Suffragettes March 28 1913


If the militant Women Suffragists had any reasoning powers, they would have realised by now the futility of their policy. For the weaker sex to resort to a campaign of violence was to court defeat. There may be people who hold the view that any section of the community which regards itself as oppressed is entitled to appeal to the arbitrament of force if it cannot obtain redress of its grievances by Constitutional agitation. But whether methods of terrorism are or are not justifiable, they cannot be effective unless they produce terror. The Suffragist tactics are utterly wrong if only because it is absurd to suppose that a small band of women can frighten the nation into making a concession which it does not desire to make. The “outrages” do not alarm or impress the public. They merely arouse a feeling of mingled irritation and contempt. The effect produced by such senseless actions as the destruction of letters and the burning of houses and tea-pavilions has been clearly shown in the demeanour of the crowds round the Suffragist platforms. Those women who profess to defy the law would often have suffered severely in the last few weeks had they not been protected by the police. It suits them to pretend that the hostile demonstrations are the work of the lower elements of the people. No doubt roughs and rowdies have mingled with the crowds. But the very fact that they have been able to sling mud, literally and metaphorically, against the Suffragists without any real protest on the part of the public, shows how deep and general is the sense of antagonism aroused by the exploits of the “militants,” A very striking example of the injury done to the cause of Woman’s Suffrage was given by the discussion yesterday at the Teachers` Conference. The members of this body can hardly be described as rude and unlettered persons, who would be swayed by vulgar prejudices. Moreover, a majority of the Union are women. Yet the feeling of the Conference showed itself unmistakably opposed to a resolution expressing sympathy with the lady teachers who desired the franchise. A hostile amendment was easily carried, and but for the dilatory tactics employed by the advocates of Woman’s Suffrage, it would have been passed as a substantive motion. The voting, however, showed a four to one majority against “the cause,” and showed, too, that the strength of the opposition was much greater than it was a year ago. This indicates the effect produced by militant methods even in circles where the cry of “Votes for women” might be expected to obtain a sympathetic hearing.

It cannot, however, be assumed that the fanatics who head the movement are capable of reasoning like ordinary human beings. They are possessed by a spirit of hysteria which is blind to all argument. Thus it is necessary to consider what methods shall be adopted in the future to repress the attacks on the security and property of innocent persons. We published yesterday the provisions of the Bill which the HOME SECRETARY means to introduce to give him further powers for dealing with Suffragist prisoners. The measure gives effect to recommendations made in these columns and elsewhere in favour of the employment of the ticket-of-leave system to meet the difficulty of the “hunger-strike.” At present any Suffragist who is resolute enough to undergo a certain amount of privation and suffering can secure her release after a short term of imprisonment. By refusing to take food and by compelling the authorities to force nourishment down her throat, she soon reduces herself to such a state of health that she cannot be kept in confinement without grave risk to her life. It is true that only a minority of the offenders resort to these desperate tactics. But the notoriety secured by their exploits helps to create the impression that the law can be defied with impunity. The Bill prepared by the Home Office would seem to be well fitted to cope with the difficulty. It provides that prisoners who have reduced themselves to a dangerous state of health by their own conduct may be given a temporary and conditional discharge. They will have to comply with the conditions laid down in the order, and will have to return to prison at the expiration of the stated period. If they refuse they can be rearrested without warrant. It is further provided that the time spent out of prison shall not count towards the serving of the sentence. If firmly applied this scheme should certainly make an end of the hunger-strike by rendering it ineffectual. Resort to the hunger-strike so far from shortening with actually lengthen the period during which the offender is deprived of liberty.

It may be hoped however that this measure will enable the authorities to dispense with the unpleasant business of forcible feeding. We are not convened to argue as to the rights and wrongs of forcible feeding. In the past the Home Office has had to choose between releasing the Suffragist prisoners, letting them starve and compelling them to take nourishment by the use of surgical instruments. But, if it can be avoided, it is clearly a mistake to take any action which will elevate the prisoners to the level of martyrs and so draw public sympathy to their side. Few people think that women who burn houses should escape punishment, but few are willing to inflict on them the indignity and suffering which forcible feeding involves, and if any one were allowed to starve herself there would probably be a loud outcry against the authorities. It is important, therefore, that the system of punishment shall be such as will not aid the aims of the Suffragists themselves. Under the new Bill the woman who wishes to hunger-strike could be left along for some days. Good food would be placed within her reach, and if she refused to take, she would have no one but herself to blame for her sufferings. When she grew weak she would be released for a short time, and at the end of the interval would receive similar treatment. It will require a very stout spirit to face the rigours of such a system. Of course, feminine ingenuity may discover some new way of defeating the intentions of the authorities. If so another remedy, possibly the weapon of deportation, must be found and applied. What is certain is that Society will insist that a small minority shall not defy its laws with impunity.



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