Votes for women: When the militant suffragettes campaigned in Weston
PUBLISHED: 08:00 10 February 2018
"All the opposition in the world will never put us down," leading suffragette Annie Kenney pronounced at Weston-super-Mare's Town Hall, almost drowned out by jeers, stamping, whistling, yelling and bells. "If the meeting were 10 times worse," she continued, "we would come again, and we will come until we win everyone over." That scene in Weston in 1909 matched demonstrations and meetings all over the country as women demanded the vote.
Debates about suffrage in Weston started long before Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and before Millicent Fawcett’s more peaceful National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) brought earlier campaigns under one banner.
When a woman was invited to speak in favour of women’s suffrage to the Weston Liberal Club in 1889, she heard speakers proclaim women to be unfit for public duties, intellectually inferior to men and how their proper sphere was in the home.
By all accounts, it was a peaceful meeting. Future meetings held on the issue would not be so cordial.
In 1906, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, who grew up in Weston, joined the WSPU, became its treasurer, and brought much-needed organisation to its ranks.
The WSPU became known as the militant wing of the suffrage cause, and meetings in Weston drew thousands of people, not all sympathetic to it.
The Mercury was dismissive when Annie Kenney, Dorothy Pethick (Mrs Pethick-Lawrence’s sister) and Millicent Brown spoke from lorries on the beach in 1908.
It described suffragettes as a ‘nuisance’, prone to ‘hysteria’, with a ‘perverted realisation of right and wrong’.
When several thousand people congregated around the lorries, with a group pushing one towards the sea, the Mercury relayed the jeers of ‘go back home and do the washing’.
From her place on the lorry, Miss Brown bravely said: “You cannot strike fear into the heart of a woman.”
Miss Kenney, who had delivered speeches to difficult crowds all over the country, said it had been the roughest experience she had encountered.
Future meetings were also disrupted, by protestors and suffragettes both.
In 1913, the Lord Chancellor visited an NUT conference at Knightstone Pavilion. For the first half an hour, suffragettes ‘effectively muzzled him’, shouting for ‘votes for women’ while he tried to speak. Another shouted: ‘You support a Government which tortures women’, probably a reference to the force-feeding women endured in prison. The Cat And Mouse Act was enforced a month later, where women who became weak through prison hunger strikes were released, only to be forced back behind bars once they regained their health.
By that time, the WSPU’s tactics had become more aggressive, and an arson campaign was underway. Mrs Pethick-Lawrence had been ousted from the WSPU for voicing her complaints about the Pankhursts’ methods.
A fire at Worlebury Golf Course in 1913 was blamed on ‘militant suffragettes’, since two women unknown to the area had been seen in a car earlier that day. However, the Mercury admitted in its closing paragraphs, a stove was the most likely cause.
Then came war. The NUWSS, and later the WSPU once its prisoners were released, agreed to suspend political activities.
With men sent to the front, women stepped into their roles. Their wartime efforts were impossible to ignore. As the Mercury wrote in its round-up of 1918: “Parliament and the country recognise the valuable work women of all ranks have done during the war and in homes before the war.”
Women in Weston – but only those aged 30 and over who owned property or were married to a member of the Local Government Register – were out in force for their first election.
The Mercury said cynics believed women would spend their mornings doing household chores, the afternoon ‘titivating on personal appearance’ and would vote between 5pm and 8pm.
The cynics were wrong.
Women cast their ballots throughout the day, outvoting men three to one in most Weston polling stations, and seven to one in others. ‘Lady electors put men to shame’, the paper said.
A woman stood for election in Weston for the first time in 1920. It was not until 1928 when women were given franchise on the same footing as men.