Visible Women

Campaigners call for "criminal" suffragettes to be pardoned

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Emily Reynolds
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Tuesday 6th February marks 100 years since some women got the vote – and now some campaigners are calling for the women who fought for that right to be pardoned.

Campaigners from the Fawcett Society, relatives of suffragettes and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson have called for the women who fought for the right to vote to be pardoned. 

The campaigners argue that although the suffragettes “did engage in criminal acts”, the “fact is that they were not being listened to through the proper channels”. 

“Suffragette activism was for a noble cause and many of them became political prisoners,” said Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers.  “It would be a fitting tribute to pardon them now. They made such sacrifices so that we could all enjoy the rights we have today. In any meaningful sense of the word, they were not criminals.”

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has already backed the campaign.

“Voting was a value judgment, not an intrinsic right,” she wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “That inequality is one of the reasons why I support calls by family members to offer a posthumous pardon to those suffragettes charged with righting that wrong.” 

And Kate Barratt, whose great-great grandmother Alice Hawkins was arrested five times, said that the crimes merely show “how desperate the situation was at the time”. “And desperate times call for desperate measures”.  Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee, agreed, saying that “women were campaigning in the way that was most appropriate at the time”. 

“It would be good to recognise that while suffragettes used in some cases strong measures to achieve their aims, they were driven by the best motives,” she said. 

The first calls to pardon the women came in 2004, when then Home Secretary David Blunkett was lobbied to grant a royal pardon by 50 MPs including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But Blunkett rejected the petition, saying it would be a “dangerous precedent” in other instances of civil disobedience. 

Speaking at the time, Meg Munn, who chaired the Labour women’s parliamentary committee, said that the suffragettes “broke the law to make a point”. “It doesn’t seem to me that it makes a great deal of sense to be seeking a pardon. We owe a debt of gratitude to the suffragettes but we can’t rewrite history.”. 

Many of the women involved in the suffragette movement – who differed from the law-abiding suffragists – were arrested, and many subject to dire conditions once in jail. Women were groped and force fed in prison, and many were beaten.It’s well known that famous suffragettes – including Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison – were imprisoned for various acts of civil disobedience. But, according to records, there were more than 1,300 suffragette arrests between 1914 and 1916.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd has responded to the campaign, agreeing to “look at the individual cases”. 

“Instinctively I can see where that campaign is coming from so I will take a look and see if there is a proposal that I can take more seriously,” she said on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. “But in terms of pardoning for arson, for violence like that… that is a little trickier.”

Theresa May is also marking the 1918 centenary with a speech in Manchester – and her focus is on online abuse agains women, BAME and LGBT people, a which she calls “a threat to democracy”.

“It is online where some of the most troubling behaviour now occurs,” she will say. “As well as being places for empowering self-expression, online platforms can become places of intimidation and abuse.”

“This squanders the opportunity new technology affords us to drive up political engagement, and can have the perverse effect of putting off participation from those who are not prepared to tolerate the levels of abuse which exist.” 

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here.

Image: Rex Features