Does Pardoning Britain's Suffragettes for Lawbreaking Really Honor Their Efforts? 

In Depth

As the United Kingdom marks the one hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, the Labour party wants to pardon the country’s suffragettes for laws broken in pursuit of the vote. However, not everybody thinks this is a good idea.

The Guardian reported on Labour’s pledge to work for a posthumous pardon and official apology for women who were imprisoned for actions taken during protests. While advocating for the right to vote, suffragettes were often subject to terrible treatment. Leader Jeremy Corbyn said:

“As a country we must recognise and honour the enormous contribution and sacrifice made by women who campaigned for the right to vote.
“Many of those women were treated appallingly by society and the state. Convictions of suffragettes were politically motivated and bore no relation to the acts committed. Some were severely mistreated and force-fed in prison post-conviction so a pardon could mean something to their families.
“Labour in government will both pardon the suffragettes and give an official apology for the miscarriages of justice and wider persecution they suffered.”

Of course, there are the opponents with laws-are-laws arguments; “Instinctively I can see where that campaign is coming from so I will take a look and see if there is a proposal that I can take more seriously,” home secretary Amber Rudd told Good Morning Britain. “But in terms of pardoning for arson, for violence like that … that is a little trickier.”

But there are other objections, too. Before the announcement, historian Fern Riddell—who’s got an intriguing book out in April about the radical activist Kitty Marion—wrote a piece for the Guardian about how the women’s suffrage movement in Britain encompassed both peaceful protests and more controversial direct action:

Led by the Pankhurst family, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the suffragettes–conducted a nationwide bombing and arson campaign unlike anything this country had ever experienced, or has seen since. Women across the UK carried out midnight attacks on MPs’ houses, churches, railway stations and post offices armed with guns, bombs, and a belief that the only way to win the vote for women was to follow in the violent footsteps of men. Kitty Marion reduced the Sussex home of Conservative MP Arthur Du Cros to a burnt-out shell during one of her attacks and proclaimed: “If the government must have damage as a token that women want the vote, damage they shall have.” Often driven by their experiences of sexual assault at the hands of bosses, the police and the government, many of those women chose to carry out a campaign of direct action that we might now struggle to understand. We have sanitised our history of the suffragettes, remembering only their defiant bravery and rousing call to arms.

In response to the announcement, Riddell tweeted:

Others are voicing objections, as well. Said Caroline Lucas, an MP and Green Party leader:

Historian Rebecca Rideal also makes the point that Labour might want to examine its own house, noting the party has never had a permanent female leader:

And activist Caroline Criado-Perez, who has campaigned for more women on British money, wrote a piece for the New Statesman, reminding everyone that the suffragettes demanded “Deeds, not Words,” and this pardon is nothing but words:

A pardon costs today’s government nothing. It is pain-free, and it is meaningless. And in the context of the deeds this government is enacting, it is an insult.
This is a government, after all, that refuses to gender analyse its budgets—despite the fact that it is arguably a legal requirement under the 2010 Equality Act, and despite that fact that more than one body has found that 86 per cent of cuts since 2010 have fallen on women. This is a government that refuses to adequately fund women’s shelters, leading to 94 women and 90 children being turned away from Women’s Aid refuges on a single day last year. This is a government that forces women to prove they were raped in order to claim child tax credits if they are wilful enough to have a third child—and which forced this change through Parliament without a vote.

Though it’s more substantive than the tribute from…. of all places… the Downton Abbey Twitter account?

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin