Jill Liddington: Rebel Girls.

Their fight for the vote.

Charlotte Bronte.

Yorkshire-woman, Charlotte Bronte: pioneer romancer of freedom for women.

Yorkshire's rebel girls.

This is a history of largely new evidence of Yorkshire women's campaigning for womanhood suffrage. Those from other parts of the country, such as London or Lancashire, are featured mainly when they appear to speak in Yorkshire. And the deputations and demonstrations before the Westminster parliament are told much from the point of view of the Northern contingents.

The book's cover has a clog and shawl girl of sixteen, possibly shouting "vote" as she is escorted away by police. Her name and some family history is uncovered. There is the self-educated Lavena Saltonstall's polemical local news-paper letters. There is Florence Lockwood's lonely aspiration to become an artist. She eventually finds companionship and finds emancipation from restricted social and political values. Many others are trailed by the detective historian. To her regret, some are no more than glimpsed.

The author has already written a book dealing with the regional contribution from Lancashire. Yorkshire was more disparate than the well-organised work-forces of its neighboring county. And Liddington has had to wait a good many years before remaining pieces of evidence have come together well enough for this new book (2006). The importance of this work is as a historical corrective to any notion that women got the vote mainly thru the agitation of some middle class southerners led by the Militant Pankhursts.
In over-centralised Britain, this is welcome historical news.

However, the militant influence is felt in reading this book of the north women campaigners. That shouldnt disguise the fact that in the years up to 1914, the rebels are looking increasingly desperate. Their local organisations spring up but soon wither. A faction breaks away from the Pankhurst autocracy. A few organisers are struggling to keep going. And their adherents are tipping to sensational acts to attract attention. As the violent protest escalates, Liddington points out that the movement was lucky not to harm someone. In general, I agree with her assessment of the limitations of militancy.

Peaceful protest can stir publicity that draws peoples attention to an injustice. Women lobbyists tried to speak up but were pulled down and carried, even kicking and screaming, out of Westminster.
The peaceful leader Mrs Fawcett generously said that they had done more than their traditional organisation in a dozen years to promote the Cause.

But we should be clear who the real militants were, in the first place. The government tried to repress the women, just exercising the right to protest. Disgracefully rough handling of women protesters was a bad example in civil behavior. And the forced feeding was more extremist than ever the women worked themselves up to, before world war one intervened with a real example in violence.

Lazy-minded government couldnt be bothered to work out the next step to where its actions were taking it. They tried to break the spirit of women as independent intelligences, before it dawned thay were going to have to give them equal rights. The government got to nearly killing suffragette prisoners before it dawned that government militancy would have to give way to civilised treatment.

Leonora Cohen smashed a glass case in the Tower of London and then, with her husband's advice, got herself acquitted by a jury, because the prosecution over-estimated the cost of the damage. Her avowed motive was the treachery of the Asquith government, pretending sympathy to female suffrage but leaving it out of the Reform Bill.
The government might have got the message from the jury about the mood of the country.

Up till then, Cohen could still claim some sort of moral high ground against the government. She had not victimised businesses, at least in this instance of glass breaking. But then she incited arson against empty property. (An empty property, they broke into, turned out not to be empty.) In taking the law into their own hands (empty property must be burnt), these arsonist suffragettes were being as arrogant and inconsiderate as the government.

One notices sometimes that governments fail to rise - if they ever do - to the moral level of reformers, before some of the idealists have dragged themselves down to the level of the reactionaries. It is as if they have to exchange roles before they can come to terms with each other, like those role-playing therapy groups to get off the emotional hang-ups from being trapped in a dysfunctional family.

Of course, there were plenty of women campaigners, who gave the "extreme wing" no more than their due. In the meantime, the earlier constitutional organisation led by Mrs Fawcett quietly built up impressively, to use their own image, from an acorn into a mighty oak with many branches, and scores of thousands of affiliate Friends. When they marched to London, they didnt have to try to force their way into the seat of power, the powers agreed to see their deputations.

But in Rebel Girls, the less well-connected move centre-stage. Mary Gawthorpe, a self-educated working girl from the textile towns and villages of the West Riding, became one of the wittiest speakers on the campaign circuit.

An example of Churchill's wit was anticipated by her. That is when Nancy Astor said if she were married to Winston she would put poison in his drink.
Churchill answered: Nancy, if I were married to you, I would take it!
This Churchillian riposte was even featured on the cover of a recent collection of political wit.

In the Edwardian era, a male heckler, of Mary Gawthorpe, anticipated Nancy's line.
Mary answered: No need for that, friend. If I were married to you, I would take it.
The heckler, who had been doing his best to put her off, was made a laughing stock and left soon after.

The courage and good will of this little woman (she was less than five foot tall) didnt spare her the mob violence that was often meted out to the suffragettes. She was kicked in the stomach and had to have an operation. The book doesnt say whether this was why she had no children.

Mary worked with the youngest Pankhurst daughter, Adela, who was sent north to do the organising there, out of the southern spot-light. She, too, is somewhat side-lined from the standard 1931 history by Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement.The emigrant Mary Gawthorpe helped promote the American edition but found Sylvia had only given her a foot-note. (One wonders if that was only an after-thought for the help she was getting.)

The personal lives of the rebel girls are the most sympathetic aspect of the volume. I mean something a bit more human than "social history". "The masses" are what most of us are, let's be frank, and their story is largely our story. Their aspirations and endeavors are heart-warming. And a book such as this is the best we can do to reach out to them.

J S Mill's two causes.

Before the quibbles, I would like to make an important point about "the vote" which women fought for. So far, in Britain there are half a dozen undemocratic voting methods where one democratic method would do.

John Stuart Mill entered Parliament to promote two main causes: votes for women and proportional representation alias personal representation, that is where the vote is personly transferable by the voters (the single transferable vote) and not merely by party bosses presenting party lists we have to vote for as party blocs, like the vote for British Euro-elections, or for additional members to the Scots, Welsh and London parliaments or assemblies.

Tony Blair's Labour party got large numbers of women MPs by forcing them on local constituencies. (Ebbw Vale, being one of Labour's safest seats, meant that Labour voters could rebel and elect a former Labour man as an Independent against a mandatory woman. But that option is not generally available without a daring rebel to vote for, and without splitting votes and letting in the least wanted candidate.)

David Cameron, "Blair's heir" has so far ( in 2006) got to asking Tory local constituencies to have two women out of four final nominees. The monopolistic single member constituency means that the voters are then presented with an accomplished fact. Tory MP Ann Widdicombe opposed women candidates having their paths smoothed for them, making them into second-class MPs.

At the Power Inquiry conference in 2006, single members was the one feature Cameron was adamant against changing. This public relations man, one might truly call "Safe seats Dave" or "Rotten Boro Cameron," will take any camera call to make the world a better place but will not start by transforming his own party from another mean-spirited little oligarchy.

The transferable vote in multi-member constituencies allows voters to order a personal choice among several candidates, whatever their party or gender or ethnic origin or any other personal quality and character. This gives a genuinely democratic proportional representation.

We have votes for women. We dont have PR, by STV, the democratic voting method.

Minor points.

Finally, some quibbles, which are not meant to detract from the value of Rebel Girls, but will pad this review.

Actually, this would not be a minor point as far as the honor of Churchill and his family was concerned. The author comes up with the legend that Churchill as Home Secretary ordered the soldiers to fire on the Tonypandy miners. When Richard Burton was given a part as Churchill, he came up with this folk lore. It was dismissed by the entertainment magazine doing the write-up. I also vaguely remember some book's introduction, going off-topic to refute this allegation.

I'm not going to go into this defamation further. Liddington should have done that herself. Every blunder in Churchill's long life has been raked over, and if one so serious were true, it would be widely known and recognised. It is common sense that the charge is wrong. When you consider all the enemies that Churchill made, from every party in his own country, not to mention those in other countries, and the debunkers after his death, it is inconceivable that they would not have made this supposed shooting order stick, if they could.
Anyway, anyone is free to investigate the evidence for themselves. I dont want to glorify the man but neither is this the place to go into his short-comings.

The author says the Hull women's suffrage organiser, Dr Mary Murdoch "was very probably a lesbian." Maybe so, but the surmise, is based on no actual evidence. And it is presumptive so to label her, since it reflects on every woman, who is not interested in marriage but lives happily with another woman.
In its apparent belief that the essence of happiness with another is sexual congress, it may say more about the author than about Dr Murdoch.
The author, out of political correctness, seems to be throwing a bone to the lesbian lobby.

Political correctness seems to be a symptom of the party patronage of lobbies, rather than the proportional representation of the public interest in the House of Commons or communities, as well as the proportional representation of special interests in the second chamber.

Getting now to the trivia, Adela Pankhurst's spelling of "humor" and "honor" is changed to "humour" and "honour". This copy-book correcting may be misplaced. The shorter spelling was coming into scholarly English use in Victorian times. Then Teddy Rooseveldt included it in his American spelling reforms. This effected a back-lash that made it a point of honor for the British to use the longer spelling.

One of the beauties of the internet, which spans different countries with recognised English spelling variations, is that one can pick and choose one's spelling, without the book publishers' going in terror of committing a spelling heresy.

Yet Liddington uses the American solecisms or redundancies "report back" and "co-conspiracy" as well as the English varsity solecism "come up from" etc.

Richard Lung.
17 september 2006.

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