Nice British Ladies


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We are here to claim our rights as women, not only to be free, but to fight for freedom. It is our privilege, as well as our pride and our joy, to take some part in this militant movement, which, as we believe, means the regeneration of all humanity.

So said Christabel Pankhurst in a speech about suffragist rights in Britain, 100 years ago. Pankhurst, dubbed “Queen of the Mob,” was arrested time and again at the beginning of the 20th century, fighting for voting rights for women.

  • A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940 by Elizabeth Roberts. 256 pages. Wiley-Blackwell. $43.95.

The Women’s Social and Political Union was in many ways a livelier counterpart to their American sisters fighting for the same rights in the States. The Americans mostly believed in nonviolent protest and picketing, whereas the WSPU became a merry band of bomb throwers. Journalist Geert Mak records in his book In Europe that in just April, 1913, illegal activity of the suffragist movement included:

2 April: arson at a church in Hampstead Garden; 4 April: a house in Chorley Wood destroyed by fire, a bomb attack at Oxted station, an empty train destroyed by an explosion in Devonport, famous paintings damaged in Manchester; 8 April: an explosion in the grounds of Dudley Castle; a bomb found on the crowded Kingston train: 11 April: a cricket pavilion destroyed in Tunbridge Wells…

The list continues.

And so while Elizabeth Roberts, in her 1985 book A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working Class Women 1890-1940, claims not to be offering a feminist perspective of her subject — as feminists are too focused on “suffering” — she does paint a pretty good picture of why the suffragists were relying on desperate measures to change the societal balance. The 160 women interviewed in Roberts’ book do indeed suffer — they work long and hard, many of them for no pay, with almost no way to change the circumstances of their lives.

Their talk is lively, and it’s a wonder to read the voices of people who do not usually get to talk for themselves. (Many indeed are still terrified of their fathers and what they will think.) But perhaps the most painful tracts to read are when the women begin to talk about their inability to prevent themselves from becoming pregnant. With no access to birth control — and often no one explaining to them how pregnancy even happens — they are at the mercy of fate. Children die, their bodies wear down, and they often can’t afford to feed the children they have properly. No one admits to an abortion on tape, but Roberts makes it clear that conversations continued after the recorder was turned off.

In 1918, women over 30 in Britain were finally allowed to vote, but of course it took some time for the poor women in rural areas to see much change. It didn’t happen until women threw themselves under horses in protest — the young Emily Davison, who publicly killed herself in such a manner — and many others suffered through horrendous hunger strikes and forced feedings. The protestors left behind letters, diaries, books, essays, newspapers, and pamphlets to document their struggle. And with Roberts’ book, those anonymous women who didn’t have the freedom even to protest, they get to leave something permanent behind, too. • 7 April 2011