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Remember the Suffragettes: a Black Friday vigil

Posted by helen on Wed 17 Nov 2010 at 19:08
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Tomorrow is the one hundred year anniversary of Black Friday, November 18th 2010. When the Conciliation Bill, which would extend voting rights to a small number of wealthy, land-owning women, reached its second reading, the prime minister refused to let the bill be further discussed in Parliament. In response, three hundred suffragettes - all members of the Women's Social and Political Union - marched to Parliament and tried to enter the Houses. They were met by six thousand police.

Two hundred women were arrested; many were physically and sexually assaulted. Two were wounded so badly that they died of their injuries.

The Suffragette movement was not popular. The WSPU in particular, dedicated to "deeds, not words", were renowned for their disruptive direct actions. The most famous image is of women chaining themselves to railings, but suffragettes also used tactics such as smashing windows, disrupting public meetings with megaphones, fighting with police officers, and arson. They were condemned by the press and the law: suffragettes were imprisoned multiple times, subjected to batterings and force-feedings, and many died.

Although the movement was split between those who thought destructive direct action was justified and those who did not, the actions were vindicated by history. Once the war had shifted perceptions of women's capabilities and society had adjusted to women's suffrage, their tactics became seen as a justified means to an end. These days, the suffragettes are honoured as heroines and martyrs, who risked their dignity, reputations and lives to win their female successors an equal vote.

Tomorrow night there will be a vigil outside Parliament in memory of Black Friday. Remember the Suffragettes already has more attendees listed on Facebook than marched outside Parliament one hundred years ago. Named attendees include Helen and Laura Pankhurst, the granddaughter and great granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurts, and speakers Caroline Lucas MP and Dr Diane Atkinson. They will gather with other women and men in solidarity tomorrow not only to honour the actions of the suffragettes, but to call attention to the continuing inequality in our society and politics, in which fewer than a fifth of MPs are women, and women control only 1% of the world's money.

The vigil is being organised by Climate Rush, whose energetic tactics have been criticised, but still fall short of the most extreme actions resorted to by the suffragettes. Like women's suffrage one hundred years ago, environmental activism is currently scorned and marginalised, receiving minimal public and policy attention. When approximately 7/10 people displaced by climate change are women, it is appropriate that climate campaigners should show solidarity with the suffragettes.

Like the suffragettes, modern activists are divided in opinion on justifiable tactics for direct action. Some praise the destructive occupation of Millbank last week; others condemn it. But history has shown us that peaceful protest is rarely successful. Even the most famous pacifist movements had destructive counterparts which arguably contributed to their success. It is important, too, to note the difference between the tactics used by the suffragettes, Climate Rush and UK Uncut movement - such as vandalism, fire-starting and destruction of property - and violence against a person. Breaking windows might be spun as "violence" by press and police, but there is a clear moral and legal difference.

In 2003 between one and two million people marched against the Iraq war. They played by the rules: a peaceful, civilised march by a coherent coalition speaking with a united voice. And yet they failed.

I will be attending tomorrow's vigil not only to honour the brave women who fought, suffered and endured so we might vote, but also to express solidarity with their controversial but effective tactics of direct action. We should not listen to the press and police in deciding how best to fight for what is right, but to history.

Join us at 6.30pm on 18/11/10 to remember Black Friday. Wear mourning black and bring a jam jar and a candle. Remember the Suffragettes.