“Churchill, Suffrage and Black Friday”: excerpted from my article for the Hillsdale College Churchill Project. For the full text, including Churchill’s letters to the head of the Metropolitan Police (22 November 1910) and to Prime Minister Asquith (21 December 1911), click here.
A London University student writes for help with his dissertation. Its topic is the relationship between Home Secretary Winston Churchill, the Metropolitan Police, and their handling of women’s suffrage demonstrators in November 1910. His questions illustrate Churchill’s domestic statesmanship. Our answers refute the belief that Churchill stridently opposed women’s suffrage except on isolated occasions in political tactics.
The suffrage argument was simply: give women the vote. Today it sounds perfectly straightforward. The issue was more complicated a century ago. The vote was restricted to “heads of household” (male). If extended to women, it would cover only the small number of female householders. A possible compromise was to enable married women to vote with their husbands as co-householders. Conservatives opposed this, along with some of Churchill’s fellow-Liberals. Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, for example, feared that a “householder” franchise would increase the Conservative vote at Liberal expense. “The long-term solution, no doubt, was universal suffrage,” wrote Paul Addison in Churchill on the Home Front. “but this was sure to be rejected by the House of Lords, and could not be enacted until their lordships’ powers were reduced.” In 1910-11, Churchill and other Liberals were working to do that.
On to the questions…
“Edge of the wedge”
Churchill is alleged to have said: “The women’s suffrage movement is only the small edge of the wedge, if we allow women to vote it will mean the loss of social structure and the rise of every liberal cause under the sun. Women are well represented by their fathers, brothers and husbands.” In your bookWinston Churchill, Myth and Reality, you maintain on page 25 that Churchill never said these words. Another source suggests that Churchill did say them, in a letter to Asquith on 21 December 1911. Would you be able to shed light on why you dismissed the quoted statement?
Actually my book provides the answer on the same page:
[Churchill] did write something similar in 1897, when he was twenty-three: a note pasted into his copy of the 1874 Annual Register, where he was reviewing political issues to decide which side he would take. Parliament in had drafted a women’s suffrage bill…. [Young Winston dissented] “on the grounds that it is contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states[;] that no necessity is shown[;] that only the most undesirable class of women are eager for the right[;] that those women who discharge their duty to the state viz marrying and giving birth to children are adequately represented by their husbands[;] that those who are unmarried can only claim a vote on the ground of property, which claim on democratic principles is inadmissible…” (WSC, “Comments on  Annual Register, 1897,” in The Churchill Documents, vol. 2, Young Soldier 1896-1901. Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2006, 765.)
* * *
Churchill’s 1897 opinion was not only those of most Britons then, but most British women, including his mother. It seems incredible by today’s standards, but in the 19th century many women considered politics a rowdy, alcoholic pastime for menfolk and had no wish to participate. With the turn of the century, and the increase of State involvement in people’s lives, their views changed. Churchill changed with them—influenced by his wife Clementine, a pro-suffrage Liberal. Myth and Reality continues:
“From his entry into Parliament, Churchill never wavered from his view that the sex disqualification was unwarranted in principle…. Churchill voted for suffrage as early as 1904. His hesitations in 1905-12 arose when militants tried to break up his speeches. He was against certain measures at certain times, for tactical reasons—unlike, say, Asquith, who opposed the very principle.”
Churchill on Suffrage
Churchill’s alleged words to Asquith on 21 December 1911 are a manufactured quotation, made up to suit some writer’s preconceived notions. (I will not quote the source, since it deserves no publicity.)
For Churchill to have said that female suffrage was a “wedge” for “every liberal cause under the sun” is questionable on its face, since he was himself a Liberal (and quite a radical one). “Women represented by male relatives” is from his 1897 notes in the Annual Register, inaccurately transcribed. None of these words appear in his 1911 letter to Asquith.
Churchill actually wrote Asquith to advise on political tactics by the government, not to debate the merits of women’s suffrage. Asquith’s response, suggesting that he might attend an anti-suffrage rally, incidentally shows that on that issue he was far more a diehard than Churchill was. (This is also reproduced on the Hillsdale site.)
Fictitious quotes twisted or made up to suit people’s preconceived prejudices pervade much of today’s Churchill discourse. Worse, in my opinion, are incorrect website abstracts of historical documents.
Back to our student queries….
“Black Friday,” 1910
My second question involves Churchill’s instructions for handling demonstrators on 16, 18 and 22 November. Churchill issued them to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Have you come across these instructions?
On the 16th and 18th Churchill’s instructions were not in writing. On the 22nd they were, and are quite clear. But first consider the context.
In January 1910, Women’s Social and Political Union leader Sylvia Pankhurst declared a halt to militant protests, hoping the Liberal government would introduce a suffrage bill. Henry Noel Brailsford, of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, asked for Churchill’s support. Paul Addison in Churchill on the Home Front writes that Churchill “gave his blessing to the formula, while carefully reserving his position on the detail.” Parliament reassembled on 18 November 1910, having failed to act on the promised bill. Dr. Addison writes:
[On that day] a deputation of three hundred women set out for the House of Commons. As on previous occasions, they tried to break through police cordons. In the past this had led to scuffles with the police, but this time the police adopted more aggressive tactics: “Reluctant to make arrests, the police used a variety of means to force the women back: women were kicked, their arms were twisted, their noses were punched, their breasts were gripped, and knees thrust between their legs. After six hours of struggle, 115 women and four men had been arrested.” These events, with their disturbing overtones of mass sexual assault, were to pass into the folk memory of the women’s movement as “Black Friday.” Churchill, who recognised at once that something discreditable had occurred, intervened to order the release of most of the women arrested.
* * *
Four days later came a confrontation at Downing Street. The Prime Minister hastily scuttled as demonstrators threw stones and broke windows. Addison continues: “We cannot resist the conclusion that the police as a whole were under the impression that their duty was not merely to frustrate the attempts of the women to reach the House, but also to terrorise them in the process…. once more Churchill intervened to withdraw charges against most of those arrested.”
The Churchill Archives contain no written instructions for handling protestors on 16-18 November 1910. They do contain Churchill’s 22 November letter to Sir Edward Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Churchill refers to his earlier (verbal) instructions, and objects to the way police had acted:
I am hearing from every quarter that my strongly expressed wishes conveyed to you on Wednesday evening and repeated on Friday morning that the suffragettes were not to be allowed to exhaust themselves but were to be arrested forthwith upon any defiance of the law, were not observed by the police on Friday last, with the result that very regrettable scenes occurred. It was my desire to avoid this even at some risk; to arrest large numbers and then subsequently to prosecute only where serious grounds were shown and I am sorry that, no doubt through a misunderstanding, another course has been adopted. In future I must ask for a strict adherence to the policy outlined herein. (WSC to Henry, 22 November 1910, The Churchill Documents, vol. 5, 1456.)
Black Friday “was not a Churchillian atrocity,” Paul Addison concluded. Churchill tried to prevent the situation. “The nub of the matter was the reluctance of the police to make arrests in the early stages of the demonstration.” It is true that Churchill later resisted a public inquiry over the atrocities. With militants launching bombing campaigns, beating up cabinet ministers and slashing paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, an inquiry would have demoralized the police who had to cope with those evil things. Death or serious injuries would be a stronger case for an inquiry.
Churchill was not philosophically hostile to the principle of women’s suffrage at any time in the 20th century. He voted for it as early as 1904. His hesitations in 1905-12 arose when militants tried to break up his speeches. He resisted certain measures at certain times for tactical reasons—unlike, say, Asquith, who in 1910-12 opposed the very principle.
Churchill did express doubts over a universal franchise. In the 1920s he opposed extending the franchise to women 21-30, fearing it would increase the Labour vote. In the 1930s, with dictatorship on the rise through democratic elections, he again expressed doubts about universal suffrage. On these Churchill is open to valid criticism, though the issues are hardly antique. We hear similar arguments about other groups of new voters today.
* * *
Churchill’s notes from 1897 (inaccurately bowdlerized) do not apply to 1910-11. To place what he wrote in 1897 in the context of the Edwardian era is to ignore his political evolution from Tory to Liberal, from youthful imaginings to political maturity.
Churchill’s support for women’s votes increased after he observed the crucial role women had played in the First World War. Before then, he was less assertive than his wife, though she was an influence. His worries about expanding suffrage carry a certain irony. In the 1945 election that rejected him as prime minister, the Labour margin of victory was 19% among males but just 2% among females. “Papa supported votes for women,” smiled his daughter Mary, “when he realized how many women would vote for him.”
See also “Churchill and Women’s Rights“