‘Sometimes it seemed as if all the world was against us’
-Hannah Mitchell, (pictured above), p.113 in her autobiography.
Being a woman in the early twentieth century was difficult, you were likely working in the services for a meagre wage, dependent upon your husband for financial support, corsets were still the height of fashion and you also didn’t have the right to vote. The Manchester Central Library Archives+ collection holds the first draft of Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography, written in 1956. Mitchell was a member of the WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) from 1904 -1907, her story gives a fascinating insight into the issues that she and her fellow Suffragettes faced in their attempts to change their circumstances, both for themselves and for the generations that followed. Mitchell’s account gives the impression that anti-suffrage sentiment was a pervasive force which manifested itself in all manner of ways, permeating every aspect of a Suffragette’s life, both public and domestic; the fight for the vote was fought on more than one front.
(Leaflet advertising Manchester Women’s Great Suffrage Demonstration, Mass Meeting and Procession, 23rd and 24th October 1908, taken from the Archives+ collection)
Anti-suffrage manifested itself, most obviously and quite horrifyingly, through acts of physical violence. On a Suffrage rally in Middleton in 1905, Mitchell describes a group of anti suffrage protestors, a ‘mob [who] played a sort of rugby football with us’ (p.106), as she stepped off the tram she was targeted, ‘immediately I was surrounded by a gang of youths, who pushed and jartled me from side to side’ (p.109). Her vivid description of this event and her use of the term “rugby football” demonstrates the violent and physical nature of these anti-suffrage protestors. Rugby in 2018 is a rough game, rugby in 1905 was even rougher, and seemed to be an accepted and expected occupational hazard for these women fighting for the right to vote. This sort of protest is unimaginable today, young men physically attacking women in a public space would simply not be tolerated, however, if you were a Suffragette, it was part and parcel of the fight.
The Suffragettes were not only fighting (literally) for the right to vote, they were also attempting to change perceptions of women’s citizenship and a woman’s place in society. This, is perhaps why they were met with such strong resistance from anti-suffrage protestors. Throughout her autobiography Mitchell makes references to the domestic duties of women in the early twentieth century. She recounts the arrest of Annie Kenney and Christabel Pankhurst on 13th October, 1905 where a passer by heckled, asking “but have you nothing to do at home? I suppose if you had a vote you would take it home and put it in a mince pie, wouldn’t you?” (p.97). This sort of mockery of the Suffragettes was common, demonstrating the ideas within society at the time of these women attempting to gain the vote.
Perhaps the hardest battle to fight however, was not the one in public spaces but those which incorporated the domestic sphere; fights against spouses who ‘became ‘anti’ if their wives were out at mealtimes’ (p.89). These women faced negotiating a delicate balancing act; batting off physically aggressive strangers by day, and ensuring that they were home in time to make their husband’s dinner by night. Mitchell expresses this profoundly, explaining that ‘most of us who were married found that “Votes for Women” were of less interest to our husbands than their own dinners’ (p.105). Even though these courageous women were storming town halls, being arrested and going on hunger strike, their achievements, when considered by those closest to them, boiled down to their ability to put dinner on the table.
(Anti-Suffrage propaganda, taken from the Archives+ collection)
Being a woman was hard, but being a Suffragette, was harder. These women had to face backlash from all angles; backlashes which rested on the notion of their status and social roles as women. Their persistence despite these trials and tribulations eventually led to the granting of the vote, something which ought to be remembered.