‘Suffragette’ raises question of property destruction’s effectiveness

Women suffrage activists wearing suffrage sashes demonstrating with signs at city street corner in 1916. (Wikimedia)

Women suffrage activists wearing suffrage sashes demonstrating with signs at city street corner in 1916. (Wikimedia)

“Suffragette,” a British film now in U.S. theaters, tells a gripping story drawn from the direct action wing of Britain’s woman suffrage movement. Because it spotlights one tactic – property destruction – the film raises the question of effectiveness. Leader Emmeline Pankhurst’s argument for escalating with arson and explosions was to hasten their win. Did it?

One way to answer the question is to compare the struggle with Alice Paul’s strategy on this side of the ocean. Paul also escalated with nonviolent tactics but chose to rule out property destruction. The fact that Alice Paul cut her teeth in the British movement, and then in this country made a different strategic choice, provokes some thinking about a tactic that some U.S. activists look upon with favor.

When I lived in Britain, I talked with women who participated in their movement, and back home I researched what American women did. I conducted a long interview with Paul, who was arrested repeatedly in Britain before returning to the United States to organize a direct action wing of the American movement.

When Pankhurst launched in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union, or WSPU, she organized marches, demonstrations and nonviolent disruption of meetings of prominent politicians – what we now call “bird-dogging.”

The time was right. By 1908, the WSPU mobilized 60,000 people for a nonviolent invasion of the House of Parliament. A reinforced police line held them back. That same year, the American Alice Paul was studying at a Quaker college in Birmingham, England. She plunged into the WSPU. Beaten by police, her seven arrests led to three imprisonments.

The WSPU began its most controversial escalation by smashing windows and a wall of the House of Parliament. After Parliament failed to extend suffrage in 1910, the WSPU channeled anger and disappointment by blowing up governmental postal boxes and starting fires in the houses of Members of Parliament. Pankhurst expected the resulting polarization of opinion, but thought it would pay off by increasing the government’s sense of crisis.

Alice Paul chose a different strategy of escalation

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns returned to the United States in 1910. The large National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, confined itself to lobbying and petitioning. Its strategy of winning suffrage state-by-state seemed to Paul to be moving at a glacial pace.

In every campaign, the choice of target is critical. Paul used her graduate study at Penn to think through a shift in target: from states to the federal government. In the meantime she worked in Philadelphia’s woman suffrage scene and got women to stand on a box on the sidewalk to address startled pedestrians.

In this Internet-soaked period, it is tempting for activists in one country to copy-cat actions that are gaining publicity elsewhere, without asking how conditions in their own city or country are similar and different to the place in the spotlight. That happened with Occupy Wall Street, for example, taking the occupation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as something to emulate, then finding that the rigidity of the basic form (“Hold the space!”) prevented the flexibility that a successful movement needs to grow organically under quite different conditions.

Alice Paul, nurtured in the advanced direct action of the British suffragettes, could have tried immediately to organize a civil disobedience campaign on this side of the Atlantic. Instead, she sniffed the air, built relationships, developed credibility within the U.S. suffrage movement, and then chose a moment to test the political climate.

With the support of NAWSA, Paul organized a Woman’s Suffrage Parade in Washington in January 1913 — the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration. You can watch a version of the near-riot that resulted in the excellent HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels,” starring Hilary Swank as Alice Paul. Except for a made-up love interest for Alice Paul, the film follows the narrative of the campaign in a remarkably accurate way.

The thousands of women marching that day and the abuse they endured brought into the spotlight their demand for a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns concluded that the country was ready for a direct action campaign targeting President Wilson and the Democratic majority in Congress. Their gradual but edgy tactics in this direction led to a split with NAWSA and starting the National Woman’s Party.

By December 1916, they had a full-fledged direct action campaign. Like their sisters in the United Kingdom, they disrupted (including a banner-hanging in the U.S. Senate) and picketed (the first group to picket the White House). Civil disobedience was central: By the time of their victory Julia Emory had been arrested 34 times. They used the tactic of jail-in: When the police began to arrest them, they recruited more women to picket and refuse to pay fines, in that way taxing the limited jail facilities. They often refused to work and went on hunger strikes.

Escalating when expected to subside

Emmeline Pankhurst suspended the WSPU’s campaign in 1914 when Britain entered World War I. When in 1917 the United States entered, U.S. groups were pressured to support the war effort, but Alice Paul refused. Instead, she escalated, challenging Woodrow Wilson to become as enthusiastic about democracy at home as he was in his pro-war rhetoric. In front of the White House, women held signs calling their president the title of the enemy Germany’s emperor: “Kaiser Wilson!” When infuriated men beat up the women, the police looked the other way. Police reportedly arrested some men who intervened to try to protect the women from the punching and kicking attackers.

While some members of the Woman’s Party resigned to protest Paul’s lack of patriotism, other women joined the campaign, angered by Wilson’s hypocrisy. They publicly burned the president’s speeches whenever he invoked “the American obligation to stand up for democracy.” Jail sentences became longer.

Wilson felt the pressure. He’d already gone from dismissing the idea of a suffrage amendment to agreeing in principle — although, he said he needed to wait until the end of the war to attend to the matter. To add pressure, some women released from jail were sent on speaking tours around the country, sharing their experience of repression. Opinion shifted; prominent politician Dudley Field Malone, for example, announced his resignation as Collector of Customs for New York in protest against the treatment of the picketers.

Finally, the president relented and, even though the war continued, urged Congress to pass the amendment. Congress did so, and after a massive push by the movement, including the NAWSA, enough states ratified the amendment to bring victory in 1920.

Polarization, property destruction and winning

The Woman’s Party relied on a strategy of escalation just as much as WSPU. Each knew that society would initially polarize, with some allies and even members distancing themselves from the cause in the short run. (Much later in the United States, we saw during the civil rights movement this dynamic again: first polarization, then growth of support for the campaigners.) Significantly, Alice Paul even when intensifying the escalation in 1917, used nonviolent tactics instead of property destruction. The Woman’s Party ended its direct action when Congress passed the amendment in 1919. From start to finish, the direct actionists in the United States campaigned for six years.

The WSPU had the advantage of larger numbers of women ready to do direct action. Halfway through their campaign they were able to assemble 60,000 women to try to invade Parliament, a larger number than the entire Woman’s Party membership grew to be across the United States. That’s quite remarkable when you consider how much smaller Britain is as a country. Furthermore, it has a unitary government and no written constitution needing amendment. The WSPU campaign started in 1903 and ended in 1914 – 11 years in duration, five years more than that of the Woman’s Party.

When Parliament finally responded in 1918, only 40 percent of women gained the right to vote: those over 30 with property. Not until 1928 did the United Kingdom make women equal with men as voters, something gained in the United States in 1920.

When we look at escalation, whose goal is to accelerate victory, the comparison is even more stark. The Woman’s Party’s nonviolent direct action intensified in the final two years and led to victory. Before suspending the campaign, the WSPU used property destruction for its final six years. It’s hard to disagree with the British historians who believe that WSPU’s use of property destruction was sadly self-defeating.

Why would property destruction slow us down instead of speeding us toward our goal? The answer lies in noticing who controls the narrative. Even though, in my definition of the word, property destruction is not the same as violence, in many cultures it does get framed as violence by prevailing opinion-leaders and their mass media operations. Certainly in the United States and Britain, where the power-holders respect private property more deeply than human life, property destruction is branded “violence” while militarily invading other countries is called “force.”

In the United Kingdom and the United States, I don’t expect a shift in the emotionally-laden meaning of property destruction to happen any time soon. In the meantime, let’s join Alice Paul, who knew that escalatory nonviolent tactics resulting in suffering often cause polarization initially, but then lead to the paradox of repression. That’s when the Dudley Field Malones join the cause because they correctly see who is perpetrating violence.

What slowed down the Brits, despite the moving heroism shown in “Suffragette,” was that they didn’t understand then what we can all see now: Choose nonviolent tactics for escalation if you want to ensure a greater chance of victory.

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