ALBERT HALL SPEECH June 15, 1912 by Elizabeth Robins
Essay from the collection
Way Stations by Elizabeth Robins
Way Stations page 339
ALBERT HALL SPEECH *
by Elizabeth Robins
Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Mrs. Tuke, Ladies and Gentlemen:
I shall be glad to add such emphasis as I am able to one or two points already made, and specially to emphasise the need of getting First Division treatment for every imprisoned Suffragist. Above all, the need that, even in our concern for our friends, we should not lose site for an hour of the end for which they went to prison.
When this question of Franchise comes up again in Parliament next week, you will be hearing once more about the beauty and fitness of woman's indirect influence. . . . You will hear again next week that these reforms we are demanding--all except one!--will be granted in good time, by the grace and good-will of men. I stop to say there is no more reason in nature why women should have to ask these things as gifts from men, than there is why women should dole out benefits to the opposite sex. But the practical question is: even if it were moral, if it were decent to make woman the eternal suppliant, the beggar at the gates of life--woman who opens those gates!--even if to keep her waiting there, with hands outstretched, did not revolt
* June 15, 1912.
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man's sense of fitness, as well as woman's dignity, has she by appealing and imploring, has she a chance of getting what she asks for--what she needs?
Plainly, the first thing she needs is other persons' understanding of her need. What chance has she of gettting that? We have just had two new object-lessons on this theme. One given officially in Parliament we will deal with later. The other, the lesson given non-officially, was elicited by one of the minor efforts made to secure approximate fair-dealing for the Suffrage leaders--a brief letter sent out under my signature to considerably over a hundred men of distinction and of widely varying pursuits. The list was not of my compiling; nor was it originally framed for any Suffragist end. Ninety per cent of the persons addressed had been found ready a few years before to protest against a supposed injustice in the case of an imprisoned man. My letter, after stating the hardship involved in using political prisoners like common felons, went on to say: "The Suffragist who has not broken windows is constantly being told that there are more effectual ways of drawing attention to unfair discrimination, and of enlisting help to right a miscarriage of justice. I am adressing you in the hope that you will do something to encourage this view."
A certain number answered favourably. A few--such people are always few--were ready to help in every possible way. And they did help. Others were ready to write to the press, and did write to the
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press. Whether the press was so ready to print their letters, I leave you to judge. The greater proportion who answered favourably, themselves suggested the advisability of signing a petition.
Now about the others. I think we shall get something at the hands of those who thought they were refusing to help us at all. For we shall learn from the reasons they gave how successful were those representatives of the sex that legislates for us, in looking at our question from our point of view.
The answers from the great lawyers showed them much less troubled. About the treatment of Suffragists in prison? Oh, no. About respect for the law. Well, respect for the law is a matter of concern to women, too, as we prove by being the law-abiding half of the community. Women may be forgiven, I think, for supposing that lawyers--accustomed to weigh evidence and to examine motive--lawyers, we might think, will see the significance of the acts which led up to the Conspiracy Trial. Lawyers will recognise that those acts were prompted by a desire to see the law worthier of respect. Rightly constructed, those acts meant a concern for the honour of the law greater than any lawyer of the time was showing. Yet all that those of my correspondents who were lawyers could do was to emphasise the limitations possible to men of the law when interpreting justice for Woman Suffragists.
Then we had the point fo view of the actor-manager. Or rather, an actor-manager's view. He was
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ready to sign a petition, although he was "dead against the inartistic methods of the Militant Suffragists." What had happened was a play to the actor-manager, just as to the lawyer it was a mere breach of the peace.
One of the most remarkable answers came from a novelist, justly accounted (on other grounds) a thinker as well as an artist. He disliked window-breaking--almost as much as we do. He admitted he could not confidently suggest and alternative to the do-nothing policy of the past. But . . . this man so eloquent, so resourceful in attacking abuses (other than the root of women's disfranchisement), suggested . . . you will hardly believe me, but he suggested that, as a substitute for militant tactics, we ought to make more use of pageants and processions. While your sisters and friends are in prison, treated like the baser sort of criminals, you are to rest content with carrying banners through the streets.
But, no! you are not to depend solely on banners. He had one other suggestion to make. Nothing that he could do. But we, he thinks, we might do much . . . by singing! Yes, he wrote that in sober earnest. But he is critical and fastidious. He is careful to add that our singing must be beautiful. We are not even to sing unless we can "do it beautifully."
Well, we have good singers and good musicians. Ladies and Gentlemen, we must leave no means un-
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tried. Do you think that if those of us whose music is our strong point, if we were to go and sing to the Prime Minister . . . what? Or if we went and harped to Mr. Lloyd George . . . would that make his championship less a thing of air? Do you think that if the smart little W.S.P.U. Band went to Downing Street, conducted by Dr. Ethel Smyth . . . do you think she would gain a better hearing with a bâton in her hand than with that other instrument she beat time with in March? I think the musicians of the Women's Social and Political Union are more practical politicans than some of their advisers. They see, pace my correspondent, than keeping time may be losing time. Perhaps, even, that "doing time" makes music that shall last.
I must not stop to tell you in detail about the others--the reformer who had believed in Woman Suffrage all his life, but would not help us because a man he didn't like was among our supporters. There was an educationist who would do nothing to secure decent treatment for the prisoners because they had not compensated the innocent sufferers for grave injury done to their property!
A voice in the audience: "He was right!")
We did not hear his voice raised, nor than of the gentleman over there, to demand an indemnity for women in respect of injuries they received on Black Friday!--injuries beside which broken glass is negligible indeed. But my Suffragist correspondent would seem to say he would have been ready to help
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us to secure fair treatment in prison for our friends, you would even have his approval in support of the tactics of breaking windows, if having done that one day, you had gone the next to ask for the privilege of replacing the broken glass.
These are among the latest indications of the difficulty men find in understanding things clear to women . . . clear for the very simple reason that they concern women more closely.
Take, finally, the offical object-lesson to the same effect. Why do you think so obvious a need as the passing of the White Slave Bill was never faced in Parliament before this week? Why do you think its promoter could stand up in the House and, without fear of contradiction, say (to those who assure us we can safely leave women's interests in their hands) that he had moved this Bill time after time, and "always met with curt refusal"? You will remember that a little while ago the Chancellor of the Exchequer, replying for the Prime Minister, admitted the continual blocking of the Bill, and said he failed to understand the motives of Hon. Members who prevented its discussion. Some of you may, in turn, "fail to understand" the Chancellor, for he said, in answer to a question in the House, that he could not give any definite assurance that the Government would take action in the matter. Why? "Pressure of business." Out of all the months, and weeks, and days they have sat there--how much of that time did Members of Parliament say was required for this
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Bill? Two hours! They could not spare two hours. The Harley Street medical authority, in moving the resolution in favour of the bill last Monday at the Guildhall, had to tell that gathering that during the five years' strenuous effort on the part of supporters outside the Commons--inside, the Bill had invariably been blocked. Think what that means. "Blocked" for five years. . . . Blocked! by those self-constituted guardians of women and girls!
Ladies and Gentlement, the "five years' strenuous effort" referred to, dates the inception of this Bill with great significance for those who have followed the history of the Women's Social and Political Union. The mover of the Guildhall resolution hoped there was now a brighter prospect for the Bill. There is, and we know why. Mrs. Pankhurst is why! The Pethick Lawrences are why! All you women wearing the badge of the prison gate are why. The new spirit among Suffragists is cited, in Parliament and out, as the reason Government thought it prudent, after all, to find time for the White Slave Bill.
The significance of the Bill's being in the hands of an Anti-Suffragist is not lost upon us. Indeed, he said in so many words that members must now pass the Bill, or lay themselves open to the Charge of indifference to women's interests.
But this Bill deals with the very oldest of the concrete evils resulting from women's dependence upon men. Why did those friendly members of the
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House of Commons wait? Why did their fathers wait? You could not bear to hear what that waiting cost . . . nor I to tell you. The Parliamentary supporters of the White Slave Bill did not only wait till the militant movement had fired people's hearts. Some say they waited to strike a cynical bargain with a body of Liberal women. I cannot say as to that. But I do know a fact still more significant--and a greater proof I do not ask to show how mad we should be to trust these things to any body of men.
The bringing forward of this cruelly belated piece of legislation comes as one of the far-reaching ripples in the wake of that vast disaster which took the "Titanic" down two miles to the bottom of the sea. As we have seen, this Bill (the past treatment of which many women consider typical of the legislators' attitude), this Bill had been before Parliament again and again, year in year out. There was nothing the least new about it--except as it might be affected by the gathering force of the Women's Suffrage Movement. What all of a sudden brought the need of this Bill sharply home to men? Not the abiding horror of those women's lives . . . but the death of a man.
The first the general public heard of this Bill was at the time, when, stirred and shaken by the "Titanic" disaster, we read that the friends of one of the vitims were proposing a memorial to the man most widely known, most widely loved of all those who went down with the ship. No one could pro-
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prose a memorial to that man (and this in itself is a fine sort of epitaph!), no one proposing a memorial to him could forget his concern for the unhappiest amoing women. He would have liked that. There will not be many monuments in the land as noble as the one raised to Mr. Stead.
But what does this honour to the dead tell us about the living? Nothing very new, except in its direct bearing on the woman question. Men who had known Mr. Stead all his life, men who had looked on, indifferent or merely embarrassed, by his championship of people difficult to talk about--men who had seen his sacrifice unmoved, seen him insulted and sent to prison, these men-friends of his, stirred at last by the reverberation of the "Titanic" disaster, saw the man more clearly, I think, than they had seen him here at home. For all the silence that wraps the end, no soul who knew him but knows how he died. He saw the women and children into the boats. And he seems to have left some silent charge behind, that other lifeboats should be sent out to save the women who are launched on angrier seas in a blacker night.
My point is that while we welcome the action of those who at last have taken up the Bill--my point is that they could not do this (since they did not)--for the mere sake of women's crying need. They had to get at the poignancy of that need through the vision of the Seer, through a highly exceptional member of their own sex. And the
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reason they had to wait for that is because these questions are decided without the help of the ordinary women.
You who have not up to now recognised the need of women's direct share in public affairs--you must see that leaving other women's interests entirely to men is unfair to men, as well as horribly dangerous for women.
So, you must come and join us. Especially the happy women--and men. For the foundations of civilised society is a relation of confidence between men and women.