Suffragettes!

Our guest blogger this week is Sue Higgins, curator of Historylinks Museum in Dornoch.

The Victorian ideal for women was that they take care of the home and family.  Activity in public life was not encouraged.  There was much debate about the role of women and in the late nineteenth century a group began to campaign for women to be granted the vote.  Two different campaign methods evolved to achieve this, those used by the suffragists and those by the suffragettes.

The suffragists believed in a peaceful campaign using discussion, petition and behaving with ladylike decorum, as was expected of women at that time.  The main organization was the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  The first local suffrage societies were formed in Inverness in 1871 followed, in 1872, by one in Invergordon and one in Dingwall.  By 1912 Dornoch also had a branch.  Their Secretary was Miss Margaret Davidson, teacher of Modern Languages at Dornoch Academy.  In September 1913 the Scottish Federation of the NUWSS toured the Highlands, visiting Dingwall, Invergordon, Tain, Dornoch, Golspie and Helmsdale.  500 people attended the meeting in Dingwall.

The second method of campaign was more militant.  Some individuals felt that no real progress would be made with such peaceful methods so in 1903 they broke away from the NUWSS and formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).  They decided direct action was necessary, breaking windows, vandalising property and attacking politicians.  It attracted a lot of attention and many members of the public were shocked by their ‘unwomanly’ behaviour.  The Daily Mail nicknamed them ‘suffragettes’ as a term of derision.  The courts administered harsh sentences for those women who broke the law.  After the arrested women began a policy of hunger strikes they were forcibly fed and many suffered ill health for months or even years afterwards.  There were mixed opinions in the press, many were unhappy about the forced feeding of women and the controversial ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ which enabled sick women to be released until they were well enough to be re-imprisoned.  In Dornoch there were two reported incidents of militant behaviour, one in 1912 and one in 1913.  Both were on the Royal Dornoch Golf Course and were carried out by members of the WSPU.  Targetting male dominated sports was a typical WSPU tactic.  In the first incident Lilias Mitchell and Elsie Howie attacked the Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and the Home Secretary Reginald McKenna as they golfed.  The incident was kept quiet in Britain but was reported in the newspapers in America.

In 1913 Mr. Asquith was again attacked while golfing this time by a local lady, either Jessie or Agnes Gibson, sisters who lived in ‘Briarfield’ which overlooks the course.  Miss Gibson knocked off the Prime Minister’s hat and was escorted off the course by Mr. Ryle and Mr. Sutherland.  There is a copy of the photograph still hanging in the Royal Dornoch Golf Club House today.

Image

Image from Historylinks Image Library: http://www.historylinksarchive.org.uk/picture/number11273.asp

When the First World War started in August 1914, militant action was suspended and many  suffragists and suffragettes became heavily involved in the war effort.  Margaret Davidson, Secretary of the Dornoch NUWSS, was one.  She left the safety of her teaching job to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse at the unique women’s hospital based at Royaumont, France.  Between May 1915 and August 1917 she looked after the men who had been injured at the front.

With a shortage of men many women took on jobs which had previously been exclusively male including being conductors on buses and trains; dangerous work in munitions factories; shipbuilding and the heavy labour of unloading coal.  In February 1918, an act was passed which gave women the vote if they were over the age of 30 and had a minimum property qualification.  This entitled 8.5 million women to vote in the General Election of 1918.  This act was seen by many as a result, not of the militant actions of the suffragettes, but a reward for the way women had responded during the war.  However it is highly unlikely that the vote would have been given were it not for the decades of campaigning by the suffragists and suffragettes.

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