Get Moving for PR – In the Footsteps of Suffrage Women

MVM Rally outside Oxford Town Hall - Frank Newhofer
MVM Rally outside Oxford Town Hall – Frank Newhofer

On 11 June this year a modern pilgrimage for electoral reform and equal votes took place across the country, including Oxford. I wrote this article with another West England Bylines writer, Kerry Ann Christelow, to describe the Oxford event, its suffrage heritage, and why we need to ‘Get moving on PR’ now.

‘Get Moving for PR’, led by the national campaign group Make Votes Matter (MVM), was a ‘Walk in the Footsteps of Suffrage Women’, who in 1913 marched from all over the country to a Hyde Park rally and then handed in a petition to the then Prime Minister, demanding “Votes for Women”.

The 2022 event was an act of celebration and commemoration of that 1913 event. Over 100 years later we are still fighting to reform our electoral system and make it fair for everyone, whatever their gender, race, ethnicity or background. 

MVM groups throughout the UK took part in the campaign ‘Get Moving for PR’. The actions included women from North Lancashire who walked for six days from Grasmere to Preston. Oxfordshire MVM was one of the local groups which replicated the Pilgrimage. Their walk was in central Oxford with many in suffrage dress and colours. It was a peaceful, fun event with an important message.

In Oxford we couldn’t walk down St Giles as the Pilgrims had because, appropriately, there was a national women’s cycle race finishing there. So we started in Radcliffe Square, home of the circular Radcliffe library. We then walked up the High Street to the crossroads of Carfax, chanting “We want equal Votes NOW” and gathering supporters along the way. At the end of our walk we were greeted on the Town Hall steps by the new Lord Mayor, Councillor James Fry, who led us inside for short speeches, a Q&A and discussion after which we retraced our footsteps back to Radcliffe Square. 

MVM is a non-party campaign group, so we invited speakers from across the progressive spectrum. The Lord Mayor, a Labour City Councillor, wished us well. Other speakers were Liberal Democrat County Councillor John Howson, Green City Councillor Lucy Pegg, MVM’s Owen Winter, and political scientist Professor Helen Margetts, specialist in e-government and digital era governance and politics. The historian, Dr Katherine Bradley, gave an introduction to the local history of the  Suffrage movement.

Women getting the vote

It took women nearly eighty years to finally get the vote in 1928. Today, campaigners for Proportional Representation (PR) can’t wait that long. We need electoral reform with fair and equal votes, urgently. Now. Unlike suffrage women who had few or no rights but were moving forwards, today British citizens are being moved backwards. Just this year the Conservative government has passed new laws suppressing voting, restricting public demonstrations, and coming next is the further curtailment of our human rights.

So Oxfordshire activists joined the national MVM campaign, following the suffrage women who blazed the trail. In the summer of 1913, Oxford women members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – the non-militant arm of the suffrage movement – met up with their sisters on a six week nationwide Great Pilgrimage for the Vote.

Many pilgrims stayed the whole course, some travelling 300 miles. At St Giles in Oxford, women welcomed sisters who arrived from Carlisle. Together they walked to the Town Hall where they were met by aldermen and held a large public meeting. Later they continued through Headington and on to London, uniting there with others from all points of the compass from Lands End and Portsmouth to Newcastle, Wales and the east coast. In London’s Hyde Park they grew to a 50,000 strong national rally with 78 speakers, and unanimously passed the motion “That this meeting demands a Government measure for the enfranchisement of women”. They presented their petition to Prime Minister Asquith.

Violence against women

The Suffragist women marching were peaceful, their opposers were not. The National Archives documents many incidents along the way. In Thame an attempt was made to burn one of their caravans while they slept. Others threw dirt and stones: “… one pilgrim hurt with stone on the head. Police took no action” and at Stafford the crowd was reported as being “very rough”, with a pilgrim being “lamed by a kick”.

In High Wycombe the NUWSS reported that:

 “Some of us for the first time found ourselves in the midst of a packed mass of men, howling steadily, and … felt the weight of them as, linked arm in arm, they broke through our procession in spite of the police; and watched the variety of missiles whizzing about our speakers. I myself only met with clods, pebbles, and cherry stones …

“Suffragist chasing” was a game the Wycombe youths were loth to drop till a late hour of the night…. Two of us were rescued out of an ugly rush by the inhabitants of a corner house, and thence got away by ladders over a high garden wall; others sat in the darkened premises of the garage listening to the mob battering on the doors and smashing the windows, and concerting plans for escape by telephone”.  The police presence was reported to be “quite inadequate” and …” deliberately abstained from interference and stood by laughing and shrugging their shoulders. One of them was heard to say, “They’re asking for it, let them have it”.

For the pilgrims, things were better in Hyde Park where the crowd was noisy but good-humoured and the police tried to keep the participants safe. Millicent Fawcett, whose statue was recently erected in Parliament Square, recalled, “It was all like a wonderful dream”. Fittingly, the day of our MVM march was Millicent Fawcett’s 175th birthday.

Oxford suffrage

Suffrage historian Dr Katherine Bradley, founder of the Oxford International Women’s Festival and author of ‘Women on the March’ [2018], told us that the Oxford Suffrage movement, starting slowly in the 1870s, became the largest, with 600 supporters by 1914, but was also opposed by 600 anti-suffragists.

In 1908 Suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett spoke at the Oxford Union, but lost the vote on whether women should be granted suffrage. Another motion was defeated in November 1913, but finally won the following May, although women couldn’t become full Union members until 1963. Women at Oxford were first permitted to receive university degrees in 1920; in Cambridge degrees for women did not happen until 1948.

“Perhaps women are people after all”

The Great Pilgrimage was the Suffragists’ answer to a challenge set by Prime Minister Asquith. If you can prove that the ‘ordinary women’ of this nation want a vote, he told Mrs Fawcett, then I will listen to you. By the end of Pilgrimage, he admitted that not only had they succeeded but had shown – at a time when militant Suffragette action was at its height – that women could be resolute, dignified and inspiring. As Jane Robinson in her book about the Great Pilgrimage records, Asquith grudgingly admitted that “Perhaps women are people after all”

The Suffragettes were the militant arm of the movement, their motto being ‘Deeds not words’. In Oxford they were a small group but good at getting publicity. They ran an arson campaign including a letter bomb at the Post Office opposite the town hall and, according to Katherine Bradley in her book, also  burned down a boathouse at Nuneham Courteney, a small village just south of the city. The Suffragist colours were red, green and white; the modern MVM colours are the same as those of the Suffragettes – purple, green and white.

1913 was also the year suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson died under the hooves of the king’s horse at the Derby. Suffragettes were imprisoned, some multiple times, and force fed. But Suffrage women kept going. How they kept going. After the insult of the 1832 Great Reform Act in which voters were defined as ‘male persons’ they delivered their first petition for women’s suffrage to parliament. But they had to wait another thirty years before it was debated there.

The 1867 Reform Act still failed to give women the vote. In 1889 the Women’s Franchise League was formed to win the vote for married women as well as single and widowed women. The NUWSS led by Millicent Fawcett, was formed in 1897. Six years later, in 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1918 the first women were enfranchised – but only women over 30 got the vote provided either they, or their husband, met a property qualification. Women could also, for the first time, stand for parliament. Finally, in 1928, the  Equal Franchise Act gave women equal voting rights with men, at last granting eligibility to fifteen million women.

So in 2022, will MVM’s ‘Get Moving for PR’ campaign result in legislation to establish Proportional Representation across Britain’s electoral system?

Further reading: Katherine Bradley and Helen Sweet [2009] Women in the Professions, Politics and Philanthropy.

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