The Fawcett society has recently called for the Suffragettes to be pardoned. Eloise debates whether this would be a fitting tribute or if instead it could serve to encourage politically motivated crime or even dismiss the great sacrifice they made.

Pardoning the Suffragettes?

picture from The Independent

Following recent pressure from the Fawcett Society, several leading politicians have been debating the possibility of pardoning the Suffragettes. Sam Smethers, chief executive of The Fawcett Society, argues that it would be a ‘fitting tribute’ as the Suffragettes made ‘such sacrifices’ during their campaign for equal franchise and ‘in any meaningful sense of the word, they are not criminals’. A criminal is simply defined by Oxford dictionaries as ‘a person who has committed a crime’. This therefore classes the Suffragettes as criminals, as the label and resultantly the law does not – however unjustly – take into consideration the necessity or reasoning of committing said crime.

On the one hand, it is undeniable that the Suffragettes committed a significant number of crimes during their campaign, totalling at over 1300 arrests for crimes such as arson and assault. A pardon has the potential to legitimise some of these extremities of violence – for instance the assault of Winston Churchill in 1909 despite his pro-suffrage vote, an example where it could be argued that the Suffragettes took the militancy of their movement too far, and perhaps encourage other modern day violent outbursts towards politicians. There is a general consensus that the political murder of MP Jo Cox was irrevocably wrong, and whilst the assault of Churchill undoubtedly pales in comparison to the atrocities that Cox faced, surely the physical attack of MPs (or any public figure) is something that should be discouraged across history – whatever the motive? This seems to be a sentiment shared by the Prime Minister – in her recent speech in Manchester she criticised the online abuse and intimidation that politicians today face, expressing her concern that ‘bitterness and aggression’ deters political engagement – or perhaps attracts the wrong form of engagement, and therefore excusing this behaviour allows the line of uncalled for attack and passionate protest to become blurred.

Despite this, pardoning the Suffragettes may be a simple way of honouring their memory for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 that first allowed women to vote by acknowledging the part they played in the campaign for the enfranchisement of women and the resultant advancement of society. Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party argues this case, suggesting in the Telegraph that the question of pardoning the Suffragettes is synonymous with ‘righting that wrong’. Arguably, the Suffragettes were treated wrongly, with the government resorting to cruel and inhumane methods (such as force feeding) – but perhaps an apology may be more appropriate than a pardon. A pardon seems to attempt to white-wash history, creating a cheap cover up and an easy way for political parties to forge a feminist façade. It dismisses the reality that women at the time felt they had to break the law to be acknowledged by the men in power, and the necessity of the Suffragettes’ militancy in securing women’s right to vote. Krista Cowman, a professor of History at the University of Lincoln, suggested that the Suffragettes would be ‘spinning in their graves’ at the idea of being pardoned, implying that perhaps they too would be angry at the proposed dismissal of the lengths of their sacrifices – ultimately what use would a clean criminal record be to them now, other than eliminating the cold proof of their efforts?

Helen Pankhurst (great-granddaughter to Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter to Sylvia Pankhurst) dismisses the debate by suggesting its irrelevance as the Suffragettes have already been pardoned by society. The respect the Suffragettes command from modern day society is evident. A statue of Alice Hawkins went up in Market Square, Leicester earlier this month partially as a result of her five-time imprisonment in aid of the cause, proving that the Suffragette legacy remains untarnished by criminal records and perhaps is even enhanced through their defiance of the law.  Helen Pankhurst further encourages women to ‘continue their fight’ rather than ‘dwell’ on personal sacrifice. Perhaps modern-day feminists ought to be emboldened rather than burdened by the Suffragettes’ struggle in order to strive for further equalities within society.

By Eloise Hall