17 October 2018: Suffragettes and Suffragists
This evening our local National Trust supporter group hosted a talk on our city’s suffragettes and suffragists and those who visited the town (as it then was) in connection with the Women’s Suffrage movement.
There were two main bodies promoting the cause of women’s suffrage in the early years of the twentieth century. They were the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (“NUWSS”) and the Women's Social and Political Union (“WSPU”). The suffragists tried to promote the cause of votes for women through persuasion and joined the NUWSS. The suffragettes were not enamoured with the merits of quiet persuasion, were prepared to resort to law-breaking and attacks on property, and joined the much more militant WSPU.
Our city’s involvement started in the middle of the nineteenth century with a well-known local Quaker, Anne Knight. In 1847 she published the first pamphlet advocating women’s suffrage and in 1852, together with an Anne Kent, she founded the first women’s suffrage society in Sheffield.
Around the turn of the century there were occasional public talks in the town about women’s suffrage. Some were held in the now-demolished Corn Exchange. One lady was ejected from the Corn Exchange but continued to address the crowd outside “on the gun” (ie perched on the artillery piece captured at Sevastopol and now displayed outside our local museum). When the WSPU”s “General” spoke “on the gun” on another occasion the police had to escort her back to the railway station for her own safety.
A byelection was held here in 1908. The day before the election four rallies were held in the town, including one organised by the NUWSS and one by the WSPU. The WSPU asked all the candidates three questions and offered to support whichever candidates answered “Yes” to them all. Unfortunately no record has been found of the questions but it is known that both the leading candidates gave a negative answer to all three! In the event the Conservative candidate credited the WSPU for his win and the Liberal candidate blamed them from his loss of the byelection. The Conservative went on to serve the town as MP for the next fifteen years.
In 1912 a number of women, including some from our area, were arrested for attacking property in central London. One group threw stones at the Mansion House window, which prompted the judge trying their case to comment that they must either be criminals or lunatics. One lady who was subjected to a jail term was given a signed certificate by Emily Pankhurst on her release.
The suffragettes’ violent campaign was suspended when war broke out in 1914. What gained women the vote in 1919 was their importance to the war effort.