The Aberdeen Art Gallery holds a unique collection of correspondence that throws light on the workings of the city’s branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – otherwise known as the suffragettes – and their relations with the leaders of the movement in London. Funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund has enabled the production of an edition of this correspondence and a number of public engagement activities throughout Scotland in the coming months. Given the 100th anniversary of women’s achievement of (limited) suffrage in 2018, this is the perfect time to be working to share knowledge about the Scottish suffragettes.
The correspondence at the Art Gallery is associated with a woman named Caroline Phillips. Phillips would have stood out in Edwardian Aberdeen even without her association with the suffragettes since she was a woman journalist at the Aberdeen Daily Journal – a job very few women held at the time. It was perhaps through her work as a reporter that she first came into contact with the issue of women’s suffrage since an Aberdeen society to promote women’s suffrage had been active in the city since the 1870s. This society, and others like it, had come together under the banner of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) by the start of the 20th century. They tend to be referred to as the constitutional suffragists since they believed that suffrage would eventually be achieved by constitutional means such as petitions and letters to MPs.
A growing frustration with the lack of movement on the question prompted Emmeline Pankhurst, the widow of a Manchester politician, to set up the WSPU in 1903. This organisation aimed to raise the profile of the demand for women’s suffrage through its use of militant tactics, including disrupting political meetings. Such tactics lead to arrests and, since the suffragettes refused to pay fines, imprisonment – eagerly reported by the press, who gave the ‘oxygen of publicity’ to the movement.
Caroline Phillips was the honorary secretary of the Aberdeen WSPU branch 1907-1909. Her letters demonstrate the importance of Aberdeen for the suffragettes, with visits to the city Mrs Pankhurst herself, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, and other leaders of the movement.
The north-east of Scotland was Liberal territory at this time. It might have been thought that the Liberals and the suffragettes would be natural allies, particularly with the Liberal motto of ‘no taxation without representation’. Thus the landslide victory of the Liberal party in the election of late 1905 was greeted with great excitement by all sections of the suffrage movement. However, while many Liberal MPs were pledged to support women’s suffrage, the majority felt that the time had not yet come for such a revolutionary change. In particular, the Chancellor the Exchequer, Asquith, who held the seat of East Fife, was a vehement anti-suffragist.
It was a visit of Asquith to Aberdeen that led to a disagreement between Caroline Phillips and the London leadership of the WSPU. Asquith was due to give a meeting at the Music Hall in the city and, worried about potential suffragette disruption, the local Liberal association considered banning all women from entrance. Phillips contacted the local Women’s Liberal Association officials, offering to guarantee that there would be no such disruption, in order to allow women access to the Hall. She admitted that she was not speaking with total authority, but felt that the WSPU leadership would understand the special conditions of Aberdeen.
That she was wrong about the leadership’s understanding became clear very quickly as Mrs Pankhurst announced her intention of travelling to Aberdeen to lead the attack on the Music Hall. The disruption took place, with a fight breaking out in the orchestra pit and the women and their supporters ejected from the Hall. This event marked the beginning of a downturn in relations between London and Caroline Phillips, which eventually led to her removal from her position in the WSPU, the closing down of the branch and the invitation to all members to join the wider WSPU, under direct control from London, instead.
Caroline Phillips was of course not the only Scotswoman to be treated in such a way. The archive holds a moving letter from Helen Fraser, once the leader of the Scottish WSPU, who was removed from her position by the Pankhursts for her criticism of the increasingly militant tactics used by the suffragettes. Lamenting that she could no longer work together with Phillips, Fraser describes how ill she had been after her dismissal and how she has now agreed to work for the constitutional NUWSS and has been ‘caravanning for the cause’ during the summer months of 1908.
The archive offers us a unique view of the conduct and decision-making of a Scottish branch of the WSPU in the early years of the organisation in Scotland. The archive also demonstrates the importance of Aberdeen in suffrage politics, which may come as a surprise to some. The frequent visits of leaders of the movement such as Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, and Scottish leaders such as Helen Fraser and Teresa Billington-Greig, demonstrate the importance of the city and its politicians. The affectionate tones in which some of the letters to Caroline Phillips are written also demonstrates how close-knit and supportive Scottish suffrage circles could be – even between members of different organisations. However, there are also hints throughout the archive that not all in the Aberdeen branch agreed with Caroline Phillips’ approach to militant action and that it was these disagreements that eventually led to her replacement by outsiders. No Aberdeen woman would ever again lead the WSPU in the city.
Events related to the publication of the edition of Phillips’ correspondence are taking place throughout Scotland in the next few months, from Orkney Library to Glasgow Women’s Library. For further details on the project please see http://www.scottishsuffragettes.co.uk/. Talks so far have been great fun, with some in the audience even seizing the opportunity to dress like the suffragettes and disrupt events!
Sarah Pedersen is Professor of Communication and Media at the School of Creative and Cultural Business, Robert Gordon University. Her book, The Scottish Suffragettes and the Press, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in summer 2017.