Feminist Writing. Fourth Wave. For Women.

Striking Similarities Between Treatment of Modern Gender Critical Feminists and British Suffragettes

British Suffragettes faced injustice in the courts, by police, and the press.

Striking Similarities Between  Treatment of Modern Gender Critical Feminists and British Suffragettes
21st December 1908: Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, founders of the Women's Social and Political Union, after leaving Bow Street in London, where they were imprisoned (via Getty Images)

While the current fight for women’s rights cannot be curtailed to the United Kingdom, it is on this island that we’re witnessing the front line of the battle against gender ideology.

Just as at the beginning of the past century, when British women of the First Wave were grappling with the injustice of being denied the right to vote, women are now fighting the unfairness of being denied the freedom of thought and expression.

Although women and feminists in many countries are currently battling gender ideology, it is in the UK where the clashes seem most severe.

A century ago, it was here the fight for women‘s suffrage took the most ferocious form. Today’s fight for women’s rights mirrors the fight for suffrage from over two generations ago in the tactics used to silence and suppress women’s voices. From political homelessness to violence and state-sanctioned injustice, this new battleground is proving how women’s history repeats itself as we continue to push back against new forms of patriarchal oppression.

Women’s political homelessness

This year, Labour members of parliament Lisa Nandy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Dawn Butler and others have signed a 12-point pledge card by the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights that describes some organisations including Woman’s Place UK as “trans-exclusionary hate groups.” Labour MPs have also pledged to “Accept that trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary.”

Beside MPs, 3400 Labour party members have signed this pledge or supported gender ideology in a different way, as have members of other major British political parties, namely the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Conservatives. Thus, women who support sex-based rights for women find themselves politically homeless.

British Suffragettes faced the same issue. The most famous of them, Emmeline Pankhurst, first got disillusioned after joining the Liberal party. In her biography of the Suffragette, June Purvis writes:

“Emmeline had never forgiven the Liberal statesman William Ewart Gladstone for his opposition to women’s suffrage and was only too glad to sever her links with the Liberal Party which she saw as a men’s party that used the talents of Liberal women for its own ends.”

Disappointed with the Liberals, Emmeline joined the newly established Labour party, “hoping that it would be a vehicle for improving the many disadvantages suffered by poor women and, in particular, that it would advocate the parliamentary vote for her sex.”

Again, she was disenchanted as, with the exception of Keir Hardie, Labourist men were, on the whole, opposed to women’s suffrage.

Her disillusionment with Liberals and Labourists led her to disengage from both. As leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), she demanded WSPU members to not be affiliated with any political party.

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Hostile media

There are also similarities between how the Suffragettes of the First Wave and gender critical women of today are treated in the media. In today’s English-speaking press, feminists who criticize gender ideology are called “anti-trans,” "transphobic," as well as “aggressive biological essentialists” and other insulting names. Besides calling us names, many journalists have been ignoring or downplaying the streams of online abuse and incidents of offline violence aimed at gender critical feminists. If they reported on them at all, journalists in the UK and beyond have mostly chosen to call attacks on feminist women by TRAs “rows” or “fights,” suggesting both sides equally culpable.

Such treatment by the press would be old news to the English Suffragettes. One such news report downplaying the violence of anti-suffrage men appeared in the British press in 1908. Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Sylvia described it thus in her memoir:

“The Daily News hailed with enthusiasm the formation of what was known as the ‘League of Young Liberals, which was in reality a gang of young roughs whose first act was to push a policeman through the plate glass window of the shop which served as our Committee Rooms. This and other violent acts were described by the Daily News as ‘diverting incidents with the Suffragettes’.

Moreover, just as today, at the beginning of the Suffragettes’ direct action, the British media refused to ignore these “disobedient“ women. In her autobiography, Emmeline Pankhurst wrote:

“Then in 1905 we faced the hard facts. We realised that there was a Press boycott against Women's Suffrage. Our speeches at public meetings were not reported, our letters to the editors were not published, even if we implored the editors; even the things relating to Women's Suffrage in Parliament were not recorded.”

The boycott wasn’t limited to the press. In her memoir, Suffragette Constance Lytton mentioned thatNewspapers will not accept, publishers will not print, and booksellers will not sell the true facts concerning us.”

The suffragettes also faced name-calling and ridicule from journalists. As Teresa Billington-Greig said,“Every possible device of misrepresentation was employed against us, and personal abuse and scurrility were our daily newspaper fare.”

Emmeline Pankhurst mentions one such misrepresentation in regards to the Suffragettes Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst who asked Sir Edward Grey at a Liberal meeting in Manchester a question and were subsequently assaulted, thrown out of the room and arrested:

“The comments of the press were almost unanimously bitter. Ignoring the perfectly well-established fact that men in every political meeting ask questions and demand answers of the speakers, the newspapers treated the action of the two girls as something quite unprecedented and outrageous. They generally agreed that great leniency had been shown them. Fines and jail-sentences were too good for such unsexed creatures. ‘The discipline of the nursery’ would have been far more appropriate. One Birmingham paper declared that ‘if any argument were required against giving ladies political status and power it had been furnished in Manchester.’”

Journalists not only ignored, misrepresented, or ridiculed the Suffragettes, but, at times, incited the public to abuse them. As Sylvia Pankhurst reported in her memoir: “Christabel [Pankhurst] had been assaulted with the bodies of dead mice and, on live mice being let loose at one of our meetings, a well-known Glasgow daily paper had suggested that rats or even ferrets might suitably be employed.”

Violence and abuse by the public

Gender critical women facing online and offline abuse could also take some comfort in knowing that while today she is considered one of the most influential women of the last 100 years, during her campaigning years, Emmeline Pankhurst withstood face-to-face violence as well as abuse by hate-mail from the public.

June Purvis writes that on 18 January 1908 Emmeline Pankhurst and her co-worker, Nellie Martel, “were attacked by a group of young male clay-cutters who had supported the ousted Liberal candidate, whom the women had opposed. While Emmeline was running to the haven of a grocer’s shop, a staggering blow fell on the back of her head, rough hands grasped the collar of her coat and she was flung to the muddy ground.”

The leader of WSPU wasn’t the only object of abuse. Suffragette Teresa Bilington-Greig wrote that in 1906, “Anonymous letters of the vilest descriptions used to reach us. When we travelled about for meetings hotel keepers and landladies were loath to take us in... We were faced daily with a hundred petty indignities and insults.”

Women who sold The Suffragette newspapers in the city streets also faced all kinds of abuse. Mary Richardson, selling the newspaper at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street found the “sex filth which elderly men in particular seemed determined to inflict the most hateful part of her job. During the selling she also had to withstand “friendly bombardmentfrom factory women who threw rotten fruit and vegetables at her.

Although most of the offenses aimed at gender critical feminists have been happening online, some assaults did happen in the outside world as well. In the UK in 2017, a 26 year old transgender male attacked a 60-year-old feminist Maria MacLachlan at London’s Speaker’s Corner. In 2018, British YouTuber Magdalen Berns, hated by gender ideologues, was assaulted by an unknown man in the street. In 2019, leading feminist Julie Bindel was attacked by a transgender male in Edinburgh.

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Unjust treatment by courts and the police

Beside abuse and mistreatment by the public, the Suffragettes have another thing in common with the most hated British feminists of today: the unfairness meted against them by the system of “justice.”

In 2018, the British police interrogated a gender critical woman, Posie Parker, who tweeted her disapproval of sex reassignment surgery for a minor. The police alleged she could have committed a hate crime.

Similar allegations were recently made by the police in the case of three other Britons – Harry Miller, Caroline Farrow and Graham Linehan. Another outspoken feminist, Julia Long, was forcefully thrown out of a meeting on Transgender rights by the police, despite causing no disruption.

Another incident of injustice being served happened in the 2020 case of Scottow vs. Hayden, when a mother was arrested and later found guilty of “causing annoyance, inconvenience and anxiety” to a transgender male who said Kate Scottow‘s tweets violated his dignity as a “woman.” During the verdict, the judge chastised Scottow: “We teach children to be kind to each other and not to call each other names in the playground.” Scottow was made the subject of a two year conditional discharge and must pay £1,000 in costs.

Although this sort of injustice – being harassed, arrested, prosecuted or convicted for “misgendering” and other “offenses” may seem unprecedented to contemporaries, it is not unseen in the history of feminism which has a long tradition of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws.

The British Suffragettes got arrested for simply speaking at meetings or rallies, as well as for peaceful protesting, marching and organizing deputations. Moreover, the Suffragettes were routinely harassed by policemen, subject to police violence, wrongfully accused and unjustly treated by the courts.

For example, in 1906 the Suffragettes formed a deputation and tried to meet prime minister Asquith, a staunch anti-suffragist. On the way to meet him, the women faced a crowd of policemen who violently assaulted them. Sylvia Pankhurst described how “Theresa Billington tried in vain to prevent this violence, ‘We will go forward," she cried. ‘You shall not hit our women like that,’ but a policeman struck her in the face with his fist and another pinioned her arms. Then she was seized by the throat and forced against the railings until, as was described by an onlooker, ‘she became blue in the face.’”

Subsequently, Billington was charged with an assault on the police and convicted.

Beside unjust treatment, arrests and convictions, the Suffragettes complained about unfair sentences. In British Suffrage newspapers, women frequently compared punishments of the Suffragettes with the ones issued to men who engaged in violence against women or children.

For instance, in The Vote, Suffragette Edith Watson compared Emily Wilding Davison’s sentence of six months’ imprisonment for attempting to burn letters with a four-month sentence for a man’s repeated sexual assaults on a seven years old girl.

The whole history of the British women’s fight for their right to vote is rife with betrayal, injustice, violence and even torture that the Suffragettes endured at the hands of men in power. As we now see many of these tactics used against the feminists battling for our language, facts and dignity, we can assume that this fight is as important as the one for women’s suffrage.

LYTTON, Constance: Prisons & Prisoners: Some Personal Experiences. 1914. London William Heinemann
PANKHURST, Emmeline: My Own Story. 1914. Hearsts's International Library Co., Inc.
PANKHURST, Sylvia: The Suffragette: The History of the Women’s Millitant Suffrage Movement 1905 - 1910. 1911. Sturgis & Walton Company.
PURVIS, June. Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (Women's & Gender History). 2003. Routledge.
PURVIS, J. HOLTON, S. (eds.). Votes For Women. 2000.

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