Aberdeen’s first taste of suffragette tactics came during a by-election at the start of 1907. In February several WSPU leaders, including Mrs Pankhurst, Teresa Billington-Grieg and Helen Fraser (pictured), arrived in Aberdeen.
The suffragettes held a series of public meetings, both indoors and in the city streets. Meetings held in Castle Street and at the Wallace Statue were well attended. The pull of the notorious suffragette leaders must have been strong to encourage people to attend open-air meetings in the dark chill of a February night.
The WSPU had the controversial policy of campaigning against the government (i.e. the Liberal) candidate, whether or not he was personally committed to women’s suffrage. Mrs Pankhurst explained that the policy had been adopted because the candidate represented a government that refused to give women the vote. However, it caused problems in Aberdeen, particularly with members of the Aberdeen Women’s Liberal Association, many of whom were keen suffragists and members of the constitutional NUWSS.
Caroline Phillips helped to organise the suffragette meetings and also led the attack on the Aberdeen Liberal ladies. In her letters to the press she poured scorn on their preference for Liberal politics over women’s rights.
Timely news today that a bronze statute of the leader of the NUWSS - the constitutional suffragists - Millicent Garret Fawcett will be unveiled next year as part of the celebrations of (partial) women suffrage.
I say partial because only qualified women over the age of 30 gained the vote in 1918. Younger women, and those not qualified by paying rates / other taxes or married to someone who did, had to wait until 1928 when all women over the age of 21 gained the parliamentary vote.
There had been a campaign for the parliamentary vote for women since the 1860s. In 1867 (1868 in Scotland) the Representation of the People Act gave some working-class men the right to vote for the first time, but no women. In response, a number of women’s suffrage societies were set up all over the country, including Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
These societies amalgamated under the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). They are known as the ‘constitutional suffragists’ because they believed in winning the vote for women through constitutional means, such as petitions and letters to MPs.
There was general excitement amongst women suffragists when a new Liberal government was elected with a landslide victory in 1906. The majority of Liberal MPs had pledged their support to the cause of women’s suffrage, and the Liberal party was also associated with the slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. However, hopes were quickly dashed. Although the new Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, was sympathetic, he did not feel that there was an appetite in the country to change the status quo.
Growing frustration with the situation prompted Emmeline Pankhurst, the widow of a socialist politician from Manchester, to establish a new kind of suffrage organisation. Working with her daughters Christabel, Adela and Sylvia, and others from her socialist circles in Manchester, Mrs Pankhurst established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The WSPU aimed to raise the profile of the question of women’s suffrage and to make women campaigners more visible. Rather than giving tea parties for other women, WSPU members attended male political meetings to demand the vote. Such conduct outraged Edwardian sensibilities and WSPU members found themselves shouted down and forcibly removed.
In October 1905 things came to a head when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney, a mill-worker, disrupted a political meeting in Manchester, were arrested and opted to go to prison rather than pay a fine. Their imprisonment made newspaper headlines throughout the country. The WSPU quickly realised that such ‘militant’ acts raised their profile and made ‘votes for women’ a hot topic. The Union adopted the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ and adopted these new tactics of disrupting meetings and accepting imprisonment in order to gain maximum publicity for their cause. It was at this point that the Daily Mail coined the name ‘Suffragettes’ for these new radical suffrage campaigners, to distinguish them from the constitutional suffragists of the NUWSS.
Aberdeen Art Gallery holds a collection of correspondence and papers that belonged to a woman journalist called Caroline Phillips. Most of the correspondence dates from between 1907 and 1909 and deals with the organisation of the Aberdeen branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), otherwise known as the Suffragettes. While the popular image of the suffragettes places them in England, particularly London, in fact the campaign for votes for women happened throughout the UK. However, it is unusual to have such a treasure trove of information about the goings-on in one small branch in north-east Scotland. This makes the Art Gallery collection – known as the Watt Collection after the person who deposited the letters at the Gallery – fascinating.
Caroline Phillips worked for the Aberdeen Daily Journal – the more conservative of the two daily newspapers in Aberdeen at this time. However, the archive shows that she used the Journal address as her address for correspondence relating to the WSPU, and also drafted WSPU-related letters on Daily Journal notepaper! In January 1908 she was warned by her employer that she was ‘identifying’ herself far too closely with the woman’s suffrage movement, and there is also evidence that she was shut out of some public events organised by the Liberal party because of her connections to the suffragettes. But this does not seem to have stopped her serving as honorary secretary for the Aberdeen WSPU branch and becoming involved in meetings and militancy.