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Rise Up, Women!

The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

By Diane Atkinson
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Rise Up, Women! by Diane Atkinson

Rise Up, Women! (2018) tells the remarkable story of the militant women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom. Full of fascinating insights into the women at the heart of the struggle for equality, these blinks illuminate one of the twentieth century’s first great civil rights revolutions.

Key idea 1 of 9

The Pankhurst family began advocating for women’s suffrage in early twentieth-century Britain.

Following voting reforms in 1832, around 800,000 property-owning men in the United Kingdom could vote. Women, however, remained disenfranchised. That struck some as deeply unfair. The English philosopher John Stuart Mill, for example, raised the issue in 1867, arguing that it was unjust that female taxpayers couldn’t elect their own representatives.

Yet little was done to change the situation. Even the socialist Labour party, which was otherwise committed to equality, kept silent. Its leaders feared that only wealthy women would be given the vote, boosting the Conservative and Liberal parties. By the turn of the twentieth century, the situation looked bleak for supporters of women’s suffrage.

Frustrated by this lack of progress, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Sylvia decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1905, the duo began lobbying members of parliament or MPs directly, but their arguments mostly fell on deaf ears. One exception was John Slack, the Liberal MP for St Albans. Slack decided to raise the question of women’s suffrage in parliament and introduced a private members’ bill – a proposal to change the law.

The bill was filibustered. Opponents extended debates concerning other bills. By the time Slack’s proposal was raised for discussion, only 30 minutes remained. As it was announced, MPs laughed and clapped.

That was the moment the Pankhursts realized that they’d have to change their tactics. If they wanted to secure the vote for women, politely asking for change just wasn’t going to cut it. So what was the alternative? Well, they’d have to become a great deal more confrontational and shock people. Their organization – the Women’s Social and Political Union or WSPU – adopted a new motto to reflect this change in tactics: “Deeds not words.”

Christabel, another of Pankhurst’s daughters, and Annie Kenney, a mill worker from Oldham, led the way. They interrupted a Liberal rally in Manchester and waved a banner reading “Will you give votes for women?” As police officers led them away, Christabel spat at one of them, knowing it’d get her arrested.

Both were charged with obstruction while Christabel faced another charge of assault. When they refused to pay their fines, they were sentenced to several days in prison. That got people talking. Newspapers like the Times reported on the trial – the first WSPU event to ever feature in the national press!

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