IF YOU spent the last two Sunday evenings watching Stephen Poliakoff’s Edwardian drama The Lost Prince, you may remember a scene when a young woman threw herself at Queen Mary’s feet, begging her attention to a pressing social concern.
The suffragette campaign scourged the politicians of the day and shook up the skirts of its women. To many, it was a cause led by the chattering classes, women of privilege who were hopelessly out of touch with how people in the slums and factory towns lived. To others, it was tinged with a sense of glamour, fronted by an enigmatic tyrant - Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union - who had a charismatic hold over her nubile army of women. Whatever you believe, there’s one recurring idea that most of us are guilty of accepting - that the movement was confined to London.
Four years ago, a ground-breaking book by the late Leah Leneman swept away this myth with all the force of a Dyson vacuum cleaner. Far from being disinterested or content with their lot, Leneman proved that the Scottish suffrage movement was active and influential from Shetland to Stranraer, Oban to Montrose. It also displayed considerable autonomy and independence from Pankhurst’s WSPU. Indeed, they were indebted to their Scottish sisters, not least because the then-prime minister, Asquith, alongside other prominent members of the government such as Richard Haldane and Winston Churchill, held Scottish seats. If the English movement produced endless biography fodder - from Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself under the King’s horse, to the Pankhursts again - many biographies are still waiting to be written about the indefatigable Scots.
There was Ethel Moorhead, who symbolically smashed a glass case at the Wallace monument near Stirling. One of the movement’s wittiest and more militant personalities, she once marched into a classroom with a dog-whip to attack a male teacher who had ejected her from a meeting. She was later imprisoned for attempted arson. Then there was Lilias Mitchell, who cheekily replaced the marker flags at Balmoral Golf Course with new flags painted in the WSPU colours. Or Arabella Scott, who tried to set fire to Kelso racecourse before enduring five weeks of enforced feeding at Perth Prison.
Action in Scotland was varied and widespread. Telegraph and telephone wires were cut, and on one occasion a portrait of the King was slashed at the Royal Academy. Lanarkshire mansions were burnt to the ground and corrosive acid was poured through letter boxes across the country. Often, the tactics seemed to brilliantly subvert the domestic activities the anti-suffragists were expected to do in the course of a normal day: cayenne pepper was thrown at the prime minister, and they’d smear black treacle on shop windows to deaden the sound of their being smashed. But not all activity was militant. Scotland was also the scene of tireless campaigning from leading suffragists (those who fought for the vote through constitutional or non-militant means, as opposed to suffragettes, who were known for espousing militant tactics).
In 1917, an electoral reform bill giving votes to certain women over 30 was passed in the Commons, but not until 1928 were all women given equal voting rights. Yet as we approach our parliament’s second elections since devolution, many of Scotland’s women are not expected to vote. While it seems inconceivable that only 75 years ago women were not deemed capable of doing so, it is equally staggering that such high proportions of women are now so apathetic about voting. What would the suffragists and suffragettes of yesteryear think? More specifically, what do the descendants of women who were central to the movement think? Have they continued the fight for gender equality in their own lives? Or have they been overshadowed by their matriarchs? And what about the women whose ancestors played a more modest role?
Anne Balfour-Fraser recalls two of her relatives talking about their roles in the drama. Her grandmother, Lady Betty Balfour, was a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and president of the non-militant Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association in Edinburgh. She also chaired Pankhurst’s 1911 meeting at Nairn, and when militant suffragettes torched the medieval church of Whitekirk in East Lothian (a symbolic action, according to Leneman, in response to "medieval" practices such as force-feeding in Scottish prisons), Lady Betty chaired a restoration fund. "She was morally supportive of the suffragettes, but thought that they could achieve the vote without smashing things," says Balfour-Fraser. Instead, Lady Betty used her influence within her "highly political and intellectual" circle, where she thought it would have some effect.
Her sister, however, took quite a different tack. Lady Constance Lytton (Balfour-Fraser’s great-aunt) was a well-known figure in the WSPU, and was imprisoned several times for window-breaking. After her first imprisonment, she was outraged to discover she’d won an early release because of her family’s status, and when arrested subsequently, she gave false identities. During a 14-day prison sentence she suffered enforced feeding on five occasions, a gruesome experience which she details in her book Prisons and Prisoners. Two wardresses held her down while a doctor clamped open her mouth with a steel implement. "A tube which seemed to me much too wide and something like four feet in length" was forced down her throat, causing instant vomiting. Ninety-five years later, Balfour-Fraser says these force-feedings destroyed Lady Constance’s health for the rest of her life, and that she certainly died prematurely because of this.
Her great-aunt’s sacrifice and grandmother’s campaigning left an indelible mark on Balfour-Fraser’s life, not least on election days. "I have always voted," she stresses. "If I didn’t, my grandmother would have thought it dreadful, that it was every woman’s responsibility to make her opinion and make it count."
Balfour-Fraser spent the Second World War in a laboratory, analysing aluminium from crashed aircraft. After the war she studied singing at the Royal Academy of Music, but realising it wouldn’t become a career, she started her own production company, Balfour Films, and went on to produce more than 100 films. When asked whether she championed female directors - just as her grandmother went on to encourage female composers such as Ethel Smyth - Balfour-Fraser replies, "Not specifically. I wanted the best person for a job."
But one day she was woken in the early hours by an American television company. "They had been given permission to make a film about Simone de Beauvoir, but on one condition," she recalls. "The entire crew had to be women."
Balfour-Fraser didn’t agree with all of de Beauvoir’s ideas, but she was struck by her risky and determined campaigning for the legalisation of abortion. Does she consider this to be one of the next great landmarks in gender equality, after female suffrage? "The Women’s Property Act was immensely important, as it meant that you didn’t automatically lose rights to your property as soon as you got married. But the acceptance of planned parenthood has made an enormous difference to the life of women," she says.
In fact, Balfour-Fraser went on to make a number of films for the International Planned Parenthood Federation as well as the Family Planning Association - following another family tradition - since Lady Constance was an outspoken supporter of Marie Stopes. What would Lady Betty and Lady Constance think of women’s lives in today’s Scotland?
Have we achieved genuine emancipation? “Women can achieve everything, but it’s appallingly hard work, and it shouldn’t be as difficult as it is. You need a cultural change, but I don’t quite know how to achieve it.” What’s frustrating, she concludes, is that women aren’t fighting prejudice from men, but all too often are thwarted by “prejudice from other women, too”.
Another leading suffragette who participated in window-smashing raids and subsequent prison hunger strikes was Helen Archdale, a woman who could have been born wielding a hammer. Her mother and father (Alexander Russel, an editor of The Scotsman) were stalwart fighters for Edinburgh women students’ campaign for medical education.
A member of the WSPU, Archdale was imprisoned in Dundee for breaching the peace, but released four days later after going on a hunger strike. Archdale was particularly close to Pankhurst and assisted her in compiling a database of active suffragettes during the war years. After the First World War she broadened her feminist activities further by becoming president of the Equal Rights International Committee at the League of Nations in Geneva, and editing Time and Tide, a feminist sociopolitical magazine that attracted writers such as TS Elliot and Rebecca West.
Her daughter, Betty Archdale, inherited her mother’s sense of justice and dedication to women’s rights. Her accomplishments included becoming captain of the first British women’s cricket team to tour Australia and leading the first group of Wrens to serve overseas in Singapore. But she really made her mark in the field of education, since Archdale became principal of Women’s College at the University of Sydney and headmistress of Abbotsleigh, one of Australia’s leading schools for girls.
Sadly Betty Archdale died in January 2000, but her biographer Deirdre Macpherson sheds some interesting light on the psychological effect of living in the shadow of a suffragette. Archdale was close friends with another daughter of a famous suffragette, Adela Pankhurst. According to Macpherson, “Both women went on to reform society as their mothers had bid them, but both of them were a bit damaged by it too.” She suggests that Archdale suppressed her sexuality throughout her life, and concludes that “for all her education, Betty hadn’t been schooled in the language of love”.
Back in Scotland, Jenny McCallum of Dunfermline was an unusual suffragette because she came from a working-class background. In “A Guid Cause,” Leneman notes that although the Scottish suffragette movement was undeniably largely middle class, English documents show that 20% of the older activists down south were working class, as were 23% of the younger generation. If this was also true here in Scotland, it is likely that many of these working-class supporters will remain confined to obscurity. But McCallum’s relatives are ensuring that this doesn’t happen to Jenny.
After leaving school, Jenny McCallum worked in a linen factory. In 1908 she left her job to join the Women’s Freedom League deputation in London, and was imprisoned in Holloway for rioting outside the House of Commons. “My feeling is that rioting and violence don’t give solutions, but it was the only option for the suffragettes, as they didn’t have any say through the normal democratic channels,” says McCallum’s great-niece, Sheila Perry. Like many of the women interviewed, Perry feels that her ancestor had a direct influence on her life. “I have always voted, and consciously decided to do so because of my aunt. Even if I haven’t wanted to vote positively for any of the parties, I have done because I know how hard it was fought for.” Even so, Perry feels she has faced genderspecific obstacles throughout her life. After taking a long career break from computer programming, she found it impossible to rejoin the profession in Scotland. “Whether that was because of my age or gender is difficult to say, but I was shocked to find out how few women were studying the subject when my son was at university.”
Even if facts are hazy, merely knowing that one’s ancestors marched with the suffragettes in demonstrations in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Perth or Dundee has spurned a number of women to become active in women’s rights. Avril Hughes works in the town planning department of Falkirk County Council. Her grandmother attended suffragette rallies, despite her father’s disapproval. Although there is no evidence that she took part in any militant campaigns, Hughes feels that her influence had an undeniable effect on her own mother, Jean Mackie, the first lady provost of Dunfermline.
Yet Hughes, who was a councillor herself for 15 years, has reservations about how far women have come. “I’ve encountered bosses at the council who seem to think that managerial positions could only go to people who stood up to go to the toilet,” she says. “Even now I sometimes feel like a secondclasscitizen. It’s still a man’s world.”
Margaret Forrester and Mary Maclane, both in their eighties, remember their mother talking about supporting the suffragettes. “She spoke at meetings but wasn’t militant. She couldn’t afford to be.” Margaret Nelson was a civil servant, and had to remain “tactful and circumspect”. Receiving the vote went on to inform her later life – she stood as a Labour councillor in Edinburgh in the 1950s.
Similarly, Jane Kelly (nee Dewar, 1877-1970) attended suffragist meetings in Dundee before chairing meetings for Florence Horsburgh, the city’s first female MP. Her great-granddaughter, Louise Milne, a lecturer in visual culture, says, “A big cause for the politicisation of women in Scotland was the temperance movement, on which the Unionists were particularly keen. It was their equivalent of the war on drugs.”
Jane Kelly would leave her children at home with her husband in order to chair Horsburgh’s meetings, “which was unheard of in those days”. According to Milne, this is still a burning issue. “Being able to have children and return to whatever you were doing is part of civilisation,” she says. “It amazes me that whenever the pendulum swings to the right, there is a huge media impetus to get women back into the kitchen.” Like Anne Balfour-Fraser, Milne believes that we need a cultural revolution, and cites ageism and the media’s drive for “youth culture” as particularly damaging for women.
She’s reluctant to suggest that women are staying away from the polling booths because they’re merely apathetic. “The young feel that the vote isn’t as instrumental, in terms of political restructuring, as they’d like it to be. Change is perceived to be achieved through more grassroots means, such as the anti-globalisation movement or CND.”
But as our table citing voting figures for the 1999 Scottish election shows, it’s younger women who are most likely to abstain from voting. Reasons for this could be manifold, of course: abstention as a political act showing dissatisfaction with all parties; a sense of individual votes not counting; or an increased preoccupation with ‘celebrities’ – after all 6.9 million people of all ages and sexes voted for Fame Academy. Or, maybe it’s simply a case of passing time – today’s 25-year-olds have grandmothers as young as 70, who have always had the right to vote. They may not feel the immediate influence of the suffragette’s descendants. Maybe the art of oral history has been lost for good, and we will never again hear stories about our Jenny McCallums. But if you are disinclined to vote this May, it just might be worth popping the question – Granny, what did you do to get the vote?
Source: A Guid Cause by Leah Leneman
1866 First petition by women for the suffrage presented in House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.
August-October Suffrage societies started in Edinburgh, London and Manchester.
1903 Emmeline Pankhurst forms Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) with daughters Christabel and Sylvia.
1906 January Liberals win general election by an overwhelming majority. WSPU demands votes for women, promising to harass Liberals until this is achieved.
March Daily Mail coins term ‘suffragette’ for militant suffragists.
June Teresa Billington and Annie Kenney become the first suffragettes imprisoned in Holloway.
1907 February 3,000 people march in heavy rain from Hyde Park to Strand in a protest dubbed ‘The Mud March’.
March Women’s Suffrage Bill, introduced by WH Dickinson, is talked out at a second reading. Another ‘raid’ on the House of Commons is set up by WSPU, resulting in numerous arrests.
1908 February Second reading of Stanger Bill, identical to Dickinson’s Bill of 1907 - 271 votes for, 92 against.
June WSPU organises seven processions from different parts of London to converge on Hyde Park for a rally. An estimated half a million spectators turn out.
October WSPU attempts to ‘rush’ the House of Commons. The leaders are arrested, conduct their own defence at trial and receive wide publicity.
1909 July Marion Wallace Dunlop, a Scottish WSPU member, is imprisoned in Holloway. She refuses to eat unless placed in the first division.
September First case of force-feeding (Winson Green prison, Birmingham).
1910 spring-summer All-party ‘Conciliation Committee’ drafts limited women’s suffrage bill, giving the vote only to householders. WSPU and Women’s Freedom League suspend militancy.
November The Conciliation Bill is abandoned.
November 18 ‘Black Friday’ - suffragettes march to Parliament Square and are brutally treated by police.
1911 May Second Conciliation Bill debated, with large majority (167) in favour. Asquith pledges that time for a suffrage bill would be found during the life of the parliament.
November Asquith announces that the government will introduce an adult suffrage bill in the next session, and that it could be amended to include women. WSPU objects as it means little hope is left for the Conciliation Bill.
1912 March Emily Green is arrested for smashing six windows in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street.
July Suffragettes throw hatchet into Asquith’s open carriage in Dublin.
November Scottish Suffragettes pour corrosive and flammable fluid into letterboxes in Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Leith.
1913 January Franchise and Registration Bill is debated in Commons, with four women’s suffrage amendments.
April Arabella Scott, Agnes and Elizabeth Thomson, and Edith Hudson are arrested for attempting to set fire to Kelso racecourse stand.
April ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ enforced, giving powers for release of hunger-striking suffragette prisoners and their re-arrest when recovered.
Spring-summer Escalating attacks on property by militants.
May Farington Hall, Dundee, burnt down, causing an estimated 17,000-worth of damage.
June Emily Wilding Davison throws herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derby and is killed.
December Mansion house of Kelly on the Firth of Clyde is destroyed by fire, causing about 30,000 in damage.
1914 February Rhoda Robinson is arrested for burning down Allt-an-Phionn mansion in Perthshire
May King’s portrait slashed at Royal Academy. Maude Edwards is arrested.
June Suffragettes attempt to force their way into Buckingham Palace to petition the king.
July Janet Arthur is arrested for trying to blow up Burns Cottage, Alloway.
August War is declared. WSPU suspends militancy and suffrage work; all suffragettes convicted of militant attacks are pardoned.
1917 December Electoral Reform Bill, giving votes to certain women over 30 passes the Commons.
1918 November Armistice. Bill to enable women to stand for parliament is rushed through both Houses.