Today is Suffragette Day – 100 years since (some) women were given the right to vote.
After decades of campaigning, setbacks and sacrifices, 6th February 1918 must have been an incredible day. The 8.5 million newly-enfranchised women were over 30 and owned property. It would be another ten years before women were given the same voting rights as men, but it was a huge step forward.
For several months I’ve been researching for my book Struggle and Suffrage in Windsor, which is part of a series to be published by Pen and Sword celebrating the contribution made by women in different towns around the country during a period of enormous social and political change.
Windsor’s story’s unique in that it encompasses both princesses and paupers.
Queen Victoria kick-started Windsor’s transformation from squalid slum town to genteel tourist destination by choosing to make it her main home.
In many ways Victoria provided a role model for nineteenth century women. At only 18 years old and 4ft 11in tall, she proved it was possible for a woman to excel in a male-dominated arena.
She came to the throne amid anti monarchy demonstrations, was hissed and booed at during Ascot races after the Hastings Affair and called Mrs Melbourne by Tories, furious at her apparent Whig sympathies.
She also had to cope with a stalker, and at least seven assassination attempts.
But despite her own experience Queen Victoria was no suffragist sympathiser, saying that she was anxious to enlist everyone who could write or speak “to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of women’s rights.”
When she learned that Lady Amberley (Viscountess Russell) had become involved in the movement she said she deserved “a good whipping.”
Although as monarch Victoria was unable to involve herself in politics, it could be argued that, had she shown approval for suffragists women may have been given the vote earlier.
But her daughters, especially Louise, whose sister-in-law Lady Frances Balfour was a leading figure in the movement, did show sympathy for women’s suffrage and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter Sophia Duleep Singh would become a women’s rights activist.
Lady Florence Dixie
One of Windsor’s most colourful characters was Lady Florence Dixie. The first female war correspondent, she also helped establish women’s football and wrote feminist novels including Gloriana in 1890, in which women have the right to vote.
She also wrote about her adventures in Patagonia, and brought back a jaguar from her travels. (After Affums was caught eating the royal deer in Windsor Great Park he had to be put in a zoo.)
Florence held strong views on female emancipation and spoke publicly about these, arguing that women should have equal rights in marriage and divorce, equal inheritance rights and that they should be entitled to wear the same clothes as men.
Meetings and marches
From the turn of the century, support in Windsor for the suffragist movement grew, but was up against fierce anti-suffrage support. The local suffrage society started as the Windsor and Eton branch of the London society but became large enough to exist in its own right. The train line which Queen Victoria had approved made it easy for Windsor women to take part in events elsewhere including the London marches.
Regular At-home and Drawing Room meetings of the suffrage society were held in the Guildhall and private homes, and included speakers from London and abroad.
These often turned into “lively discussions” with opposition from anti-suffrage supporters such as Revd Keightley who declared that women’s suffrage would be “the thin end of the wedge.”
The hon secretary of the suffrage society, Florence Gibb of Claremont Road, frequently gave polite but robust arguments against views expressed by anti-suffrage supporters.
In a letter to the Windsor and Eton Express following a recent anti-suffragist meeting at the Guildhall, she wrote,
“The Countess of Desart said women want to be women. Exactly – that’s why we want the vote. Women are half the nation and we maintain that their view should be respresented.”
On another occasion she wrote,
“Lord Cromer says women’s suffrage has only been tried in small places for a short time. Does Lord Cromer call Wyoming’s 45 years or New Zealand’s 17 years a short time, or Australia and New Zealand small places?”
And she challenged the view that men knew better than women about politics. “What does Mr Burns know of the hunger of the expectant and nursing mother? Yet he deprives her of wages and makes no provision for her nourishment during her compulsory idleness.”
The closest university to Windsor is Royal Holloway college, on the edge of Windsor Great Park, where Emily Wilding Davison was a student. She later became a key member of the militant WSPU and was imprisoned in Strangeways for throwing rocks at Lloyd George’s carriage. She went on hunger strike but was subjected to force feeding. In 1913 she died after being trampled by the King’s horse at Epsom.
Suffragette activity in Windsor included setting fire to pillar boxes and an arson attack on a house during the same night that a church in Wargrave was burned down. Windsor Castle had to be closed to visitors in 1913 because of the threat of attack by suffragettes.
There’s so much more! I’ll be doing other posts on this subject during this centenary year but for the full story please look out for the book later this year, and other titles in the series.