Even the most disinterested of people have heard of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette who ran in front of the King’s horse in 1913 at the Derby. Emily symbolises the militancy of the suffragettes, and for many people, it is she who they think of when the phrase ‘votes for women’ is said. Other equally infamous suffrage protests include the breaking of shop windows and the slashing of artwork. The suffragettes were EXPERTS at publicising their campaign. Here are a few PR stunts you may not have heard of:
(1) A BALLOON FLIGHT OVER LONDON
On the 16th February 1909 King George opened Parliament, and just like every other year there was a grand parade to the House of Commons, led by the King. Such an occasion was SURE to draw in the crowds, eager to see such an important royal and political spectacle.
Suffragette Muriel Matter knew that February 16th was the perfect time to promote her cause. Muriel, a talented Australian actress and member of the militant but democratic Women’s Freedom League (WFL), chartered a dirigible air balloon. One side had the words ‘VOTES FOR WOMEN’ across it, the other side had ‘WOMEN’S FREEDOM LEAGUE.’
She wanted to fly over the King’s procession and shower the crowds with WFL pamphlets. Unfortunately, the weather conspired against her–winds blew the balloon off course and Muriel didn’t make it close to the Houses of Parliament. Despite this, Muriel managed to drop LOADS of pro-suffrage leaflets and her stunt made newspaper headlines across the world! Muriel described her flight as: ‘like nothing on earth. It was quite wonderful.’ (Dundee Courier – Wednesday 17 February 1909).
(2) FIRE IN A THEATRE
In July 1912, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith was making a visit to Dublin, Ireland. The political context of this trip is important–the Liberal Government was dependent on the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and in return for this support Asquith had promised to prioritise passing a Home Rule measure. Both Asquith, and the Irish Parliamentary Party leader, John Redmond, were against giving the vote to women. This presented a golden opportunity for suffragettes to divert attention away from Home Rule.
Asquith and Redmond presided over a meeting at the ill-fated Theatre Royal in Dublin. I call it ill-fated because in the history of the city, there have been a total of FIVE Theatre Royal’s–some destroyed by fire, riots and demolition. The Theatre Royale that Asquith and Redmond attended was the fourth incarnation. Addressing an audience of Home Rule supporters, Asquith stated: ‘I have come here to Dublin to assure the people of Ireland of the resolute determination of the British government, the British House of Commons and the British people to bring your great cause to a speedy and triumphant issue.’
But this meeting was lucky to have even happened. The day before, a group of suffragettes, outraged by both men’s opposition to their cause, attempted to set fire to the theatre by throwing a burning chair into the orchestra pit. They also spread flammable liquid near by the projector, which exploded once before being put out. The day before the women had thrown a hatchet at a carriage containing both men, hitting Redmond on the arm. Wrapped around it was a piece of paper with the words ‘This symbol of the extinction of the Liberal Party for evermore’ across it. The suffragettes meant business.
The thrower of the hatchet was Mary Leigh, a member of the WSPU and political activist. She had also attempted to set the Theatre Royal on fire, along with fellow suffragette Gladys Evans. Mary and Gladys were arrested for their actions in August 1912, along with two other women, Jennie Baines and Mabel Capper. Mary, Gladys and Jennie were convicted, and sentenced to prison, whilst Mabel was discharged.
(3) HORSEWHIPPING WINSTON CHURCHILL
Theresa Garnett was a committed suffragette arrested on multiple occasions, but her most famous protest was when she confronted MP, and later WW2 Prime Minister Winston Churchill with a horsewhip.
On November 13th 1909, Theresa stumbled across the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill at a Bristol railway station. Apparently Churchill was walking down the platform with his wife Clementine when Theresa began to whip him, whilst shouting ‘Take that in the name of the insulted women of England!’ Theresa was arrested and sentence for a month in prison for breaching the peace. Churchill wasn’t injured in the attack, and didn’t press charges against Theresa. In prison, she hunger-striked, was force fed, and set her cell on fire, earning her a brooch and a medal of honour from the WSPU.