Carrie Chapman Catt

Suffrage and Militancy - April 17, 1913

Carrie Chapman Catt
April 17, 1913
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April 17, 1913. Suffrage and Militancy

I am not militant in theory or practice. I believe in arbitration as a substitute for war; courts, as a substitute for street brawls; arbitration as a substitute for strikes. Reason, and not physical force to my mind is the standard of true civilization. I believe in education, persuasion, agitation and political warfare as the means which ought to be employed to gain and establish political reforms. I have no sympathy per se for law breaking and incendiaries.

The suffrage situation in Great Britain cannot be reduced, however, to the simple question: “Do you believe that the breaking of windows and the burning of houses helps the woman suffrage movement?” Manifestly it does not. Several very fundamental and tremendously important questions of human rights are involved in the British suffrage situation, which renders clear thinking and calm judgement difficult. These so-called militants apparently had no intention of being militant in the beginning. They began by putting questions to members of the government at public meetings in a spirit and manner entirely consistent with English custom. These women found themselves in prison for having done that which any sane, sober British man would have been permitted to do without a question. Great Britain was thrown into an excited and belligerent frame of mind by the fact that such discrimination was visited upon these women. The women determined to test their rights in this matter; attended many meetings and questioned the ministry upon all occasions. As the result, hundreds of women were sent to prison with each new consignment, public opinion arose to a higher degree of excitement and belligerency. These women then attempted to carry their petition to Parliament in a deputation. They never had failed, previously, to request a hearing of the government, but as all the world knows, their deputations were never permitted to reach Parliament or the ministry, but were invariably met by a cordon of police who barred their entrance to the House of Commons. These women determined to test their right to petition; attempted to pass the policemen with the result that large numbers of them were arrested and again put into jail.

Two wholly new and fundamental questions arose out of the matter. One, have the women of Great Britain a right to petition; the other, should these women who are manifestly political prisoners be put in the second or criminal division. Again, the public protested vigorously against these discriminations, but the government continued its unjust, unfair policies.

In the words of Mrs. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the Leader of the Constitutional Suffragists of Great Britain, which have on numerous occasions protested against militant tactics:

Quotations missing in the original document

After the long continued succession of discriminations against the suffragettes wholly out of keeping with the twentieth century, Mr. Asquith, on behalf of the government made a positive promise to give facilities for the Conciliation Bill (the Bill upon which all branches of suffragists in Great Britain had agreed). Mr. Asquith made this promise orally and in writing upon several distinct occasions. He broke that promise in the most dishonest fashion, and excused himself by promising facilities for an amendment to the Reform Bill which the government proposed to introduce. This Reform Bill in itself was the climax of all the unfair, insulting, unjust treatment the women of Great Britain had received, for it proposed to give the vote to some two millions of men, none of whom had ever asked for it, and did not include the women who for one hundred years had conducted a persistent agitation on behalf of their own enfranchisement. As all the world knows, this second promise was broken also by the decision of the Speaker that an amendment to the Reform Bill enfranchising women, would be out of order.

Some years ago after it had been made clear that the British Government would not give fair treatment to women conducting a political campaign and who had not as yet violated any law of the land, the militants declared war upon the government. They declared, however, that their war should differ from the war of men, in that they would not take human life. In all the world’s history civil law is set aside as the means of settling difficulties in time of war and an emergency code is set up instead. Mr. Lincoln had no civil right to emancipate the slaves, he did it as a war emergency. These militants are not “criminals”, “hysterical fanatics” nor “notoriety seekers”. They themselves say they have declared war and all their policy is planned and carried out upon that basis. The British government applies civil laws to those who think they are at war. The application of civil law and the punishment accorded Mrs. Pankhurst and her followers has been merited when measured by civil standards. The Government itself, however, recognizes to some extent the point of view of the militants, since it had given to Mrs. Pankhurst the minimum punishment possible under the law.

The real question involved in the British situation is; how should women in a state of insurrection who refuse to surrender or desert their pledge of continued militancy against the Government until the vote is given, be treated. Should their punishment be measured by civil or military standards? Should they be regarded as political prisoners or as criminals? Has the Government any right to injure the health of these prisoners by forcible feeding when they wish to go on a hunger strike? These are the questions which render it impossible to answer the usual question by a “Yes”, or “No”.

The further difficulty in forming a clear judgement for suffragists, lies in the fact that however unwise British Suffragettes may be as to the policy they have pursues, we who know them as women of education and refinement know that they are filled with an indomitable spirit, that their motives are of the highest and purest and that they are swayed by loyality and devotion to the great cause of human rights. We know further that until the recent outbreaks of incendiarism, the agitation created by the discrimination which the British Government visited upon these women arouse a world-wide discussion of the question of woman suffrage which nothing else had ever done. The woman suffrage movement owes to these women a tremendous obligation for the arrest of public attention the compulsion of public discussion in every country in the world.

Mrs. Pankhurst is the “John Brown” of the suffrage movement. He was hanged, but the slaves were emancipated. Mrs. Pankhurst values her life as little and may dies in prison a martyr to the cause, in which case future generations will accord her the (word(s) missing) for having a new and decided impetus to the suffrage movement.

American suffragists are continually asked why resolutions condemning the militancy in Great Britain are not passed. First, the American movement has no relation to that in Great Britain. Here the suffrage is granted to women by a majority of men. There can be no logical application of the kind of militancy which is being conducted in Great Britain to the suffrage problem in this country. Second, because we realize that our own movement has received an impulse from the earlier agitation of these same women and because we believe the offences committed by the women have been equaled by the Government.

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