Earnest Exchanges, the Letters of 1912
In the novel No Surrender by Constance Elizabeth Maud, a conversation between an opponent of woman suffrage and a suffragist turns on an exchange of letters in The Sunday Times initiated by an “anti,” and rebutted by a suffragist who wrote to lay out the truth, answering the original letter point for point.
Among the events and themes that Maud weaves into her story of the awakening of two young women to the social, economic, and personal transformation woman suffrage could offer to all of British society, the inclusion of the verbal dimension of the struggle carried out in the pages of various national and local newspapers is a small part. But the work involved in such exchanges as Maud references through her fictional event, took time, energy, and commitment. If the WSPU was, as they styled themselves, an army of willing and dedicated soldiers, Davison served as one of a regiment of skilled sharp shooters who guarded the truth of the movement’s goals and means, working and writing at the periphery of the WSPU’s intellectual territory, living in a liminal position engaging the enemy on a daily basis.
Emily Davison’s letters from 1912 reflect both her own and the suffrage movement’s tenuous circumstances. From January to June she was a prisoner in Royal Holloway where she suffered an egregious round of forced feeding, not because she was hunger striking, but because she was deemed not to be eating enough. The torture she endured forms the basis of two of the few letters she wrote while in prison. After her release she went back to Longhorsley in Northumberland, to live with her mother and regain her strength. From Longhorsley she resumed her letter-writing campaign to national and local papers. The scrapbook contents from this period reveal her thinking. One can see her underlinings in the letters she chose to engage, and see how she answered them point for point in her own responses. The letters, reflecting the concerns of the WSPU, overwhelmingly defend the militant tactics of the group, they also repeatedly address the unjustified brutality of forcible feeding, and they lay bare and refute widespread popular prejudices about women.
The scrapbook contains an extended exchange between Davison and an “A. Knox” of Bedlington Colliery in the pages of The Morpeth Herald about the nature of women’s brains. Eventually the editor of the Herald put an end to the public debate between the two, objecting that they were writing too much and too frequently. Because both Knox and Davison were inflexible in their beliefs, and because each was a skilled correspondent, their exchange, which mirrors then-current thinking about women’s physiology, mental capacity, and fitness for the vote provides an excellent summary not only of suffrage ideas, but also of the kind of entrenched and mistaken “certainty” composed of cultural bromides and prejudices that passed for science when speaking of women.
The last letters in the scrapbook are dated early in 1913 when Davison was still at Longhorsley, and before she returned later that winter to London where she rejoined the militant suffrage movement in whose service she would shortly die.
February 11, 1912, To the Editor of The Sunday Times
Written from Holloway prison where she was serving a six-month sentence for having set fire to Post Office mail boxes in December, 1911 as a protest against the government’s treatment of suffragettes, this letter documents that by February Davison had access to pen and paper, and a means of sending a letter out of the prison. It also implies that she had access to newspapers. All of this may be the result of the infamous rule 243b, approved by Winston Churchill, Under-Secretary in the Home Office, granting suffragettes some of the perquisites and comforts of Division One status reserved for political prisoners; however, they were not accorded the dignity of the title, a distinction which Davison and her fellow suffragettes had long petitioned for.
Lily Langtry was well-known for her anti-suffragette views and “Helping the Cause” was a satire of the suffrage movement Langtry wrote herself. Davison protests making fun of the torture of forcible feeding, and indicates her own attitude toward the suffrage movement when she deems it a “holy cause.”
Sir, –It has come to my knowledge that Mrs. Langtry has for the past week being [sic] playing a skit on the Suffragette question and forcible feeding entitled ‘Helping the Cause,’ at the Manchester Hippodrome, which is to be also produced in London. Good-natured satire is an admirable thing, but no one who has any spark of humane feeling in them cares to jest at that which others hold sacred! Mrs. Langtry clearly has never met any Suffragette who has undergone the disgusting and painful process of forcible feeding for the sake of her holy cause, or she would as little have thought of staging such a burlesque as a man with the truly sporting instinct would think of hitting anyone below the belt! –Yours, etc.
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
Holloway Prison, London
February 10