The following describes the roles played by British Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries responding to the lobbying by the suffragettes.
Henry Campbell Bannerman, Prime Minister, 1905-1908
In May 1906 Bannerman received a deputation of suffragists and suffragettes to discuss the issue of legislation towards women’s suffrage. Sylvia Pankhurst described him as a middle aged academic and lawyer who was short and stalky with a bulbous nose and an inscrutable expression on his face when talking. He concealed a certain ruthlessness under a steely and numbing façade. At the meeting he was cordial, and said he supported suffrage in principal but that unfortunately there was minimal support within the Liberal Party. In October l906 eleven members of the WSPU were arrested for demonstrating at the opening of Parliament. In a first and an omen of things to come, the activists were sentenced to two months at Holloway Gaol, Europe’s largest women’s prison.
Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister, 1908-1916
In 1908 Prime Minister Asquith in an attempt at sly humour responded to a question in Parliament posed by an anti-suffrage MP who asked if he was thinking of introducing legislation to allow women’s suffrage: “My honourable friend has asked me a question with regard to a remote and speculative future.”
The interruption of speeches by politicians either in the House or in public venues with questions and jibes was a common practice for British men. It was a custom the WSPU appropriated with enthusiasm and in the process, they transformed and weaponised it. As security tightened at party gatherings and suffragettes were screened and blocked at entrances they resorted to clever and ingenious strategies to gain entry. Prime Minister Asquith and his senior ministers were not amused and were unmoved by the activist’s complaints regarding a disturbing pattern of aggression by security staff who, while forcibly removing activists from Party gatherings, were prone to rough them up with curses, punches, kicks and groping.
By 1907-08 suffragette imprisonment convictions totalled 350 weeks. Sylvia Pankhurst recorded a statement by Asquith, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a speech on October 29, 1907, in Tayport : “Votes for Women would do “more harm than good,” and Parliament was not elected on a basis of universal suffrage, for “children are not represented there.” This popular chauvinistic opinion preceded Asquith and remained widely held.
The following is a list of Home Secretaries who oversaw national defence, policing and prisons and who headed the Liberal Party policy for dealing with the Pankhurst’s and the WSPU.
Herbert John Gladstone, Home Secretary, 1905-1910.
Sylvia Pankhurst described him as rather plump and bald with a look of entitlement mixed with contempt. It was under Gladstone’s tenure that an imprisoned suffragette introduced the first recorded hunger strike on July 5, 1909. It was successful in gaining the prisoner an early release for medical reasons. The tactic was quickly adopted by the WSPU. To counter this development Gladstone consulted with two medical experts on force feeding inmates, one was a pathologist for an asylum and the other a prison medical doctor. Both men were enthusiastic supporters of the procedure. Gladstone’s office also devised the, Cat and Mouse Act as a supplement to force feeding. However, it was not implemented until 1913.
Winston Churchill, Home Secretary, February 1910-October 1911.
Churchill was appointed Home Secretary following Gladstone. Part of his job requirement was the continuation of the program of his predecessor regarding the treatment of imprisoned suffragettes and policing their public disruptions and demonstrations. To his credit he introduced original progressive prison reforms emphasizing rehabilitation available to all prisoners of both sexes. He refused to designate incarcerated suffragettes “political prisoners” as they demanded, he instead created a special compromise for them. Prisoners would be absolved from the humiliating hardships and conditions that the commoner had to endure but would be denied the privileges of those convicted from the upper class. For example, the activists could wear their own clothing inside instead of standard issue prison apparel and decide their own grooming. They could have their own reading and writing material and food stuffs delivered. They could fraternize with each other in a way that the other prisoners in their class could not. He felt this an appropriate solution to placate the demands of the WSPU but significantly he did not withdraw the forced feeding policy for hunger strikers which was a primary grievance.
A move was afoot in Parliament to table the Conciliation Bill which would grant suffrage to a limited number of women based on property. Before it could be amended in the House and put to a vote PM Asquith shelved it. In protest Mrs. Pankhurst organised a WSPU response on November 18 also known as Black Friday. Three hundred suffragettes attempted to present a petition to the Prime Minister. After a prolonged and emotionally pitched battle with police injuring many women over one hundred were arrested. However, the nature of the police tactics created a public outcry, and the “Conciliation Committee” demanded an official inquiry. Churchill denied any role in the police action, “No orders, verbal or written, directly or indirectly emanating from me, were given to the police.” He said there would be no inquiry and instead dropped charges and released those detained. Documents signed by Churchill to police authorities dated November 22, four days after Black Friday, show he clearly did not authorize them to handle suffragette demonstrators roughly at a second large demonstration in which Suffragettes demonstrated over three days and broke widows at a cabinet ministers house at night. Two hundred and eighty-five activists were arrested in total. Mrs. Cobden Sanderson was met by Churchill on the street in passing. She had often hosted dinners for Churchill and was very close to his wife’s family. Rather than explain his actions Churchill abruptly hailed a police office and ordered him to, “drive that woman away!” At a talk a few days later Churchill bitterly scorned suffragettes as, “money fed” a reference in part to their primary patron, Frederick William Pethick Lawrence. Lloyd George and other leaders also used this term during speeches against suffragettes who had interrupted them. Mr. Pethick Lawrence understood that this was a flag, and that he would be targeted if he did not rein in the Pankhurst’s. The Pankhurst’s also must have understood the implications and planned accordingly for the coming day of reckoning with their patron.
Churchill was convinced that most voters in Britain did not support suffrage. He proposed a national referendum to settle the matter and predicted that the votes for women movement, “would be smashed” as a consequence. Since only registered voters could participate it would not include a vast majority of women citizens. Asquith must have seen that a favourable result would not change anything regarding the women’s suffrage movement and that an unfavourable result would give more ammunition to the Pankhurst’s.
Reginald McKenna, Home Secretary, 1911-1916.
McKenna continued the tactic of force feeding imprisoned suffragettes and bolstered it with the implementation of the Cat and Mouse Act 1913.
In 1914 Mrs. Pankhurst negotiated with McKenna the terms for the end of the campaign of terrorism and all ongoing advocacy for suffrage and replacing that with full support of the government’s program for the national war effort. In exchange all imprisoned suffragettes were released from prison and their sentences suspended indefinitely. He oversaw terms for the resolution of the outstanding arrest warrant on Christabel Pankhurst permitting her return to London from her self-imposed exile in Paris.