Saturday, August 17, 1912, To the Editor of The Manchester Guardian
In mid August, 1912 Emily Davison entered into an exchange of letters in the pages of the Manchester Guardian with a Mr. W.A. Dudley who criticized militant tactics. Davison’s response, familiar in its argument, contains a slightly different tone from earlier letters. Her she allies the militant tactics increasingly applied by the WSPU with the prophecy of John Stuart Mill, the great liberal supporter of women’s rights, who foresaw the total dedication a campaign to obtain the full spectrum of civil rights for women would bring forth. Her central argument, in her second paragraph, is the one of women’s courage as a form of British courage, here mingled with frustrated anger at the “ribald laughter” and jeering bigotry in Parliament that had met stories of how imprisoned suffragettes have been force fed and mistreated. She recalls the length of time—four years– that women have “suffered violence in their own bodies” before being driven to violence themselves. No longer forward-looking in her expectations, but defensive and angry, Davison moves on the offensive in the last paragraph.
Her reply was met by Dudley’s subsequent response apparently to Davison and a Miss Barratt, who both took exception to his words. Dudley’s defense echoes the larger public sentiment that militancy will not work because it will create more enemies than friends to the cause, and hinder the achievement of Woman Suffrage. But he goes further to suggest that if militancy prevails, it will set a precedent for future militancy that might threaten the state, not just a particular government. He calls for reliance on the power of the vote, not force, to win the day. A certain circularity appears in this exchange, to use the power of the vote one must have the vote; to have the vote women seem to have to use power and force, because nothing else has worked for over fifty years. By the end of the third letter included in the scrapbook, Davison has moved very close to justifying the kind of sacrifice she herself would become on the track at Epsom. Her writing during 1912 is increasingly full of the rhetoric of sacrifice for the cause, a rhetoric which was not hers alone, but which also appears in various pro-suffrage works such as novels (Suffragette Sally), and in the pages of Votes for Women. Davison’s second letter, the third in the exchange to be included in her scrapbook, expatiates on these themes—that the vote, the surest way and the most desirable way for women to achieve political voice and equality can only come through men who so far have been either indifferent or opposed; that women have suffered grievous injury, to the point of death or maiming at the hands of their own government in their struggle; that women steel themselves to continue by invoking cultural heroes who have faced the prospect of death, here the Christian martyrs whose spirit “inspires us to-day.”
Sir.—Your correspondent Mr. W.A. Dudley evidently does not understand the true meaning of our militant tactics. That was, I venture to assert, very clearly foreshadowed and set forth by our pioneer champion, John Stuart Mil, when he declared that until some women were prepared to put the cause of their political emancipation before everything else in the world, including personal, home, and party ties, they would never win the day. This, of course, is the gist of militancy, which takes various forms according to the need of the moment, the weapon varying from that of the ‘powerful pen’ to the ‘the hammer, the axe, or the firebrand.’
The justification for the latter weapons is the violence used against us. Are we women such backboneless creatures, inferior in caliber to the proverbial worm, that we can tamely submit to the apparently interminable torture of our foremost fighters? Are we to bear without resentment the invariably ribald laughter which greets any mention of our comrades’ sufferings in Parliament? In short, have the women of England none of the pride which has made our island the world-power that it is? The spirit which made our ancestors win their freedom at all costs is burning brightly in the hearts of those who are called militants to-day. But the eyes of the larger number are still so holden [restrained, kept in one place?] that they cannot see, and they excuse their blindness by the readiest means. Until quite recently opponents excused their bigotry by jeering at our ‘pinprick’ methods. Having thereby roused us to the determination to show that we could adopt any methods when they were justified by abominable outrage, those who wish to delay justice to women turn round to abuse our violence, which at present has been done only by the advanced few.
Reforms can only be carried by one of two alternative motives, love or fear. Governments are not yet apparently civilized enough to yield to love. But if they fail to yield to love (the devoted service of women to the State for generations), who is Mr. Dudley, or anyone else, that he can blame women if they bring the motive of fear into play? Mr. Asquith referred in one of the Parliamentary debates on women’s suffrage to the saying that those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. But who took up the sword first in this case? Certainly not the militant women, who, determined though they were, suffered violence in their own bodies for at least four years of valiant agitation before even individual ones retaliated on Government windows.
The onus to prove that militancy, steadily increasing in force, is not needed lies with Mr. Dudley and others who have not won for us yet that weapon, which, well manipulated, is the most effective and least destructive to win reform—namely, the vote. Meantime the justification of our warfare lies in the urgency of our cause and the cant of those who refuse to act up to their principles. Yours, etc.,
EMILY WILDING DAVISON
Longhorsley, S.O. Northumberland