Last month, two members of Just Stop Oil smashed the glass frame of a seventeenth-century painting in the National Gallery.
The target was chosen with care. The same painting – The Toilet of Venus, by Diego Velázquez – was in 1914 slashed with a meat cleaver by the suffragette ‘Slasher’ Mary Richardson, in protest at the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In a conscious imitation of Richardson, the activists announced that ‘women did not get the vote by voting. It is time for deeds, not words. It is time to just stop oil’. The message was clear. Just as the suffragettes, with their motto of ‘Deeds, Not Words’, fought their way to the vote through constant militancy, so will the ‘deeds’ of Just Stop Oil continue until their cause is won.
The activists’ histrionics captured attention, as was the aim. Their grasp of history, however, is not so good. Just Stop Oil’s questionable claim to the heirdom of the Women’s Suffrage Movement aside, the version of the past espoused by its activists is a falsehood. The destruction of public artwork did not secure women the vote. Instead, suffragette militancy alienated the public and left the WSPU’s campaign at an all-time low, which only the First World War was able to reverse.
The WSPU was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in 1903. Over the next eleven years, the movement oversaw an increasingly aggressive campaign. It began innocently enough, with meetings and rallies, petitions and flags, packed crowds, and a 60,000-strong march in 1911 in support of George V’s coronation. After a ‘Conciliation’ Bill to amend the franchise stalled in Parliament, however, the WSPU campaign turned violent. Censuses were boycotted and taxes unpaid. Shop windows were smashed, churches and private houses attacked. Acid was poured into post boxes and messages burned into golf courses. A bomb was placed in the house of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George, and an axe thrown at the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.
The privations which suffragettes endured while incarcerated for their militancy are well-known. Hunger strikes were met with the forced feeding of prisoners, a protest on ‘Black’ Friday 18 November 1910 outside Parliament turned into a riot in which dozens of women were assaulted, and in 1913 – in the most notorious episode of all – Emily Wilding-Davison was crushed to death after throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. As tragic as these incidents were, the brutality endured by suffragettes has all too often shrouded the reality that militancy brought women no closer to the vote. Superbly effective in capturing the headlines, attacks on public property served only to alienate the public and trap the WSPU in what one historian has called a ‘life-threatening spiral of decline’. The longer the militancy continued, the more drawn-out, sporadic, and spent of momentum the suffragette movement became. Yet the only alternative to a concession of militancy’s ineffectiveness – and by extension, its criminality – was the escalation of the campaign to greater levels of violence, which eroded public support still further.
This was why the outbreak of war in 1914 was so welcomed by the WSPU. War offered Emmeline Pankhurst a chance to wipe the slate clean. In August 1914, she terminated the group’s militancy and redirected the spirit of ‘Deeds Not Words’ into a furious campaign in support of the war effort. ‘It is the women’, Emmeline’s daughter Christabel argued at a rally, who will ‘prevent the collapse of the nation while the men are fighting the enemy’. In 1914, suffragettes handed out white feathers to men not in uniform. In 1915, when Welsh miners went on strike, Emmeline and Christabel condemned them and suggested that women should take their places in the pits. It was, to quote another leading historian of the movement, a ‘tough-minded, pro-war feminism that brandished militant women as better citizens than cowardly, un-enlisted men’. There were few lengths to which this pro-war feminism would not go. In 1917, the WSPU was rebranded as the ‘Women’s Party’, with a new slogan of ‘Victory, National Security, and Progress’. In 1918, the Pankhursts even called for British intervention in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks, after Lenin’s seizure of power led to a Bolshevik peace with Germany.
The greatest coup for the Pankhursts, however, came in the summer of 1915, when Emmeline and Lloyd George (then Minister for Munitions) shared a platform at ‘The Women’s Right to Serve’ procession. Surrounded by banners that read ‘Shells Made By A Wife May Save Her Husband’s Life’, Emmeline and the man whose house her followers had exploded called for the entry of women into the nation’s workforce; unthinkable a year earlier but now vital if the millions of men taken out of the nation’s factories by the war were to be replaced. After the parade, Emmeline insisted on equal pay for women, which Lloyd George agreed to. It was the WSPU’s greatest triumph. By the end of the war, 30% of the nation’s workforce and 80% of all munitions workers were female. The idea of denying the vote to women soon melted away. The Fourth Reform Act, which became law in February 1918 and which enfranchised all men over 21, also granted the vote to women over 30. While party political factionalism prevented women from receiving the vote on equal terms to men until 1928, neither Emmeline nor Christabel opposed the Fourth Reform Act. Both saw that the precedent of female enfranchisement would prove irresistible once established.
The moral of the story, then, is not that ‘Deeds Not Words’ does not work. Deeds do work and have worked time and again in British history in advancing the cause of political movements, ‘be they ne’er so vile’. But deeds are far more likely to win public support if they are peaceful and lawful. Suffragette militancy makes for exciting history. But the oft-forgotten peaceful wing of the women’s suffrage movement – the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – enjoyed far greater levels of success than the WSPU before 1914. The NUWSS, which was founded in 1897 by Millicent Fawcett and which, rather tellingly, adopted as one of its slogans ‘Law-Abiding Suffragists’, enjoyed a membership over twenty times that of the WSPU. While women did not get the vote by voting, therefore, they did not get it by vandalising art galleries either. ‘Slasher’ Mary Richardson, meanwhile, ended her career as the leader of the women’s section of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The next time members of Just Stop Oil feel like reaching for their hammers they would do well to re-learn their history.
(Rokeby Venus after being slashed in 1914)