Thought-provoking pair of articles in this month’s BBC History Magazine on the Women’s Suffrage Movement, their tactics and their impact.
One article argues that the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), headed by the (in)famous Pankhursts, were effectively terrorists. It claims that they not only chained themselves to railings, went on hunger strike and smashed windows, but also repeatedly committed arson and actually planted homemade bombs loaded with shrapnel. The fact that no members of the public were killed as a result of their actions was, according to this article, due to luck and the efforts of the Police in rescuing victims from burning houses etc.
This article also states that the women of the WSPU did not, in fact, have the widespread grassroots support they claimed; that there was only ever a relatively small group of ‘fanatics’ who were willing to break the law and carry out these acts. Although quite what that proves in terms of the numbers of passive but sympathetic supporters, I don’t know.
The author also claims that their actions caused a similar sort of public fear and disruption to that we currently associate with terrorists.
As far as this article is concerned, the only reasons we now revere rather than revile them is because they succeeded and because they did a fantastic propaganda job.
The second article argues eloquently against this ‘revisonist’ view, but rather lets itself down at the end when it descends into a personal attack on the author of the first article. I love it when historians get waspish!
Anyway, it illustrates two points I think: firstly that cliche of one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom-fighter – its all in your pont of view. Secondly, and more interestingly for me, it shows up the dangers of trying to apply modern labels based on modern sensibilities onto historical people and events. Context is all.
Robert Kett? Guy Fawkes, Catesby and the other Gunpowder Plotters? Oliver Cromwell and his jolly chums? The Levellers? The Luddites? The Chartists? Our history is liberally peppered with people who have broken the law and committed violence against people and property – including assassinations and judicial executions – in order to address what they saw as an injustice or to bring in a New World Order…
Most interesting of all perhaps, at least to historians, are the measures Kings and Governments have brought in to deal with these terrorists. Measures which run counter to the very freedoms and civil liberties they are supposed to protect. I wonder who today’s Walsinghams and Cecils are, and whether their modern intelligence networks are as impressively all pervasive as their Tudor and Stuart forebears?