Image courtesy of the People's History Museum
Last Friday Krista Cowman came to give a talk on the role of Emily Wilding Davison and other suffragettes in the provinces at the People's History Museum. While many are aware of Davison's dramatic death, the talk addressed the work she did to campaign for women during her lifetime. Here is some insight into Davison and the work she did as a suffragette.
Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 to a middle-class background. She benefitted from the educational reforms of the time, but could not complete her university education as planned due to her father's death so worked as a governess whilst completing it part-time. Davison joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1906 and in total she received 8 imprisonments, 700 strikes and was forcibly fed 49 times. She initially did suffrage work whilst still teaching, but the imprisonments caused her to decide give this up and dedicate herself to women's suffrage campaigning full time.
Cowman focused on the provincial campaigning, arguing that regional campaigns were the bedrock of what the union did as so many women worked from home rather than in London. At one time 140 women were being paid to be district organisers, which was a fairly settled role, taking day to day control of branches and sending detailed weekly diaries down to London to account for weekly meetings, and sales of various publications. Financing the work was a key factor, whilst they could claim petty cash, districts were often creative and make do in many ways in order to save money on materials needed.
Davison became an Itinerant Protester; between 1906-1912 - prison was an objective of the WSPU as a way to overwhelm the country's justice system as a means of protest. Many women were not imprisoned for breaking the law in a way that would usually get a prison sentence, but instead did offences that would incur a fine - then went to prison for refusing to pay the fine.
Respectable women of all classes became itinerant protestors, when in prison they would be disruptive, taunting guards, going on hunger strike and more.
Repeat offenders would be given increased sentences but jail was seen to open up the path to becoming an organiser. The work of suffragettes became known as 'pestering', women pursued politicians across the country to the point where some politicians began to refuse to take part in public meetings if women were in the audience and as a result security was tightened. Trying to get tickets to these meetings was one of the roles of campaign organisers and sometimes women would be in venues days ahead of the meetings to ensure they would be present.
The talk also broached the demise of the WSPU, arguably due to the outbreak of World War One, and then lead to a lively question and answer sesssion. Huge thanks to Krista Cowman for making the journey to Manchester to deliver this intriguing talk.
Krista Cowman is Professor of History at the University of Lincoln, a founder member of the Women’s History Network, and author of numerous publications including Women of the Right Spirit: Paid Organisers of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) 1904-18 - which would be a recommended read if the subject of this talk interests you.