Apropos of Woman Suffrage
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APROPOS OF WOMAN SUFFRAGE.
By H. Kelly.
The equilibrium of the Anglo-Saxon world is rudely disturbed from time to time by incidents that in former times would have been settled by a parish council. There was a time when a Civil War, a Corn Law, or a Reform Bill was necessary to disturb the equanimity of the two hemispheres. The arrest of eleven women for raising a disturbance within the sacred precincts of the House of Commons is now sufficient to set the civilized world by the ears.
A great deal of attention has been paid, too, and some excellent articles written about the eleven women, who in defiance of law and "order" appeared at the House of Commons recently to petition the government on the question of granting suffrage to the women of Great Britain. There are some phases of this question which have, to our knowledge, not received attention and to these we intend to devote ourselves.
The women's suffrage movement in Great Britain has for years past been as negligible a quantity as the Rational Dress League, and has attracted less attention than the Vegetarian Society; now, however, it threatens the peace and quietude of King Edward's Ministers because the women suffragists have ceased to follow the beaten path, which invariably leads to sterility and ossification.
After the Balfour-Chamberlain government had gulled an unsuspecting and unthinking public into returning them to power, they proceeded to rob that public of some of their most cherished liberties, among which was the attempted destruction of the Board Schools, which were turned into the hands of the clergy. The Free Churches, Wesleyans, Baptists, etc., aroused at this, organized the so-called Passive Resistance movement, which was really passive enough to suit every one, except the most bigoted Churchman. They refused to pay the school tax, printed and distributed Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," and did a great deal of good in claiming freedom for the individual as against the state, especially in matters of conscience. It was during this agitation and inspired, no doubt, by the Passive Resisters that a woman and a Socialist (I think it was Miss Dora Montefiore) conceived the idea of refusing to pay her taxes on the ground that she was disfranchised and treated by the government as an outcast, unfit to vote or participate in the councils of the nation. An Opera Bouffe war took place, lasting several days. The lady barricaded herself in her house and refused to accept the summons thrown over her garden wall; food was hauled over the fence with a string, and the incident was really interesting while it lasted. Just as it happened with Thoreau when he refused to pay taxes—some friend paid them, and the case was closed. The incident described above, small and ridiculous as it seemed, had its effect, however; women in various parts of England took courage and emulated the example set before them; members of the government were heckled at public meetings in different cities and, of course, were pretty generally condemned; the ladies with true British tenacity persevered, and finally eleven of them stormed the House of Commons with a petition, raised a disturbance when it was refused and were finally arrested. They were all women of property and social standing, among them being Mrs. Cobden Saunderson, daughter of the famous Richard Cobden, and wife of Mr. CobdenSaunderson, one of England's most distinguished artistcraftsmen. The Magistrate who tried the cases offered to release the prisoners, under bonds to keep the peace. To the credit of the ladies, however, be it said that they refused to compromise, whereupon they were sentenced to two months' imprisonment. Their treatment in jail was outrageous. We quote Mr. Cobden-Saunderson's description of his wife's experience:
"On entering the prison, my wife was stripped of all her things save her wedding ring, and re-dressed in the clothing of the prison; and, in place of her name, was numbered with a number which is now her name, deprived of all associations save those of the prison which is now her new and silent world. Her food—she is a vegetarian—consists of dry bread, tea or cocoa and potatoes. She is in solitary confinement for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four. For one hour, in silence, she is—with other prisoners, six feet apart—walked backwards and forwards in a yard in the prison enclosure. In her cell she has for occupation the making of postmen's bags. For reading, the Bible—that book of Revolutions! What a mockery!—and a book called 'A Healthy Home,' which, she says, with a smile, is of no use to her there. She asked for a Shakespeare; there was but one volume in the prison and that was engaged. She asked for pen and paper, that she might write down her meditations. That was refused; it was against the prison regulation's."
The heinousness of a crime (?) depends largely upon the guise it is committed under, and in this connection some people remembered that Dr. Jameson, the present Prime Minister of Cape Colony, when still an independent freebooter in the employ of Cecil Rhodes, organized an expedition and invaded the Transvaal Republic for the purpose of overthrowing what was then a friendly state to the United Kingdom. Defeated, captured and sentenced to death, he was pardoned by President Kruger, and turned over to the British government for punishment. Jameson was sentenced to one year imprisonment (in the same institution to which the suffragists were sent) as a first-class misdemeanant; in other words, he was not forced to wear prison clothes or to eat prison food and was treated as a gentleman ( ?) should be. To invade a friendly state with arms is one thing; to invade the British House of Commons with a petition is another; so Mr. Herbert Gladstone, Home Secretary and with a keen recollection of his father's treatment of Irish political prisoners, determined to make an example of these dangerous revolutionists. Unfortunately for Mr. Gladstone the imprisoned women were women of standing and property; moreover, there are still men in England like George Meredith and Bernard Shaw, who are not only true libertarians, but know how to write, and when they and others like them began to bombard the London Times with long letters on the subject, the public conscience was awakened and an outcry went up all over the country. The government, unable to withstand the agitation, released the women unconditionally (on November 24th) after they had served but one month of their time. No reasons were given.
It is too much to hope that the women suffragists in this country will be able to forget their respectable traditions so far as to violate the law here or see the logic of acting instead of talking. Propaganda by example is an unpopular subject with all classes of reformers. Why, if we resist we'll be sent to prison, they say, and this cowardice paralyzes every reform proposed from Socialism to Woman's Suffrage. Education must always precede any act of revolt, but pious expressions of opinion are of no use whatever unless backed up by definite action. We hear very often of the three million Socialistic voters in Germany, but we see that country groaning under the burdens of Militarism and men sent to prison for six, nine and twelve months for daring to point out violations of the law by Kaiser Wilhelm, and when we inquire the reason why the three million Socialists permit these things, we are informed they are still in a minority in the nation. Is there a man or woman so shortsighted as not to know that if one million of the three million voters were thoroughly imbued with the principles of Socialism and anti-Militarism and threw down their arms and tools, that the army could not exist, nor men be sent to prison for criticising their mmountebank Emperor? The real reason why all these institutions can and do exist and woman's suffrage is a joke in this country is because the people in their heart of hearts have not really emancipated themselves from the opinions of their next door neighbor, and as for going to prison for their opinions think it is not only impractical, but most unpardonable of all—it doesn't pay. Perhaps it is because we have been so unsuccessful in our lives that we are such incorrigible optimists, but we have hopes that peopie may see that if revolt is a thing to be admired in other countries, it ought not be despised here, and if ideals are to become realities, some attempt at living those ideals is necessary, even though we may be forced to leave the beaten path, brave public opinion and, if necessary, go to jail as a protest against injustice, thereby inspiring those who follow us to do likewise.
Harry Kelly, “Apropos of Woman Suffrage,” Mother Earth 1, no. 10 (December 1906): 37-41.