Tuesday, 6 February 2018
Last year I wrote a series of articles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England. This year sees another momentous anniversary in the fight for equality. It’s the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which received royal assent on this day in 1918. It gave women the right to vote in UK general elections for the first time.
Other countries had given some women the vote before 1918 (e.g. Sweden in 1718 and New Zealand colony in 1893), but I’ll concentrate today on my home nation. What the Representation of the People Act provided wasn’t a universal right. It was restricted to women over the age of 30 who were property owners (or her husbands were), graduates voting in one of the university constituencies, or listed on the Local Government Register (or her husband was). The right to vote was extended to all women in 1928.
The first general election at which women could vote was later in the year in 14th December. By this time another Act had been passed giving women the right to stand for election. The first woman to be elected was at that 1918 general election. She was Constance, Countess Markiewicz, the sister of Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926). Both were prominent suffragettes and Irish nationalists.
Eva Gore-Booth is one of the many lesbian and bisexual women who were prominent in the suffragette movement. Unfortunately, as with the lives of so many gay men in the same period, absolute proof of a woman’s sexual relationship with another woman is difficult to establish. However, there are diaries and biographies of many of the suffragettes which provide clues. To quote Hilary McCollum, a writer, playwright and lesbian historian, “As somebody who was very active in the second wave of feminist [in the 1970s], it was full of lesbians. Why on earth would the first wave of feminism have been so much different?”
To the general British public, even a century afterwards, the names of very few suffragettes are remembered. People may know about the Pankhurst family but no other. They may know of the woman who was fatally wounded in a famous incident at the Derby races, but not her name (Emily Wilding Davison, see below).
The Pankhursts were the leading figures in the movement. There was the widowed Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and her three daughters Sylvia, Christabel and Adela. In 1910 Mrs. Pankhurst met (the future Dame) Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), who became quite smitten by her. A close friendship developed and it is known that they shared a bed at times (I want to avoid using the phrase “slept with” because of its modern sexual connotation – people often shared beds with people of the same gender with no sexual intent). Even though we are sure Ethel Smyth was lesbian there’s nothing to suggest Mrs. Pankhurst was. However, the bisexual writer Virginia Woolf believed they were lovers, and Hilary McCollum says Mrs. Pankhurst was “likely” to have been a lesbian. I’m yet to be convinced.
As for Mrs. Pankhurst’s daughters there’s more evidence that one of them, (again, the future Dame) Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958), had relationships with several women. She was one of the most active and militant of suffragettes. She was also very anti-working class, believing that the suffrage movement should not be used to support any other cause effecting working class women. Yet her strongest relationship was with a working class woman called Annie Kenney (1879-1953).
Christabel and Annie were arrested and impriosned after disrupting a political meeting in 1905. They unfurled a banner bearing the words “Votes for Women” and heckled the speakers, who included Winston Churchill. Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst said that “it was the beginning of a campaign the like of which was never known in England”. Christabel was one of the first women to stand for parliament in the 1918 general election. She was defeated by the Labour Party candidate by only 775 votes.
A leading source of information regarding the close or sexual relationships of the suffragettes come from the diaries of Mary Blathwayt (1879-1961). Those diaries, which Mary wrote between 1908 and 1913, was studied by Prof. Martin Pugh of Liverpool John Moores University for a biography of the Pankhurst family. He suggested that Mary Blathwayt was Emmeline Pankhurst’s sexual partner before Annie Kenney. Mary Blathwayt had the support of her parents. They opened their stately home to any suffragette who needed accommodation. Though this soon stopped when some suffragettes assaulted the Prime Minister.
Another lesbian suffragette whose family disapproved of her belief was Mary Sophia Allen (1878-1964). In 1908 she left home after an argument over women’s suffrage and joined the Pankhursts. Mary Sophia was an active protestor and was imprisoned several times. She became more famous as being one of the founders of the women’s police force with her partner Margaret Damer Dawson.
Apart from the Pankhursts the suffragette British people may have known about is the woman killed by throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at the Derbys races in 1913. She was Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913). Again, Hilary McCollum says that any positive evidence of her sexuality is circumstantial and impossible to prove. Emily had a very close relationship with Mary Leigh (1885-?). Mary Leigh is credited with being the first to use an act of vandalism as a form of protest following the police brutality she witnessed at a suffragette gathering in Parliament Square. She went straight to 10 Downing Street and threw stones through the windows. In 1909 she and Emily Wilding Davison were arrested for disrupting a political meeting.
Hilary McCollum regards Emily’s and Mary’s relationship as almost certainly lesbian. Mary visited Emily at her deathbed. She also kept the suffragette flag which Emily had carried with her on that fateful day in 1913, and brought it with her every year when she visited Emily’s grave.
There are many more suffragettes whom Hilary McCollum and Prof. Martin Pugh list as lesbian, likely lesbian or lesbian-like. They include Lilian Lenton (1891-1972), Olive Bartels (1889-1978), and Grace Roe (1885-1979). Many of these and other suffragettes have been commemorated in recent years with plaques and statues, and several have received honours from the Crown for their contribution to female suffrage, including Christabel Pankhurst who was made a Dame in 1936.