Dr Terry Stanford’s talk Death, Destruction and the Cat and Mouse Act on Friday 24th February was a fascinating introduction to the Suffragette Movement and their struggle to achieve votes for women. What came as a surprise to some of us was to realise that for most of the 19th Century only some 40% of men had the vote. Even after the third Reform Act of 1884 which enfranchised all male home owners, many millions were still excluded. The legal position of women was generally dire with no rights to the custody of children, to higher education or access to divorce. Power was in the hands of middle class men and aristocrats.
As for the Cat and Mouse Act, this apparently was a sly piece of early 20th Century legislation. It provided for the release of suffragette prisoners who went on hunger strike, had been force fed and were close to death. They could then be nursed by their families only to be re-arrested when they had recovered. This was to make sure they did not die in custody – so bad for PR – or get away with their non-compliant behaviour in going on hunger strike. Not nice to think this was government policy here just a century ago.
Terry was at pains to emphasise that we should not judge people by contemporary standards, but rather by how they saw things at the time and the bad treatment meted out to the suffragetes did gradually change public opinion in their favour, though perhaps women working in the arms factories during the First World War had a bigger impact. This is a relevant point. Today we are often appalled by what we hear about the treatment of women in many Muslim and African countries and of honour killings and the subservience expected of many women in our immigrant communities. That is understandable, but before we get too self-righteous about such behaviour and attitudes it is sobering to remember just how recent gender equality and the right to vote is in this country, and how much we owe to the brave women who followed Emily Pankhurst and before her the Liberal philosopher, economist and politician John Stuart Mill who was the first MP to put forward a bill to give women the vote in 1867. Terry reminded us that it was however only in February 1918 that women here at last were enfranchised.
Again this talk was very well attended and sparked off interesting questions and lively discussion.