Suffragettes: When and how is it acceptable to break the law?
The 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 has ignited a fierce debate about whether or not suffragettes convicted of criminal offences should receive a pardon. This statute gave the vote to women aged thirty and above, and although it did not place them on an equal footing with men (who were eligible to vote from their twenty-first birthday), it was undoubtedly a game-changing victory in the fight for gender equality. Nevertheless, the appropriateness of pardoning the women who had campaigned so hard for its passage is hotly contested. Opinions are divided, but not necessarily along party-political lines, and the reasons behind the differing positions also vary greatly.
Some people regard a pardon as an important symbolic recognition by the State that its treatment of suffragette campaigners, and indeed women in general, was lamentably unjust and oppressive. Others argue that the suffragettes do not need a patronising gesture of validation from the very framework which abused them, and that it would be, in fact, an insult to their legacy. They deliberately defied a legal and political system which excluded women, wearing their convictions as a badge of honour. On the other hand, there are those who maintain that suffragettes were terrorists, and that once their tactics shifted from civil disobedience to arson and bombing campaigns, they lost their claim to moral legitimacy.
The question of when it is acceptable, or indeed even a moral imperative, to break the law is extremely complex. In the research project linked with our book Religion, Law and the Constitution: Balancing Beliefs in Britain, we asked this challenging question to our interviewees, and received a fascinating range of answers (all of which are available on the interview section of our website and well worth checking out). It is significant that across the wide spectrum of faith/worldviews, and also professional backgrounds represented, there was broad agreement in the abstract. Almost everybody felt that there were some circumstances when their personal beliefs and ethics would demand that a human law be broken. For instance, several of our interviewees referred to the challenges facing those living in a State like Nazi Germany, and their hope that they would be brave enough to resist such a regime. Equally, there was a basic consensus that society would struggle to function if people did not, on the overwhelming majority of occasions, choose to obey the law. If all citizens went for a pick and mix approach, and only conformed to legal rules which they approved of, there would be inevitably pure chaos.
Therefore, we are left with the thorny question of where to draw the line, and certainly, at that stage, reaching an agreement becomes much harder. We find ourselves presented with an array of opinion about how best to deal with the suffragettes and their legacy, but we also face similar dilemmas about contemporary acts of civil disobedience in relation to the State, or direct action against private companies.
How do we react to groups like Fathers for Justice, the group famously responsible for throwing coloured flour at Tony Blair in the House of Commons? Their founder member, Matt O’Connor, recently hand-cuffed himself to the railings of Buckingham Palace in protest at inequalities in the family court system, deliberately emulating the suffragettes. What about those advocating for the environment or animal rights? The famous protest about the Newbury bypass, involving a mass occupation of forest in an effort to save 10,000 trees from destruction is a thought-provoking case study. Although the bypass went ahead, the protesters caught the popular imagination and helped to swing public opinion. A large group of people dedicated enough to camp in woodland in the middle of the winter, and who did not engage in violent tactics, won both respect and sympathy. Local residents supplied them with hot food and offers of baths, whilst other major construction schemes in the region appear to have been either quietly shelved or put on the back burner.
It is also worth considering that many citizens in our society are not so concerned about whether actions are illegal, but about the impact which they have on other people, animals or the planet. Some of the behaviour of the suffragettes was undoubtedly violent, despite the fact that they denied any intent to cause injury. For example, the explosive device which went off in an unoccupied house belonging to Lloyd George was not supposed to hurt anyone, but some workmen who were due to carry out repairs only narrowly escaped having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even worse, in Scotland four postmen were injured by phosphorous chemicals left in post-boxes. Furthermore, cultural objects were attacked, and a mummy was smashed in the British Museum, preventing future generations of both women and men from the possibility to appreciate and learn from it. Acknowledging that these events are part of our shared history is necessary, but doing so does not take away the horror of the force feeding, to which imprisoned suffragettes were subjected when they went on hunger strike, nor the fundamental injustice of denying full civil rights to half of the population.
It is crucial to appreciate that this debate is not just about our judgement on the rights and wrongs of the past, and it is equally important when it comes to assessing how we act in the present. Whilst individual answers to the question of when and how it is right to break the law may vary, the decision about granting a pardon reflects what is, in some sense, our collective response.
F4J says that 100 years after suffrage, men are now the discriminated sex (Fathers for Justice 12/8/18)
DUP’s Arlene Foster against pardon for suffragettes who broke the law (Belfast Telegraph 8/2/18)
Caroline Criado-Perez, Why I don’t think the suffragettes should receive a pardon (The New Statesman 6/2/18)
F Riddle Suffragettes, violence and militancy (British Library 6/2/18)
Letter Bombs and IEDs: Were the Suffragettes Terrorists? (Sky News 6/2/18)
Votes for Women: Pardoning Suffragettes Complicated (BBC News 6/2/18)
UK will consider pardons for convicted suffragettes (Washington Post 6/2/18)
Did Newbury by-pass tree huggers change anything? (BBC News 2/1/16)
We wanted to wake him up: Lloyd George and the Suffragette Militancy (History Blog 4/7/13)
Blair hit during Commons protest (BBC News 19/5/04)