Churchill, Women’s Suffrage and “Black Friday,” November 1910

Churchill, Women’s Suffrage and “Black Friday,” November 1910


“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 [1874] 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.)

The truth

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

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