It had been a rallying cry for decades. Through marches, beatings, prison, hunger-strikes, force-feeding, even death in the case of Emily Davison. Through derision, punishment, hate and slander that cry rang out. At meetings, outside parliament, on the streets, on the doorstep, wherever people gathered, the suffragettes were there and the cry was always the same, simple utterance, Votes for Women! The fight was a long and bitter one. Finally, Lloyd George’s government capitulated.
This year marks the centenary of the introduction of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom and, hence, in Ireland. Looking back from our time it is hard to appreciate the depth of the sacrifice and the personal cost of the commitment our sisters held so steadfastly to. So, here at Author, Author we plan to write about the women who won that right for us. Over the next twelve months, we will highlight the contribution of some of the women who stepped out of their homes, reached for the hands of their sisters and changed history.
Let me introduce you to, or reacquaint you with, Charlotte Despard. This extraordinary woman was born in 1844 and during the course of the next ninety-five years was to engage, head on with the major movements and upheavals of her time. A slim, fiery figure who fought for the urban poor in London in the 1870’s, joined Kier Hardy’s Labour Party, met Eleanor Marks, Gandhi and of course, the Pankhursts. In the 1930’s she was still galvanising the crowds in Trafalgar Square in Anti-Franco rallies.
Charlotte French was born into a wealthy family. She was apt to run away to explore beyond the gates of her family’s estate she was always curious about the world and the people who inhabited it. In 1870 she married Maximillian Carden Despard. When he died twenty years later, she made the decision to dedicate her life and energy to working for the poor. She moved to London and set up clinics, clubs and centres to address the poverty of the working class. She immersed herself in political theory and emerged a dedicated socialist. The hardships endured by the poor women she now lived among made a lasting impact. In a speech in 1910, Charlett Despard said:
“Fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages, the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job, and ‘men and women will unite to effect a complete transformation to the industrial environment… A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband. It is indeed deplorable that the work of the wife and mother is not rewarded. I hope that the time will come when it is illegal for this strenuous form of industry to be unremunerated.”
Below are a couple of photos from her long career. Interestingly both appear to be from the same spot in Trafalgar Square in London.
Not sure what point our girl is hammering home here. But it seems to be in support of a Socialist rally.
This is from an anti-fascist rally in the 1930’s. (Isn’t she wonderous!) Notice at least one woman is now out and about at political rallies.
In 1906 Charlotte joined the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) run by Emmeline Pankhurst and her Daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. She had this to say about joining the movement:
“I had sought and found comradeship of some sort with men. I had marched with great processions of the unemployed. I had stood on the platforms of Labour men and Socialists. I had tried to stir up the people to a sense of shame about the misery of their homes, and the degradation of their women and children. I had listened with sympathy to fiery denunciations of Governments and the Capitalist systems to which they belong. Amongst all these experiences, I had not found what I met on the threshold of this young, vigorous Union of Hearts.”
Charlotte took up the cause of women’s suffrage with imagination and vigour. Fearless in defence of her sisters when the police moved in, she was arrested three times. She was unstoppable and inexhaustible. However, she and others became frustrated at the undemocratic nature of the WSPU and left to form the Women’s Franchise League (WFL). The WFL sought suffrage for all women, unlike the WSPU which campaigned to extend the vote to women of property in line with the right of propertied men.
Charlotte marching with her sisters.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the WSPU immediately ceased campaigning and Emmeline Pankhurst urged her members to help the war effort, in whatever way they could, including, from 1916, supporting conscription drives. In contrast, Charlotte Despard was a pacifist who spoke against the war and conscription. Oddly enough, her brother, John French, was the head of the British Army and Commander in Cheif on the disastrous Western Front.
Immediately after the war, Lloyd George’s government introduced the Representation of the People Act which granted the vote to propertied women over thirty. At the same time, it extended suffrage to include all men over twenty-one. Working-class women would have to wait for another decade before they could go to the ballot box. It wasn’t what Charlotte Despard had fought for but it was a start.
Charlotte and Maud Gonne outside Mountjoy prison in Dublin in 1920 supporting republican prisoners. Delighted to add here that my granny was there at that time too. She told us often enough that she spent her honeymoon outside the prison trying to get word of her cousin, Jack, who was lifted by the Black and Tans (military thugs).
By 1918 Charlotte was spending more and more time in Ireland, the birthplace of her father. The country was gripped by rebellion as the struggle for independence from Britain intensified. Charlotte threw herself into the fight. She supported the union movement in their bitter battle with employers in Dublin. She continued her work for the poor.
During the War of Independence when the British threw everything they had at us, John French, Charlotte’s brother, (remember the Western Front?) was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, ie the highest representative of the crown. While he embarked on a campaign of intimidation and cruelty, she toured the country documenting the atrocities of his soldiers and police officers.
Maud Gonne (much more on her in a later piece) who was herself an extraordinary woman recalled their shared activities and how they sailed through roadblocks to carry on their revolutionary activities.
‘With her, I was able to visit places I should never have been able to get to alone… it was amusing to see the puzzled expressions on the faces of the officers … when Mrs Despard said she was the Viceroy’s sister’.
Charlotte Despard was a talented and inspiring leader. She had an impressive grasp of the politics of her day and she fought tirelessly to make the changes she thought necessary so that we, the women and men of later generations could enjoy lives of equality and fulfilment. We may not have achieved all she would have liked for us but it wasn’t for lack of trying on her part. We owe her a debt of gratitude. Thank you, Charlotte Despard.
Women fighting for our right to vote.