The secret to successful protest
The more I research the past the more I find parallels with the present.
The women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain comprised several different organisations, each of them with slightly different aims and with very different approaches. The two largest, the NUWSS (The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), founded by Millicent Fawcett, was a peaceful movement whose members were referred to as suffragists. The WSPU (The Women’s Social and Political Union), founded and run on authoritarian grounds by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, espoused ‘direct action’ which included on occasion storming the Houses of Parliament and vandalising buildings. This in turn spawned a breakaway group called the Women’s Freedom League, who disapproved of the dictatorial way the WSPU was run.
Confused? I certainly am. Although the different organisations did cooperate on occasion it can’t have helped their cause to be so split in their aims and their methods.
Reading about the the suffragettes I am reminded of Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, a British-founded global environmental organisation, well-known for their disruptive tactics such as blocking bridges and roads in central London and on one occasion gluing themselves to underground trains in order to draw attention to our climate emergency.
In both cases their more extreme methods, whatever you may think of them, were a direct result of years of neglect. Mrs Fawcett’s suffragists had been lobbying parliament for decades, with very little result. XR came to the fore a few years ago when they imported a boat into Oxford Circus and reminded us of the urgency of climate change. Both attracted the attention of the media, not always positively. Both divided public opinion. Both had MPs effectively demolishing their arguments by condemning their methods.
(Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade, like a more recent MP and Prime Minister, seemed to change his mind about women’s suffrage according to who he was talking to at the time. At one point he told the suffragettes he was their ‘friend’, and then declared women would never get the vote until they ceased their militant tactics; to which those women might have responded ‘If you really were our friend you’d have done something to help us and we wouldn’t have needed to resort to those tactics’.)
So how do we, the protesting general public, achieve our aims? Public opinion, led by the media, is one thing; a peaceful demonstration is unlikely to attract media attention unless someone metaphorically or physically throws the odd stone. In 1908 a quarter of a million suffragettes and supporters held a peaceful rally in Hyde Park, to no avail. In 2003 a million people, including yours truly, marched through central London protesting against the impending war in Iraq, to no avail.
Contemporary historians on the whole tend to believe the suffragette movement was hampered rather than helped by their militancy, but just maybe they are basing their beliefs on statements from the likes of Winston Churchill at the time. ‘We will never give way to violence!’ (Not a direct quote by the way.) By refusing to allow women the vote because they were a nuisance meant they were condemning the tactics rather than their aims.
Setting aside the odd Violent Fringe that has hijacked many otherwise peaceful protests in the past, if peacefulness doesn’t get us what we want, what will?
All this is in the course of my research for my latest novel, working title The Humbling of Meredith Martin. It concerns an actress – who has already appeared in my previous books – struggling to make her way in the unpredictable and radically changing world of Edwardian theatre. Which reminds me of yet another organisation, the Actress’ Franchise League. They produced hundreds of propaganda plays satirising the anti-franchise movement, performed, one assumes, almost entirely to already-converted audiences.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The Humbling of Meredith Martin (working title). Book five in the
‘Modern Women: breaking the mould’ series
© Patsy Trench