On Saturday 29th September 2018, we held our 11th annual Sue Innes Memorial Lecture at Abertay University, Dundee. This has been an exciting year for women’s history with so many events celebrating and commemorating one hundred years since women over 30 years of age gained the right to vote. We were delighted to have as our speaker Professor Sarah Pedersen whose recent book The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press (2017) offers insights into the role of media in fueling political activism. Her research highlights tensions between the London leaders of Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the local leaders in Scotland contributing to a wider narrative of the suffragette movement as whole.
Suffragettes Who Have Never Been Kissed c.1910
Portrayals of suffragettes by the Anti-Suffrage Movement and the press and ugly spinsters was an image that the Pankhursts worked hard to counter. Sylvia Pankhurst remarked:
‘Many suffragists spend more money on clothes than they can comfortably afford, rather than run the risk of being considered outré, and doing harm to the cause.’
In her lecture, Professor Pedersen explored the symbiotic relationship between the press and the activities of the Scottish suffragettes. Despite the often mocking and anti-suffrage tone of newspapers, describing suffragettes as ‘screaming’, ‘screeching’, and ‘hysterical’, the reporting was often detailed and offered a platform for the pro-suffrage message to reach a wider audience. We learned about the popularity of local leaders such as Theresa Billington-Grieg and Helen Fraser, who often overshadowed London leaders during Scottish meetings reported by Scottish newspapers. It was this tension over their growing leadership in Scotland that Pedersen suggests led to the ousting of Billington-Greig, Fraser and also Caroline Phillips in Aberdeen by the central headquarters of the WSPU.
Following a disagreement over the Pankhursts increasingly heavy-handed approach both within the organisation and in their campaigning tactics Billington-Greig, with others, broke away from the WPSU in 1907. They founded the Women’s Freedom League (WFL), a militant non-violent organisation who chained themselves to railings and were instrumental in the 1911 Census Boycott.
Women’s Freedom League Flag, 1908 from the LSE Library Collection https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/22772654202/
The press did not distinguish between the two organisations as highlighted by the story of Mary Maloney, who was a WFL member from London who followed Winston Churchill around during the Dundee by-election ringing a dinner bell every time he tried to speak. This caused such an outcry that the WSPU released a statement distancing themselves from the act.
Mary Maloney disrupts Churchill, 6 May 1908 (Dundee City Archives)
In the Scottish coverage of the campaign, it was the Scottish leaders that the press followed and reported on. But as suffrage action became increasingly violent, it was the deeds not words that would sell papers. It must be noted though, that violent acts of militancy in Scotland did not begin with any regularity until 1913 and even then, it was on a smaller-scale than England. The fates of Scottish suffragettes in London on hunger strike were reported daily, Scottish ‘Outrages’ and the trials made sensationalist stories. From the first act of militancy in 1905 when Christabel Pankhurst spat on a policeman, the press pushed the cause into the limelight and over the next decade the suffragettes fed the media with their hunger strikes, processions and bombings to keep votes for women in the public eye.
Pedersen’s analysis of the press highlights that there was Scottish independence from the London leadership of the militant movement with newspapers focusing on Scottish leaders, their words and activities. Through great examples of letters, images and even the odd poem, her lecture was both engaging and informative. Thank you to Professor Pederson for a lovely afternoon in sunny Dundee and for her wonderful insight into the Scottish Suffragettes and the role of the press.
If you, or your group, would like to find out more about Scottish Suffragettes in your location we have a great Suffrage Resource with some tips to help you get started. One of our members could also come along and run a workshop in your local area.
Yvonne McFadden (University of Glasgow)