Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Paul Foot

Guardian Unlimited seem to be having a Paul Foot season at the moment. See here for yesterday's extract from Foot's book The Vote: How it Was Won, and How it was Undermined, and here, for today's.

I get to teach the Suffragette movement (or at least, I get one tutorial to cover it along with two other subjects) to first years - most of them highly uninterested Economics students. It's amazing that many of the books on the course reading list imply that the Suffragette movement was a failure and claim that womens' suffrage came because of the First World War - as a reward for womens' contributions to the 'war effort'. Foot's position, however, seems to me the right one:

Can we say that votes for women would have been granted anyway, as women's economic conditions changed?
No, the victory of 1918 would not have been achieved without the long years of struggle that preceded it. The militant activities of the suffragettes loosened the ideological hold of men over women. They gave women a real sense of their equality, and a determination to put it into practice. By their actions as much as by their thought and argument, the militant women from 1906 to 1914 liberated themselves and hundreds of thousands of their sex from the condescension of past ages. By their actions, they erased for ever from the political record the monstrous prejudices of male ministers.

Just as the vote for most men was won when large quantities of them stepped outside their routine lives and fought for political representation, so, even more certainly, votes for women would never have been surrendered had it not been for the arguments of the Millicent Fawcetts and Lydia Beckers, the tireless propaganda of the Ada Nield Chews, the Eva Gore-Booths and Esther Ropers, the Selina Coopers and Helen Silcocks, the formidable, single-minded courage of all the Pankhursts, of Annie Kenney, of Emily Davison and of the hundreds of thousands of women who fought for their cause more relentlessly than had any of their male predecessors, and won it.

Foot doesn't get carried away in his praise for the Suffragettes, however. It's important to remember that key figures within the movement collapsed into a pathetic and reprehensible jingoism at the outbreak of World War One.

Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel declared that the supreme priority was the need to win the war. Both women toured the country using their oratorical skills to shovel young men into the charnel house.

To their credit, a minority of the Suffragettes (including Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst) did fiercely oppose the war - joining with radicals in the British labour movement such as Kier Hardie. Their voices however, were pretty much drowned out by the roar of the tidal wave of chauvinistic pro-war feeling sweeping through the British left (and through the wider European left too) at the time. There are, of course, certain historical parallels to be drawn here with the situation today - but I'm sure I don't have to spell it out.

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