AT THE ALBERT HALL by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 304
AT THE ALBERT HALL *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Miss Kenney, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I rise for the purpose of seconding the resolution.
No one, of however little authority, can speak in public at a time like this without a sense of responsibility.
That sense has taken some of us in these last days to the police-courts. We watched, as the evidence of the new solidarity among women; glimpses of that resolve which has so perplexed the easy-liver, the resolve not to acquiesce any longer in certain evils which the mass of men leave untouched; some evils the mass of men do not want mentioned; evils which many men would like the happier women not even to know. Well, those evils are beginning only beginning, to be understood; and that is the reason the prisons are filling.
I spoke of responsibility. Those of us who have spent days in court and in visiting His Majesty's prisons, are not likely to feel our sense of responsibility lessened.
But I think we are in better cheer about Woman
* Speech delivered March 28, 1912.
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Suffrage than any others, perhaps, who have that Cause at heart.
I wish everyone here, instead of listening to me, might have shared in my illumination. I wish you had seen Mrs. Pankhurst! Try to imagine her, waiting over two weeks for facilities to prepare her defence--facilities freely given to the swindler and the fomenter of a devastating war. Imagine the magistrate telling Mrs. Pankhurst last week that she had nothing to complain of, as she now had those facilities; although the fact was, that by a series of, let us say, misunderstandings between the Home Office and the prison authorities, the prisoner was still without facilities. Let us have this quite clear. We are not urging anything we cannot substantiate. Either the Home Office was misinformed, or the prison authorities misinterpreted the order. The point is that Mrs. Pankhurst was still without those facilities. When, on two separate days, she rose in court and told the magistrate the facts, what was his answer? " Next case!" I wish you had seen Mrs. Lawrence! Best of all is to see her here. 1 But whether in prison or in the dock, she was an object-lesson in calmness for excited editors and hysterical doctors. 2
1 Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, to the great surprise of the public and even of their closest friends, had been realeased on bail that afternoon, and though prohibited from taking any part in the meeting, they sat upon the platform.
2 That morning had appeared Sir Almroth Wright's ill-famed letter to "The Times."
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I wish as much as anything that you could have come to see the man we are all proud to call our friend--the man who for the sake of this Cause has been in Brixton Prison. Members of the Union do not need to be told that sex-antagonism is not active among us, whatever may be the case elsewhere. Of few things are we so proud as the sort of friendship men have shown this Union. What other Suffrage Society has had its aims so kept before the House of Commons? What other body of women can boast men-freinds who are ready to give up personal ambition, to sacrifice money, peace of mind, to risk life and limb? This Union has such friends. But if not for the wider gratitude we owe to men, no member of the Union but will be able to renew her faith in brotherhood by thinking of Mr. Lawrence.
These last days, then, have emphasised the fact that the authorities are trying to crush a spirit that is indomitable. We are told that the Militants "miscalculated" the anger and resentment they had aroused. No, not "miscalculated"--for their calculating was occupied with another problem. They are indifferent to anger and resentment. When a section of the public comes to that frame of mind, the situation is serious. Those who love law and order owe more than they are aware to the Militant leaders. You know the acts the leaders have sanctioned. You do not know the deeds they have prevented.
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The authorities have withdrawn the leaders. A body of people, inflamed by a sense of injustice, is left without those captains to whose direction the rank and file are accustomed to look.
Well, that, too, is a repsonsibility. For the essence of this agitation is that patience in the eyes of certain women has not only ceased to be a virtue--it has ceased to be decent. You may chose to be patient in bearing your own misery; but is patience in bearing other people's misery so fine a thing that you must maltreat those who refuse?
And when you have maltreated them, what then? The agitation will go on. The Suffrage forces, as we have seen, can be led from dock and prison. They can be inspired by a leader not only out of our sight. A leader with the power of making herself invisible to all her enemies. Yet she is very present to all her friends,--that spirit of air and fire called Christabel. The warrant to arrest her has given her seven-league boots--has given her wings. She has obviously been in Persia. At least so I gather from the late Financial Agent to that Government. He has been telling an audience in America of the extraordinary service to the cause of liberty recently given by Persian women. They have been not only the sustaining--they have been the active, the "militant" force. That word militant gave the secret away. We were not surprised after that to hear the Financial Agent say he had never seen those
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ladies' faces. They always wore their veils. One was probably a motor-veil.3
The wandering spirit of Militancy is bolder when she reaches China. You heard what she was doing there last week. "The Times" has told us how the Chinese Suffragettes had all of a sudden grown dissasitified with the lukewarm approval of Votes for Women recently ratified by the National Assmebly at Nanking. If we failed to recognise the accent of that dissatisfaction, we should have recognised the hand in what followed. The Chinese Suffragettes, says "The Times," broke the windows, mauled the guards, and finally terrorised the Assembly, although soldiers had been called in for protection. The account ends by saying that the debate on Woman's Suffrage had to be reopened. Is not the inference clear?
There is no country in Europe unvisited by this wandering spirit. To its effect upon America I can testify. There, without any slavish copying of method, the Americans have taken fire from the English torch. The flames have spread from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. No fair-minded person can deny that the women of those two great states, the State of Washington and the State of California, owe their political freedom to the New Spirit--the spirit typified
3 In the many rumours of Miss Pankhurst having been seen here, there, and yonder, she was usually described as wearing a motor-veil.
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for us in the name of Christabel. And this spirit that ranges the hemispheres is going to be shut up in Holloway Prison!
While we are gathered here, certain persons in "another place" are also making speeches. One difference between them and us is that with the power to do so much more, "friends" in that other place have rested content with making speeches about Woman Suffrage for over forty years! Oh, how much more those gentlemen must like making speeches than women do! And we know those speeches. All the way from Westminster to Kensington we can hear them. The academic arguments in favour; the more passionate objections against. What are they in essence, those objections?
Called up by a dozen names, they may be summed up in one. Fear!
Fear has had much to do with retarding justice. The Tories are "afraid" the majority of women may turn Radical.
The Liberals are "afraid" of the well-known Conservative element in women.
Your Indian administrators are "afraid" of what the subject races will think of the superior race.
Your very soldier is not ashamed to own himself "afraid"--afraid of women's love of peace, while the peace-lover is "afraid" of her susceptibility to military glory.
Afraid! Afraid! As I have said, fear was our pitfall, too. And that is why we do well to em-
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phasise the greatest victory gained so far in this fight. What is our greatest victory? Our greatest victory is the victory over fear. We have learned, at last, where to look for our worst enemies. Not in the House of Commons. Not in the House of Lords. Not in the Anti-Suffrage League. Not even in the inert mass of the unawakened. Our worst enemies are those which walk in that dark legion recruited out of our own fears. These enemies have a hundred disguises to deceive us. When we have beaten them off the ground of our individual danger, they re-appear under the cloak of our genuine fear for others. We have to remember that in the long climb up from barbarism. Courage was always leading us on--Cowardice was always dragging us back. There is nothing so paralysing in its effect, nothing so de-humanising as fear. It is the father of cruelty. In the early days of all the races of the earth--before the altar where the human sacrifice lay bleeding, crouched that figure of Fear. When patriot men had driven it out of their hearts, when the better thinkers found that the dominant world-force was not malevolent, but benevolent--still the great mass of women, being shut out from that wider knowledge which is experience, not allowed to face the common enemies of society in the open--women became, as those who hide and evade must always become, the special prey of fear.
Well, a great breach has been newly made in fear's
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last stronghold. We may fairly doubt if ever before, in so short a time, so many fears have been slain. To have routed that dark host, to have found (as hundreds and hundreds of women have) that they cannot any more be made afraid--that is the outstanding victory. I do not mean that they no longer shrink from some specific act. I mean far more. I mean that, however they decide to conduct their campaign, they are delivered from the old tyranny of dreading pains and penalties.
I should like to say that I feel there is a very steadying quality in this fearlessness. It has nothing in common with that miscalled courage which breaks out in any cruel fashion. It is too full of confidence for that--and of confidence too well-placed. Nothing but doubt of our sure triumph, only despair could deaden the minds of women to the sanctity of human life. For any of us, who think we understand the value of life, to seem to join with those who hold life cheap would be to desert our colours. We should be resurrecting that fear which we had buried.
One last instance of the tyranny of fear, and I have done. A Cabinet Minister who seemed to be "almost persuaded" asked in private some time ago why England should be the first Great Power to try this great experiment. One could only say that it seemed natural that the Mother of Parliaments should lead the way. But I had better authority than I
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knew. I might have answered in the terms of that proud boast of Milton's--and I do not believe the passion of patriotism has ever found finer expression--"It would not" (Milton said)--"it would not be the first nor the second time since our Ancient Druides . . . that England hath had this honour vouchsafed from Heaven: to give out Reformation to the world."
THE debate on the revised Conciliation Bill had been postponed in order that the Government might continue its earnest, its passionate attempt at a sympathetic settlement of the miners' claims. On the day when the unsatisfactory issue of the arbitration conference was made public a changed Prime Minister appeared in the House. Under obvious physical strain and stress of emotion, Mr. Asquith announced the failure of his efforts to compose the bitter quarrel between employers and employed. The newspapers said the Prime Minister made acknowledgment of this failure with tears in his eyes. He was talking about a situation he had studied closely, a problem to which he had given the best of his insight and evidence-weighing faculty--qualities so conspicuous in him when summoned to the service of men's affairs.
The day which had long been allocated to the Women's Bill was devoted to pressing through the House a measure to enforce by Act of Parliament that "minimum wage" to which the owners of mines and collieries had contemptuously refused assent.
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In view of the public exigency, women made no protest at being put off yet again. But they remembered that this was the seventh occasion upon which one Government and another, driven by no such exigency, had taken for other business the day appointed for consideration of a Woman Suffrage Bill.
No charge is so often made against Suffragists as that of impatience. Yet they were expected to look on, and did look on, while the impatience of men with votes put the country to a cost greater in one day than the sum total in all the years of women's agitation. We remembered that the principle of the minimum wage was a newer, stranger portent on the horizon of the public mind in England, than was the principle of Woman Suffrage. Since 1870 thirty Bills advocating the Suffrage had been discussed in Parliament, and on seven occasions had passed a second reading. But women were "impatient."
Under the goad of men holding in reserve a vote which could decide the fortunes of the Liberal party at the next election, the Government found itself impelled to rush through a piece of legislation so new, radical, and hotly opposed as the Minimum Wage--a measure which no one in power would have introduced at that time for justice' sake, a measure which many men of both parties predicted would deal a death-blow to British trade, and bring about the downfall of the Empire.
In the teeth of opposition the Government forced this measure through the Commons in a few days.
On March 28th the Conciliation (Suffrage) Bill was defeated by Irish Nationalists in co-operation with certain Liberals who had called themselves Suffragists.
The Irish point of view was clear enough. After the
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last election but one, the party in power in the British Parliament and been returned so shorn of strength that the Liberal vote alone was insufficient to keep Liberals in office. Here was the opportunity for which the Irish Nationalists had long been waiting. Long they had stood on the Liberal doorstep, hat in hand. The day was come at last when Liberals must wait on the Irish. Their leader, Mr. John Redmond, was not slow to avail himself of the situation. He was openly greeted (if I remember, in the House of Commons itself) as "Dictator"--not alone of Irish Nationalist politics, but of every move in British "Liberal" legislation.
The subsequent history of the fortunes of Woman Suffrage in the House was closely involved with the need of the Irish to keep the present Government in power (at least till Home Rule was law), and the sore need on Mr. Asquith's part of Irish support to keep the weakened Liberal majority from extinction. This interdependence had remained after the last election, which saw but a single seat added to the Liberal forces.
Before the significance of Irish influence had been realised by the other Suffrage Societies, an astute emissary of the Women's Social and Political Union returned from Ireland with private information to the effect that Nationalists were regarding the Suffrage question with acute anxiety.
Apart from the fact that, in the case of the Nationalists, long-nursing of a major political passion had weakened their interest in other reforms, the notorious disagreement in the British Cabinet between Pro- and Anti-Suffragists intensified Irish dread of the disintegrating influence exercised upon artificial solidarity by this foundation-shaking question. Had the Conciliation
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Bill, or any other Woman Suffrage measure, been introduced by the Government, or been known to enjoy the favour of the Prime Minister, none so quick as the Irish to support it through thick and thin. As matters stood, Irish concern for a Prime Minister pledged to Home Rule stood tacitly committed to rescue Mr. Asquith from his embarrassment, and to sweep the probable stumbling-block out of the Nationalist path. There is reason to believe that Irish policy in this affair had been cut and dried months before the Conciliation Bill came before the House. Eight months later Lord Robert Cecil asked in Parliament: "How came it about, if the Nationalists had always been free to vote as they pleased on the Women's Franchise question, that some of their number voted against the Conciliation Bill, and that none of them voted for it?"
A straight answer to that question might show the Nationalist view of equity limited, and the Nationalist sense even of mere expediency at fault. But no probing as to the ground of his action towards Suffrage "Conciliation" could be as embarrassing to the Irishman as it would seem to be to his fellow-wreckers--the Liberal "Suffragist" Members of Parliament who voted against the Bill. Since they had no such excuse as the Irish, since wearing the Suffragist label they could not admit their distrust and fear of Votes for Women, they must, one would suppose, have some well-considered reason to give for their share in wrecking the Conciliation Bill.
They had a reason, and they gave it: the violent deeds of the Militants.
The tolerance of these gentlemen had moulted no feather before the spectacle of greater violence. The
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difference between the violent deeds of Militants and the violent deeds of miners is not denied. One difference is: the aim of the Militants was political freedom, the aim of the miners was better wages. Another difference lay in the fact that the Militants, to win attention to their claims, threw stones at windows, whereas the miners, to the same end, threw stones at human beings and did grave bodily injury. Another difference: the Militants were lodged in prison for their lesser violence under sentence of hard labour. The miners were not even arrested. "Why not?" asked a member of the House. The Home Secretary, not denying that the strikers had stoned the police, answered: "I hope the honourable gentleman will not mind my saying that I deprecated very much questions which might arouse feelings of anger."
And then people wondered that the friends of those imprisoned women felt an anger before which the so-called "violent deeds" of their sisters took on a different face.
The defeat of the Conciliation Bill of 1910 had been sincerely mourned. The defeat of the Conciliation Bill of 1912 was a foregone conclusion.
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