WOMAN'S SECRET by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 1
WOMAN'S SECRET *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
WITH all the sense of partisanship that the Women's Movement in England may arouse in certain natures, there is one occasional feature of it (a feature far more infrequent than has been alleged) that some of us deprecate. It is the assumption that men have consciously and deliberately initiated all the injustices from which women suffer. To assume this is at once to suppose men more powerful than they have ever been, and more wrong-headed.
So far as I know them, the great majority of the women leaders in reform, share a sense of painful wincing when they hear women talking as if all men were in a conscious conspiracy against the other sex.
Realising our own imperfections, a sense of something very like shame descends upon us on those occasions when we are asked to listen to pleas that would make out all women to be Angels of Light and all men Princes of Darkness.
Looking as far into the matter as we are able, we find the chief difference between ourselves and men to lie in the fact that men are expected to struggle against adverse circumstance, whereas they have made it our chief virtue not to struggle.
* Originally published by the Garden City Press, Letchworth, Eng.
Way Stations page 2
Nevertheless, when we begin to inquire into the origin of the order under which we live, we cannot believe in our hearts that men really ever got togther and said: "Go to! we'll enslave the women!" On the contrary, we find a difficulty in doubting that we all merely followed our lines of least resistance, and that these lines brought women so constantly to the exercise of patience at the cradle and the hearth, and brought men so constantly to the exercise of physical force on the battlefield or in the chase, that the hands of each became subdued to that they worked in.
Women's hands, as civilisation advanced, grew softer and smaller; man's grew larger and more muscular as they exercised their power to grip or strike. The arrangement between the sexes seems to have come about without blame or credit on either side. It was the best working arrangement the uncivilised could devise. The trouble with it to-day is that it long ago served its purpose, and became outworn. We all, men and women alike, have arrived at a place where we must devise something better. But we shall not come by any fair understanding of the past, nor by any helpful scheme of betterment for the future, till women realise and frankly admit that men, equally with themselves, are victims of circumstance.
The object of these pages is twofold. One is to put forward a plea which, if it were generally allowed, might serve better than anything else to do
Way Stations page 3
away with age-old misunderstanding. My second object is to set forth what seems to be the chief reason for the too-long continuance of the situation in which we find ourselves, and to suggest that the cause of it is woman's inarticulateness in the past.
To speak of her as inarticulate is not to forget that she has long been called the voluble sex. Her supposed inability to keep a secret is with many an unchallenged article of faith. Yet no secret has ever been better kept than the woman's, as those may dimly have divined who speak of the sex as enigmatic.
In every tongue, at various stages of the world's progress, we have had the man's views upon every subject within sight--including woman. What the woman thought of it all, no deepest delver in dusty archives, or among ruins of dead cities, has ever brought to light. The sagas, the histories, song, epitaph, and story--the world's garnered treasure of record, whether it be of the life of action or the life of the spirit--they are all but so many reflections of the mind of man.
From India to Egypt, from Greece to Yucatan, the learned are labouring to bring the Past to light. All over the civilised world are those who wait with eagerness to hear of the recovery of some lost master-piece--thrilling when the cable tells of a Menander speaking for himself at last, instead of through the mouths of others. All the learned world waits to hear what men of the Minoan civilisa-
Way Stations page 4
tion felt and thought. But the living may wait till they, too, are dust; or, while their brief day lasts, they may read all the books in all the tongues of earth, con every record in clay or stone or papyrus, and still know only half the story. Schliemann may uncover one Troy after another, six separate cities deep, and never come the nearer to what Helen thought. All that is not silence is the voice of man.
Some would wrest the significance of this to a reproach against women, seeing in it the most sweeping of all the indictments against her belated claim to stand--in civilised communities--on an equal footing with her brother man. But to read history so is to understand man's part in it as little as woman's.
If I were one of the "dominant sex," I think I would not be so sure, as many good men seem to be, that they are competent to speak for women. If I were a man, and cared to know the world I live in, I almost think it would make me a shade uneasy--the weight of that long silence of one-half the world; even more uneasy, if, being a man, I should come to realise the strange persistence of the woman in her immemorial rôle. When I should hear women chattering, I almost think I might not feel it so acute in me to note that with all their words they so seldom "say anything." What if they know better? What if it is by that means they have kept their secret? For let no one think the old rule of feminine dissimulation is even yet superseded.
Some measure we get of the profundity of that
Way Stations page 5
abyss of silence when we see, even in these emancipated times, how little of what woman really thinks and feels gets over the footlights of the world's big stage.
Let us remember it was only yesterday that women in any number began to write for the public prints. But in taking up the pen, what did this new recruit conceive to be her task? To proclaim her own or other women's actual thoughts and feelings? Far from it. Her task, as she naturally and even inevitably conceived it, was to imitate as nearly as possible the method, but above all the point of view, of man.
She wrote her stories as she fashioned her gowns and formed her manners, and for the same reasons; in literature following meekly in the steps of the forgotten Master, the first tribal story-teller, inventor of that chimera, "the man's woman."
There was no insuperable difficulty in the way of her playing "the sedulous ape," as is amply demonstrated by the serried [GLOSS]ranks of competent and popular woman-novelists.
She is still held to be in no way so highly flattered as by hearing that men can hardly credit her book to be the work of a woman.
The realisation that she had access to a rich and as yet unrifled storehouse may have crossed her mind, but there were cogent reasons for concealing her knowledge. With that wariness of ages, which has come to be instinct, she contented herself with
Way Stations page 6
echoing the old fables, presenting to a man-governed world puppets as nearly as possible like those that had from the beginning found such favour in men's sight.
Contrary to the popular impression, to say in print what she thinks is the last thing the woman-novelist our journalist is commonly so rash as to attempt. In print, even more than elsewhere (unless she is reckless), she must wear the aspect that shall have the best chance of pleasing her brothers. Her publishers are not women. Even the professional readers and advisers of publishers are men. The critics in the world outside, men. Money, reputation--these are vested in men. If a woman would win a little at their hands, she must walk warily, and not too much displease them. But I put it to my brothers: Is that the spirit of the faithful chronicler? Is it not far more the spirit of the notorious flatterers and liars who, in the times gone by, addressed those abject prefaces to powerful patrons--testimonials which make us laugh or blush according to our temper? Little as we can judge of those princes and nobles from the starving men of letters who licked their boots, hardly more can men discover to-day what women really think of them from the fairy-tales of feminine spinning, however much the spinster "makes faces," as Stevenson would say, and pretends, "Now I am being Realistic!"
What she is really doing is her level best to play
Way Stations page 7
the man's game, and seeing how nearly like him she can do it. So conscious is she it is his game she is trying her hand at, that she is prone to borrow his very name to set upon her title-page. She does so, not only that she may get courage from it to talk deep and go a-swashbuckling now and then, but for the purpose of reassuring the man. Here is something quite in your line, she implies; for lo! my name is "George."
Her instinct for the mask is abundantly justified.
No view is more widely accepted than that every woman's book is but a naive attempt to extend her own little personality.
We do not commonly find the man-made hero confounded with the author. When a man takes some small section of the arc of a character or a dramatic situation, and (capable if intellectual honesty, and precisely of leaving himself out of the Saga) if he follows the curve so rigidly that he describes the complete circle, his faithful projection of the illusion of life is rewarded by his critics' saying: "What a power of imagination the fellow has!"
If a woman but attempts this honourable task--an affair of strong self-control and of almost mathematical accuracy--if she happens to bring it off, her critics pat her on the back with an absent-minded air, while they look about for "personal experience."
Or they do not even look about. They are content to say: "This is so like the real thing it must
Way Stations page 8
be a piece of verbatim reporting, done by a person whose merit is a retentive memory. These life-like scenes are autobiography. The heroine is naturally the writer's self, made to look as she thinks she looks, or as she wishes to Heaven she might!"
The opinions, the aspirations of this character or that--they are the woman-novelists's own. The fact that, as the books multiply, her heroines are found to be widely different in outer aspect and in spirit--that is a trifle easily negligible. If there is no heroine, why, then the woman-writer must be the boy of the story. Otherwise it must be that she has imagination, which is plainly preposterous.
If a woman had written "Macbeth," her critics would have believed she must have murdered her husband; or, if he wasn't her husband, the more shame!
Until society is differently constituted let no one expect that women in general will adventure lightly upon truth-telling in their books.
The older generation may even have the excuse that the doom of the false witness has overtaken them. In the end they believe their own lies.
Even the young and clear-eyed may stand abashed before the great new task, and for another generation the woman may still write her book but to weave another veil, the while she makes her bread--or perhaps her cake.
If the faculty for telling the truth is in itself a kind of genius, as has been said, the use of our mere
Way Stations page 9
talent for reproducing the current ideals has certainly been the safer exercise. The fact cannot be too strongly emphasised that whatever special knowledge we had, whatever was new to the world of letters or disquieting to private life, women writers kept to themselves as successfully as did the Egyptian women buried thirty centuries ago beneath those tons of granite whereon men graved their version of the ended story.
Of one form of testimonial man has been chary. Often touching ready to invest some woman with every gentle virtue, he has usually made an exception of humour. Some show of excuse he has had from two causes. Humour is of humble origin, ethically speaking, and seems to have been sired by cruelty--the pleasure in another's pain or loss of dignity that found diversion in the ruder kinds of horseplay. Not improbably woman's natural sympathy and her sheltering compassion may have prevented her from sharing the bumpkin view of comedy, which, in the spacious times behind us, found in Jew-baiting and insanity side-splitting entertainments. Woman may be pardoned for wondering if it may not have been in part her humaner instinct about some of the stock jokes of the race that earned her the reputation of a constitutional lack of humour.
In these slightly more enlightened days, when the less inarticulate--called by men "the exceptional woman"--has been allowed this quality of humour
Way Stations page 10
so long withheld, she has taken her "exceptionalness" here, as elsewhere, on trust. For any wide knowledge of her own sex is, perhaps, the newest of all woman's acquisitions. Almost every woman has known certain men very well indeed. Other women have been, even for her, the enigma they remained to men.
Now we begin to see that this same sense of humour--being a "small-arm," light, and adapted to delicate handling--seems to be an even commoner blade in the feminine armoury than in that loftier hall where are ranged the heavy artillery--the crossbows and blunderbusses of the other sex.
But since woman's field of action has been the home, she found out millenniums ago that humour there makes for success only under the strictest rules.
She has learned to welcome it as a sign of unbending in her lord. She has even cultivated it (in him) by a process, pelican-like, of offering her own breast; or, to modify the figure, she made her contribution to the domestic cheer by submitting herself to be the target for his pleasantry.
She must have early seen how, when the bow is in the other hand, and her arrow finds him out, the point is so little appreciated that she has been fain to give up marksmanship.
If she needed consoling for the resultant rumour of her lack of skill, she has found it in the reflection that no man has ever been known to long for humour
Way Stations page 11
in his nearest relations, least of all in the wife of his bosom.
The notion that woman is without this faculty is merely one of the many ways in which men advertise her success in keeping her mental processes to herself. A slave's accomplishment, perhaps. Certainly women have learnt few lessons as well.
What wonder that the age we live in is significant and revolutionary beyond any other, since for the first time since civilisation's dawn the world is beginning--barely beginning--to be told what the secretive half of the suman race really thinks and feels.
That we are not monkeys disporting ourselves in trees is due, so say the wise, to the home-making proclivities of one branch of the anthropoid family. This home-making proclivity was nothing else than the female's instinct to provide the best possible environment for her young--an added tenderness for those weakest breeding in her an added inventiveness.
This was the frail-seeming but sure foundation on which arose the many mansions of human achievement.
A case might be made out by anyone so foolish as to wish to divide responsibility and to apportion merit--a case to prove that civilisation is peculiarly women's affair. Certainly we fail to see how the upbuilding of the race could have come about without its passing through two phases, which owed their initiation not to masculine but to femi-
Way Stations page 12
nine development. These two aspects of the same significant tendency were:--
1. The woman's giving up of brute competition (where she excelled, be it remembered);
2. Her specialising in the home (accepting the yoke of silence and of service).
Woman purchased civilisation at the price of her individual liberty.
When our immemorial forefathers and foremothers lived in cave and tree-crotch, the female asked no consideration and got no quarter, not even in the performance of her vital function--she had no need of either. She was (in spite of the drain on her physical resources) quite equal to the task of taking care of both herself and her progeny.
So well able was she to bear the double burden--this major share in the perpetuation of the species--that where it was a question of protecting her young, she was accounted a foe more terrible that any male of her kind. 1
No nonsense in those days about her being the weaker sex.
No hint of her being a creature for whom special allowances must be made--till she, the first specialist, began to specialise. Not till she gave up gambolling in the airy leafage and took to making a home; to nursing not alone the young, but the sick and the
1 This was published before Mr. Kipling's tribute to "the sex."
Way Stations page 13
old; making rude coverings as shelter from the cold, brooding long upon the dead, domesticating fire for her first handmaiden; not till then did she cease to compete on the lower plane of brute strength and cunning with the male.
If these first women, making their wholly instinctive choice, had not "chosen" the keeping of the hearthstone warm by staying at home to feed the fire; if women of the past had not sat by the sick and suffered with the dying, not only would there never have been a Woman Question, there would never have been a Civilisation.
Now, civilisation means control. It means a harnessing of forces in external nature and in the spirit of mankind. Woman, with the child to teach her, practised the first lessons in the New Learning on herself. She engraved the strange new maxims on her savage heart: Be patient; be patient; and again and always, and down to the dark, mysterious end, be patient. Above all, let the fierce grown-up-child, man, suppose he is a hero and a king. He is above all things vain; and if he is to do his new work of bringing in the food and defending the house against the enemy--if he is to do these things in good heart--he must be allowed to think himself a monstrous fine fellow. No douche of cold criticism or shaft of wit must be turned upon him. That they sometimes were; that the early woman now and then forgot her part, and was promptly reminded of it
Way Stations page 14
by an exercise of brute force, is proved by those amenities of mediaeval argument--the ducking stool and the gossips' bridle.
Since her tongue was the one thing men feared most, no variety of female has had more scorn heaped on her than the woman who had a grievance and dared talk about it. The silent woman was the paragon. Oh, well for the man who praised her that he could not see her heart! The truth about himself and the mind of his mate, these were things to be hidden. For the rest, he was ruled by the two primal hungers, though clumsily and at cost. His greed in both paid him back in disease. If even to-day he explodes in rage at hearing fragments of the long-suppressed truth, who can blame the instinct of self-preservation that has held the woman silent hitherto upon inconvenient themes.
From those dim ages wherein the beginnings of speech took shape--the day when the first phrases were spoken instead of barked or brayed or chattered--from that day to this, amongst women, they have been few and far between who betrayed the conspiracy of silence about the things that matter. Innocent or crafty, she has filled the void with pretty twittering. In all recorded history only a single voice here and there to rouse in men a gaping wonder and a deep disquiet. Then all made smooth and soothed again by some form of that phrase, "An exceptional woman," with the prompt rider, "sexless." And so you others, beware! Since it is by
Way Stations page 15
sex you live, take heed lest in some unwary hour you, too, become exceptional, and so, by a well-known philological necessity, decline through "singularity" to "egregiousness" and "insolence."
Since I have admitted that hitherto men have had little opportunity of knowing that their point of view is not the only possible one, I ought to add that they do not make the presentation of another an easy matter. There is no woman, I imagine, however old or isolated, who does not value the good opinion of men. Her mistake has been that she has valued it beyond a thing more valuable.
Many a mere looker-on at the game must have been stung by the reception accorded the little handful of women who have ventured into the public arena, not as artists, story-tellers, or mere commentators upon manners, but as earnest and practical contributors to the gravest problems of life.
If upon those who are erroneously held to represent the prevailing temper of the Forward Party among women--if, upon a few, a sense of the discouragement administered by men presses so hard that, here and there, it finds expression in bitterness--that result is surely natural enough.
My point is that it is not only "natural." Like most unreflective, instinctive revelations it has its special significance. This particular manifestation is perhaps more valuable than even the inquiring mind has realised.
If men find themselves publicly represented by
Way Stations page 16
women as being not very noble or very effectual, they should see in the circumstance a proof merely that a woman here and there has followed the masculine example in taking certain instances for the type of creation's mould.
Yet here again we have a case where it has made a vast difference when the shoe was on the other foot.
When a man proclaims his poor opinion of women, lumping them all together in a general condemnation (after the fashion of certain so-called philosophers), saying the worst he can of all because he has had bad luck with one or two, he is not told that he is an hysterical or a narrow-minded creature.
Misogynist views have not been held to be so much a failure of intelligence or good temper in the man, as a failure, black and all-unpardonable, in women.
No one seems to have resented the ludicrous unfairness of the Kundry motif in Art. Public opinion canonised the superficial Augustine, who in his ignoble estimate of women hesitated to spare even his longsuffering and most excellent mother.
He, too, was called a saint who, with such generous urbanity, said of woman that she was: "A necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic peril, a deadly fascination, and a painted ill." [NOTE]
If we do not blame the disappointed man for thinking meanly of women, neither should we in justice, nor in logic, blame the woman who has found men falling too far below her ideal for her to accept
Way Stations page 17
stolidly her disillusionment. If man has not scrupled to show his seamy side to woman, why should woman scruple to admit the seamy side? Will the world ever arrive at a fair estimate of both sides till the day comes when woman presents her view without fear and without reproach?
In the occasional bitterness--so much less common among the Suffragists, for instance, than has been supposed--there may be for the wise man a degree of enlightenment that soft words could never bring. His enlightenment may be hoped quietly to rectify the current view of woman's contentment with her false position. In default of such peaceful readjustment, woman's reaction from the enforced attitude of subservience can hardly fail to result in making more general and more prolonged such temporary unfairness as may already exist in her judgment of men.
The swing of the pendulum to the opposite extreme from the old deification of the masculine principle, might even (contrary to our faith) seem to be the only way of arriving at that fairness of each to each, the equilibrium of the future.
Which consideration brings me to my plea: that men should, for our common good, embrace such opportunity as comes their way of taking a turn at trying to understand some of the points of view possible to the opposite sex. I would ask them to remember that if our parts had been reversed, if woman had been the dominant partner, men
Way Stations page 18
would have exercised precisely those arts of dissimulation and of long silence, alternated with brief outbursts of bitterness, that always characterise the unfree. When the few women who can bring themselves to speak out plain, do so in men's hearing, even those who wish well only to themselves--if there are such men--should listen with a little of the patience that, for centuries untold, women have bestowed upon masculine utterances.
The fairer-minded will remember, too, that exposition is an art difficult to the novice. As in the other arts, skill in this comes only by the practice we have been denied. Advocacy is a profession whose doors are still, in most countries, closed on women. Our brothers must therefore try to see through our imperfections of presentment something of that truth we have so long and so religiously withheld.
IN the year 1905 the English public was rudely reminded of the fact that there were little groups of people, here and there about the world, who believed in the principle of woman suffrage.
Up to October of that year this belief had not seriously inconvenienced anyone.
On the eve of the return to power of the Liberal party a startling and, as it proved, highly inconvenient question was asked at a political meeting in Manchester
Way Stations page 19
--a question which now sounds natural, necessary, modest.
After listening to the array of fair promises made to men, two delegates of the Women's Social and Political Union asked what women had to hope from the incoming Government.
The great majority of the general public never knew that the press reported the incident unfaithfully. Perhaps the reporters themselves did not know that when the meeting was announced the women had sent a request to the speaker of the evening, asking him to appoint a time to receive a deputation. Certainly the public did not know that this written request was not answered, nor even acknowledged.
Nor did the mass of women understand that putting questions at politcal meetings (in the person who was there precisely for the purpose of outlining his party's plans, and presenting its claims to confidence) was a common practice--jealousy claimed and respectfully accorded--to men. We did not know that on the evening in question men had, as usual, interjected their questions, wise or foolish, and had been answered with patience and consideration.
Even had we known the precise facts, I, for one, would not have understood their full sugnificance, any more than did those in charge of the meeting.
Nothing is easier than to be wise after the event. Each generation has not only to pay the penalty of its own blindness and blundering; each has to pay the "death duty" on that legacy of blindness and blundering which has been left them by those who are gone.
In common with the promoters of the meeting, who smiled, or frowned, at the question: "Will the Liberal
Way Stations page 20
Government give votes to women?"--the general public either denounced or laughed at this sudden intrusion of the other sex into the public counsels of men.
Few women had, as yet, any conception of the gulf betweeen men's civility in private to women whom they know, and their incivility in public to women they do not know. Half a dozen highly instructive years were to pass before a Chancellor of the Exchequer was to amaze and further enlighten English women by inciting the baser elements in public gatherings to maltreatment worse than brutish of women whose crime was their offering an inconvenient reminder of political promises unfulfilled. Seven years were to pass before the secret contempt of the public man for women's concern about public affairs was to find expression in the words of the member of the Illinois legislature voting against a children's Bill urged by Jane Addams and other experts--"those in favour are just a parcel of women."
In 1905 few of us would have believed in the possibility of such an act, or such an utterance, from an accredited public servant. Prior to 1905 all but a negligible fraction of women (and practically the whole masculine population) shared the belief that the half of the world which had control of public affairs, had in addition not only the ability but the will to safeguard the interests of women and children equally with the interests of men.
If the protest against this view had not been silenced for the moment behind prison walls, the echo of the voices raised in Manchester would have been long in reaching the outside world. The prison wall acted as a sounding-board. Many of us who did not yet understand the message could not escape from puzzling at its
Way Stations page 21
meaning. We heard that one of the women belonged to that class supposed to be the special charge and concern of the Liberal statesman--a mill hand, whose knowledge of women's needs was gained among the textile workers. The organised women in this industry, to the number of 96,000, had for some time been patiently asking for the same power to safeguard their lives, as men of their class possessed.
The other voice raised at the Manchester meeting was that of a girl who had distinguished herself at the university--the daughter of a well-known man who had lived and died labouring for the public good.
Both of these "delegates" were quite young; both gave an impression of being physically frail. What, we asked, lay behind their public insistence upon a view shared, after all, as even the casual reader knew, by John Stuart Mill and certain other intelligent, reputable people? What was involved in this old demand, that young and able women should press it, in spite of blows in public, and the vague horrors of prison?
The question was answered for those who followed the English suffrage movement in the succeeding months.
My own experience is that of may others who had little understanding of and no particle of sympathy with the first militant act. The speeches, lectures, and explanatory notes which follow show how from point to point I, and persons like myself, travelled the road of enlightenment.
The year preceding the Prisoners' Banquet (given by the older Suffrage Societies to members of the new) saw the first active opposition during elections ever offered by women to the Government in power.
Way Stations page 22
Admonishment on the part of the general public that this course should be pursued in the face of constant abuse, gave way, inch by inch, to a recognition that there must be more in this question of the vote than the mass of women had suspected. Those of us who were still disposed to discount the Suffragist's insistence on the urgency of the matter, could no longer doubt its importance whien we saw the strange shifts, the hypocrisies and brutalities in which certain men took refuge rather than concede the point, or even debate it fairly.
I do not for a moment say that all opposition was of this nature. But there was enough of this, enough of every kind, to convince a growing number that, for good or ill, the privilege of putting a cross on a ballot paper conferred a power as far-reaching as the roots of civilised society. Not so much the militant women as those men who employed any and every means to drown the militant voices were responsible for sharpening our ears.
The first great meeting of the newly constituted Liberal forces took place under the leadership of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman on December 21st, 1905, at the Albert Hall. The women present who dared ask that persons who are taxed should also be represented were flung out. Up and down the country they and others went, reminding Liberal leaders of Liberal principles, and paying for their temerity in abuse and bruised bodies.
The non-militant Suffragists fared no better in their endeavour to win attention to the wishes of the unenfranchised. The Women's Co-operative Guild, with 20,700 members; the Women's Liberal Federation (76,000); The Scottish Women's Liberal Federation (15,000); The North of England Weavers' Association (100,000); The British Women's Temperance Association (109,-
Way Stations page 23
890); The Independent Labour Party (20,000); the Textile Workers (96,000) and others joined in a manifesto urging the need of giving women the protection of direct representation in Parliament.
Many a woman learned her first lesson in present-day political values through realising that the earnest prayer of those tens of thousands of orderly, patient women had not been heard so clearly, or accorded a hundredth part of the attention won by the two militant voices crying in the wilderness of Manchester Liberals.
In anticipation of the opening of Parliament, The Women's Social and Political Union, with a capital of £2, opened a branch in London. Those who get their information from the newspapers might suppose, then as now, that the new Suffragists confined their activities to disturbing other people's meetings. As a matter of fact they were tireless in organising meetings of their own.
The wrote to the new Premier to ask if he would receive a deputation. The new Premier regretted that he could not spare the time. The new Suffragists regretted his mistaken view of the relative claims upon his time. They gave him notice of their intention to call at the official residence. In spite of discouragement, they succeeded in giving a message to a secretary. To make sure of its not being forgotten, they wrote again, asking that a time might be appointed for a personal interview. The answer returned was evasive. The Suffragettes, as they were now popularly called, went once more to Downing Street. The police were summoned, and the women were arrested. They were, however, promptly released upon the intervention of the Premier, who now agreed to receive a deputation.
Before the date fixed for receiving the representatives
Way Stations page 24
of the various societies, a Woman Suffrage resolution was brought before the House of Commons. On the evening of April 25th, 1906, this resolution was being talked out with every circumstance of indignity and insult, while a gallery-full of women looked down through the grille upon their champions and protectors.
The authorities were, not unnaturally perhaps, afraid of some demonstration of disgust. As the time drew near for closing the debate, and before the indignation of the women found any open expression, they saw the back of the gallery filling with policemen. Realising that their time for action was now reduced to a few moments, two women called out to the legislators below: "We refuse to have the resolution talked out." "Divide! Divide!" Through the obnoxious grille a third woman thrust a little flag and the now famous legend "Votes for Women" made its first appearance in the House of Commons.
The gallery was focribly cleared, and those who could not see below the surface of things said and believed (with a simplicity often displayed since) that but for the impatience of the Suffragettes the resolution would have been carried, and women would have promptly been invited to inscribe their names on the parliamentary register.
The deputation to the Prime Minister on May 19th elicited the fact of his belief in and sympathy with the cause. Besides that--nothing but a recommendation of patience (a recommendation which he afterwards rescinded in favour of a policy of "pestering").
The Suffragettes left Downing Street to assemble a little later in Trafalgar Square. Similar indignation meetings were repeated throughout London and the prov-
Way Stations page 25
inces in the days that followed. The old Suffragist policy of wasting time and energy in making ineffectual friends was definitely abandoned by the W.S.P.U. The new policy of fixing responsibility where it belonged was vigorously prosecuted. In the course of demonstrations at the meetings, or the houses of official persons, more and more women were arrested and sent to prison.
Every demonstration made the issue clear to new friends. Every arrest won fresh recruits. The release of each batch of prisoners was the signal for a great meeting of welcome.
These functions were presided over by Mrs. or Miss Christabel Pankhurst, or by Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, who with her husband had come into the Union shortly after the establishment of the London Branch.
This is not the place for any detailed account of the two chief founders of the Union, Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. But I am sure they would agree with me that nothing had happened since the founding that was so fortunate for the cause as Mrs. Pankhurst's enlisting the sympathy and support of the Pethick Lawrences--the woman with her genius for public life, her imagination, and her fervour; the man with his distinguished qualities of mind and heart, his level-headed business capacity, combined with a generosity of spirit which made his gifts of money to the Union seem small beside those gifts of greater price.
In spite of new and stringent rules governing the admission of women into even the outer courts of the House of Commons, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and others accompanied Mrs. Pankhurst to the lobby on October 3rd, 1906, the day of the reassembling of Parliament. A message was sent to the Prime Minister, through the
Way Stations page 26
Chief Whip, asking whether the Government proposed to do anything that session in the direction of granting votes to women. The Liberal Whip returned with the answer that the Government could not hold out the smallest hope of their taking any step in the direction desired by the women.
Upon this, a protest took place in the lobby. Some of the women stood on the setees and adressed the throng which was waiting to interview members. Mrs. Pankhurst was thrown to the ground, and among those subsequently arrested were Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, Miss Annie Kenny, Mrs. Cobden Sanderson, and many others. At Rochester Row a curious and instructive trial ended in the prisoners being sent to Holloway Gaol.
The by-election at Huddersfield presented a good opportunity for acquainting another section of the public with the Government's interpretation of Liberal principles. The size and success of the Women's Social and Political Union's meetings, the inconvenience to Liberal speakers of trying to explain why Richard Cobden's daughter was in prison for the crime of showing that she had inherited that concern about the public welfare for which Liberals revered the memory of her father--these causes led the Government to liberate Mrs. Cobden Sanderson and her companions before the expiration of their sentence.
The Constitutional Suffragists, able at that time to see the service which was rendered to the old cause by these new adherents, determined to give the released prisoners a public welcome.
That the principle of militancy had, in the early days, the sympathy and support of the National Union of Suffrage Societies is a fact recalled by the circumstances
Way Stations page 27
in which the following speech was delivered, and is one of the two reasons why an otherwise unimportant utterance may be printed. The other reason is that Liberal objectors to militancy were herein reminded that out of the mass of women asking for the vote (women of divers temperaments, upbringing, and political creeds), the section most furiously attacked by Liberals were those members of the Women's Social and Political Union who showed a disposition to agree with one of Mr. W. E. Gladstone's most famous utterances--quoted at the Savoy banquet for the first time in connection with the Women's Movement. This quotation has been recalled often since, and with peculiar effectiveness in the 1908 trial of the Suffrage leaders, during which Mr. Lloyd George and the then Home Secretary, Mr. Herbert Galdstone, were put into the witness-box, cross-examined by Miss Pankhurst, and reminded of the words of the father of one man, and greatest among the leaders of the party to which both witnesses belonged.
Available on the web since June 1999