Two million reasons why women should always use their vote

TO DR Frances Wheelhouse, her elderly aunt, Arabella Scott, would have been an ordinary woman, outwardly little different from others of her generation - except she also knew that she lived through a period of great significance, which marked her out as a shaper of Scottish history. Scott was one of Scotland's suffragettes, who in the early 20th century fought bravely, relentlessly and often recklessly to gain women the right to vote.

Some women eventually won the vote in 1918, the rest in 1928: the price of success was not insignificant, however, and could be counted in the number of lives lost, injuries sustained, liberties sacrificed, families torn apart, reputations ruined. Those who were part of the movement knew it was worth it; not only for themselves but also for their daughters, granddaughters and future generations of women.

Nine decades later, what would these women - who engaged in such a brave, bitter battle for equality and democracy - say if they knew that, in the last Scottish elections, fewer women turned out to vote than the two million who signed the 1867 petition calling for their right to do so? Tomorrow, the Scottish Parliament will open its very first public exhibition, which looks at the suffragettes' contribution. It is provocatively titled, in order to hammer home the dangers inherent in our slide into voter apathy: "If I can't vote, I don't count."

This small but significant display brings together rarely seen archive photographs, bringing back to life the forgotten struggle waged by many Scott-ish women (and some men) to gain something that we today take for granted: the right to vote in elections.

Postcards from the era show buildings burned in protest by the suffragettes, including Whitekirk church in East Lothian, and unique artefacts such as jewellery and accessories designed for the suffrage movement.

The idea of the exhibition is to portray a campaign which - in an age when Saudi Arabia does not allow women to vote and Kuwaiti women gained the right only last year - is still topical, relevant and hugely important.

All her life Arabella Scott upheld a passionate commitment to women's rights (she died in 1980, in her mid-nineties) and a visible legacy of this remained in her chipped teeth. These were her battle scars, sustained when she tried to resist being force-fed as a prisoner in Perth jail.

In 1913 Scott was convicted for attempting to set fire to a stand at Kelso racecourse, by way of political protest, and taken to prison. Thanks to the "Cat and Mouse" Bill, which allowed women to be released from prison sentences in order to recover their health, she was in out and of prison over the subsequent year. However, when she was arrested for the last time in 1914, and taken to Perth jail, she was kept inside. When she refused to eat, she was force-fed.

Outside the prison gates, 3,000 people kept a vigil, although they were not even told what exactly was going in inside. Scott's mother, Harriet, and her sister, Muriel, were writing to the prime minister and campaigning on her behalf, but only discovered what had been done to her when she was released.

"It was terrible," says Wheelhouse, now 82, and living in Australia. "She was the longest force-fed prisoner in Scotland, and it [happened] several times a day for five weeks. I do not know how she endured it.

"Food was pushed either up her nose or down her throat; it was horrible. She must have been a very strong person and believed passionately in what she was fighting for."

This brutal treatment had been introduced in English prisons in 1909, and was forced on five women in Scotland during the suffrage campaign in 1914. Wheelhouse says that her aunt was restrained by six prison warders while they forced a feeding tube down her throat, using a metal clamp to hold her jaws open (hence the chipped teeth), or up her nose. A sickly sweet milk-and-egg mixture was administered several times a day to ensure the prisoner did not perish from starvation or dehydration, although it often caused violent vomiting. Wheelhouse was very close to her aunt and remembers her as a modest, intelligent and beautiful woman. But most of all, she remembers her courage in the early fight for women's rights.

The daughter of an army officer and a teacher, Scott was brought up in Dunoon before attending Edinburgh University to gain a Master of Arts - a considerable achievement when few women had access to higher education. It was at university that she and her sister Muriel became involved in the women's suffrage movement.

"I feel very proud of her," Wheelhouse says." It is incredible what she went through: not only the force-feeding she endured, but also campaigning around the country at a time when it was not so easy to travel. Women were not supposed to do that sort of thing." Scott continued to campaign for equal pay and women's rights until her death.

Scotland's campaign for women's suffrage is a topic that seems to have been largely forgotten. Mention the suffragettes and most people think of English campaigners, such as the Pankhursts, who set up the Women's Social and Political Union (WPSU), or Emily Wilding Davison, who died after she stepped in front of the king's horse during the 1913 Derby.

Less well documented is the equally fierce struggle fought in Scotland, with many acts of defiance and bravery. Dr Norman Watson, the author of Dundee's Daughters, a book chronicling the actions of Scotland's suffragettes, said it was a myth that the movement in Scotland was any less radical than that in England.

"We have to get away from this idea that everything happened in London because of the Pankhursts. It did not. Nowhere in Scotland was deaf to the women's movement; there were branches in all the major cities.

"It was a tremendous sacrifice that Scottish women made on behalf of what we take for granted today - a political democracy." Following government reforms in the late 17th century, Britain's voting system became more democratic, for the first time extending to include almost all men. After this milestone was reached, the focus shifted to securing the same entitlement for women.

In Scotland, large numbers of women supported this campaign and, between 1867 and 1876, two million people signed petitions supporting it. By the early 1900s there were branches of the women's suffrage movement in existence across Scotland. Many were affiliated to the non-militant organisations, such as the National Union of Women's Suffrage, but others were joined to the militant WPSU.

Which is not to say that all women in Scotland approved of the campaign. Lady Griselda Cheape, the president of the St Andrew's branch of the Scottish League for Opposing Women's Suffrage, wrote at that time: "What I have seen with my own eyes - girls selling papers at street corners by the gutter - is simply, to my mind, most undesirable and a grave danger."

Peaceful protests in Scotland included a grand pageant and procession through Edinburgh in 1909, and a protest walk from Edinburgh to London in 1912. Anna Munro, one of the founders of the Women's Freedom League, was one of the Scottish women who walked the whole route, while many women joined for sections of the march and some 10,000 spectators came out to cheer them on.

However, Scottish women were also involved in more militant forms of protest. The first recorded instance of suffragette violence in Scotland occurred in March 1912, when shop windows were smashed on Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street. The trend for such action burgeoned, and by November that year suffragettes had poured both corrosive and flammable fluids into letterboxes in Kirkcaldy, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Leith to draw attention to their cause.

Their attacks typically involved arson, smashed windows or even worse damage. Leuchars Railway Station, a stand at Ayr racecourse, Perthshire Cricket club and the east wing of St Andrews University's Getty Marine Laboratory were all completely destroyed. At the height of the campaign, the Scottish authorities were so afraid of these attacks that many tourist attractions and public buildings were closed, including Holyrood Palace.

Although there was no official ringleader of the militant movement, its recognised figurehead was Ethel Moorhead of Dundee, who developed a reputation for causing havoc. She threw an egg at Winston Churchill, smashed a window at the Wallace Monument, threw pepper at a policeman and, when she was finally imprisoned, was the first woman to be force-fed in Scotland.

As well as Moorhead and Arabella Scott, Earl Kitchener's niece, Fanny Parker, who tried to blow up Burns's Cottage, Maude Edwards, who slashed a portrait of the king at the Royal Scottish Academy, and Frances Gordon, who was arrested for housebreaking, all had food forced down them when they refused to eat while in prison.

Wheelhouse is writing a book about Scott, entitled Murky Past, and says: "She fought to get the vote, and [the fact that] some women [did not even] worry about it must have been hard for her to accept."

And Watson is calling for a posthumous pardon for imprisoned suffragettes: "Ninety years on, to still regard these women as criminals is terrible. Scotland should take the lead in clearing their names. What we need is a generous gesture that will get schoolchildren interested in voting. It just takes a leap of faith to say these women were important and made a tremendous sacrifice. We need to appreciate that."

WHAT THE MOVEMENT DID FOR US

SARAH BOYACK, Labour MSP

"In some ways the suffragettes are more relevant [now] than ever, because they fought for us to vote, yet in the last Scottish Parliament elections, 50 per cent of people did not bother to come out - not even to spoil a ballot paper - so that passion is lost. We need to recapture it.

"In the next election, there is a real challenge: not just for politicians, but for all people interested in a healthy democracy, to ask how can we show people Parliament is relevant to them? The passion of the suffragettes and the things they had to endure should inspire everyone to take part in the process."

MARGARET SMITH, Liberal Democrat MSP

"There are women who still do not have the right to vote in many countries around the world; and there are women earning less money than men even though they do the same job. There is still a long way to go to achieve equality for women. We should be encouraging everybody to make use of their vote because these people fought and died for us to make use of the vote. That is very important, not just for women but for men as well."

SHIONA BAIRD, co-convener of the Scottish Green Party

"Many men still see women as a threat. It is very sad. We just want to be treated as equals, [but even] in 2006 we still have a battle. We need to look back to how the suffragettes worked to achieve the vote, and we need to keep on that campaign until we have achieved equality throughout the system, not just in politics."

CHRISTINE GRAHAME, SNP MSP

"I think it is very difficult for young women now: they are expected to be a mother and a housewife as well, and I think it has put a strain on women. We have come a long way, but there is some way to go to get the balance absolutely right."