readiness of educated and well-born women to face the indignities of the convict prison rather than abandon their demand for the enfranchisement of their sex is having a profoundly educational influence upon the country at large. In face of that salient fact all criticisms as to errors of tactics so glibly uttered by armchair theorists are but as idle wind. But it is necessary for the honour and reputation of Englishmen to say in plain Saxon that the practice of indecently assaulting women who try to ask questions at public meetings should be sternly punished. For a long time I kept silence . That such offences should be deliberately committed by Liberal stewards seemed too horrible for belief. Unfortunately the evidence is overwhelming. At Liverpool and at Birmingham respectable women who, wisely or unwisely, tried to ask whether the Cabinet Minister who was on the platform would grant suffrage to their sex, were seized by the stewards and subjected to assaults of indescribable indecency. In one place the woman was carried out head downwards, her legs in the air, while ruffians who richly deserved the cat-o’-nine-tails both in Liverpool and in Birmingham indecently assaulted their captives. In Liverpool the assault took place in the dark corridor after the women had been removed from the meeting. In Birmingham it took place in the meeting itself, to the accompaniment of language too foul and filthy for reproduction. If it is with such weapons and by the aid of such brutes that the doors of the Constitution are to be kept barred against our sisters and wives, even hardened misogynists must admit they had better be thrown open.


All this turmoil arises from the scandalous failure of the pledged supporters of woman’s suffrage to secure a full debate and division in the House of Commons. Parliament is the great inquest of the nation. During last Session every conceivable grievance that affected men was fully and freely debated; but no attempt was made to secure a decent discussion of the claims of women to the franchise. The question might have been raised in the Plural Voting Bill—I, for instance, lose one of my votes by this Bill which I exercise by virtue of my wife’s small property in the Wimbledon division—but when Lord Robert Cecil tried to introduce the subject he was ruled out of order by Mr. Emmott. If politicians would have played the game in a straightforward fashion, disfranchised woman would never have been driven to such extra-constitutional methods of indicating her discontent. The future will show whether the enfranchisement of women will come from the Conservatives or the Liberals. Mr. Balfour and the Cecils are in favour of this reform, and there is a widespread feeling among the rank and file of the Tories that women will be a great reinforcement of Conservatism in the constituencies. The probability is that the moment either party shows any inclination to take it up seriously the other will rush in and try to gain the credit of being the first to admit the new voters within the pale of the Constitution. Note meanwhile that the North American Review, one of the most conservative and influential organs of opinion in the United States, has come out emphatically with a declaration that woman suffrage has now become “almost a paramount necessity.”