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British Women’s Suffrage Centenary Commemorations From Bernadette Cahill

Cahill delivering her talk in Bute Museum, Rothesay, Scotland on February 6 – the centenary of the Votes for Women victory in Britain.

Editor’s note: Bernadette Cahill, long-time High Country Press and High Country Magazine writer, and also a McFarland & Company author on votes for women, traveled to Britain recently to help celebrate the hundred years since women won the vote there in 1918. Here she tells of her trip.

By Bernadette Cahill

Early in February I went to a museum in the Scottish town of Rothesay to tell the story of two women and their work there for women’s right to vote. Old reference books crammed the shelves, but the room’s outstanding feature was three carved oak chairs. Combined with other antiques, they gave the room the feel of a medieval castle.

Display by Live Argyll for the Bute Museum talk, showing the colors of the featured suffrage group, the Women’s Freedom League

I was there to commemorate the centenary on February 6, the very day when the Representation of the People Act, 1918 enfranchised women for the first time. This historic moment finally recognized the principle of votes for women. It followed a struggle that began in the mid-1860s with the first petitions to Parliament and culminated before the 1914-1918 War in violence by the women of Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and subsequently their imprisonment and torture by the authorities. The film Suffragette depicted the story in Britain. Iron Jawed Angels dealt with the similar, United States version.

My talk focused on the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) – a 1907 breakaway from the WSPU. Militant but non-violent, their protests included chaining themselves to a parliamentary grille, tax resistance, and a 15-week silent picket in all weathers outside the House of Commons trying to get the Prime Minister to accept a petition.

This presentation in Rothesay, in the Firth of Clyde on Scotland’s stunning west coast, was the second of three presentations I gave for the centenary. The previous Saturday, February 3, I delivered a shorter version in Cambridge University at a commemorative conference. My audience comprised about forty women’s historians and I revealed there for the first time the story I heard 50 years ago, taped in 1984 and finally was able to access when I had it digitized in 2006. I was revealing not only largely forgotten history, but also a previously unknown primary source.

I wove the story of a Miss McCann and Madam Lenton into the broader history of the WFL’s work in Rothesay, much of it done during the ten years until 1928 when being female, single and without property meant exclusion from the vote. The deliberate sex discrimination of 1918 occurred because male politicians wanted to restrict the female electorate, as women were a significant majority in the population, particularly after the horrendous casualties of the First World War.

Having told how the WFL attracted audiences and dealt with hecklers among the massive crowds of holidaymakers from Glasgow’s heavy industries who traveled to Rothesay on the paddle-steamers that plied the River Clyde, I also described the background of the two women. Working-class Lenton was one of the most notorious of the pre-war WSPU campaigners, setting fires to buildings and nearly dying after force-feeding in Holloway in 1913. She won no vote in 1918. As I concluded my facts about similarly working-class Miss McCann, the audience gasped, and some started crying. I was quite blown away by the reaction. 

My Rothesay audience travelled by ferry to the Isle of Bute from several towns on the coast for the talk, which Eleanor McKay of Live Argyll organized for me with the help of the Bute Museum and the Rothesay Public Library. My audience included a history class from the high school, retirees and many local history buffs. The 80-strong group equaled the turnout for a recent talk on Harry Potter and another about crime fiction, and so “boring old” history held its own in good company.

Now feeling very much at home back in Scotland, this is when I revealed, in greater detail than in Cambridge, the forgotten history of the Clyde Coast Campaign for the vote that the WFL headquartered in Rothesay from 1908 and concluded as an equal rights campaign in 1933. Only minimal references had appeared in the histories and no one in the audience had ever heard of it and so to reveal the story on the centenary of votes for women was deeply meaningful. When I reached the final, moving fact, again listeners gasped, jaws dropped, and eyes popped wide open. Tears welled up everywhere and I had to fight for my own composure.

I didn’t want to leave Bute afterwards as it is such a gorgeous other world. In 2017 I said after the total eclipse that I wouldn’t see anything as beautiful again in my life, unless it is another total eclipse. This innermost of the western isles of Scotland, in the middle of snow-clad mountains and the sea, proved me wrong. It is heartachingly beautiful there. 

But we were immediately heading off towards Bridge of Allan where the great sword of William Wallace (Braveheart) is on display. In Stirling’s Smith Art Gallery and Museum, with the Castle towering overhead, my next presentation was more of a bird’s eye view of the WFL’s work in Scotland.

I could now detour to the two lead characters from my McFarland & Company book, Alice Paul, the National Women’s Party and the Vote: The First Civil Rights Struggle of the 20th Century,” for Paul and her colleague Lucy Burns were two of the first three suffragettes jailed in Scotland. Imprisoned in Dundee in 1909, they went on hunger strike for several days. The authorities released them to rid themselves of the trouble and Emmeline Pankhurst then led a huge public rally, demanding votes for women. Soon, Paul and Burns would lead their own militant – but non-violent – votes for women organization in the United States.

This third talk included the same story as before and again as I reached the final facts, the audience gasped, again some teared up, while others just gaped. Dozens hung around to chat afterwards and my only regret was that I did not get the chance to see the spread for the “Equali-tea” with its dainty cookies decorated with the purple, white and green of the WSPU. 

Alice Paul wanted to use those colors for the Congressional Union (CU) in 1913, but as part of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association she was not allowed. Taking the gold from the WFL’s gold, white and green, her resultant purple, white and gold became the colors of the CU and later the National Woman’s Party – and ultimately the colors of suffrage victory in the United States in 1920.

Cahill in a mini historical re-enactment segment at her Stirling, Scotland, talk on February 8 demonstrating how Women’s Freedom League outdoor campaigners would counter hecklers at their meetings.