Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, was asked this week why she ‘got herself arrested’ at the anti-fracking protest in Balcombe, West Sussex. This is an intriguing question, as was highlighted by Lucas herself. It’s a bit like getting yourself pregnant, or getting yourself deported – it’s hard to achieve it without some degree of external input. Lucas’s reply quite rightly was that she didn’t wish to ‘get herself arrested’, but that it came about as a result of (non-violent) direct action undertaken when other means of protest were being ignored.
One hundred years on from 1913, the height of the Suffragettes own direct action campaign, the same issues get us tangled up. What do you do when Government won’t listen (in this instance because its ears are stopped up by the lubricious tongues of powerful corporate wooers)? If Lucas and her cohorts carried on writing letters and signing petitions, hoping to address the issue democratically via the next elections – in 2015 – the potential environmental damage will have been done.
In the early 1900s, Christabel Pankhurst took off the (kid) gloves and declared a campaign of direct action for women’s votes; and initially the women did want to ‘get themselves arrested.’ After a key protest in which hundreds of windows in London’s West End were smashed simultaneously by Suffragettes springing hammers from their handbags (what an image), the protestors stood aroundwaiting to be arrested, claiming their criminality as a political statement. It was only later, once the police beatings and prison torture of force-feeding became entrenched, that the women changed tactics. By then they were not standing around waiting to be martyred with arrest and imprisonment. They refused the Government the use of their bodies as the front line for the struggle, and instead took hatchets to golf courses and firebombs to empty buildings, and then scarpered before they could be nicked.
It’s one of the many complex reasons why the Suffragette history will probably never be embraced by the mainstream as the vital, world-changing movement it was. For a couple of weeks in June this year Emily Wilding Davison was commemorated for her death for the cause, but all of that attention has again seeped away. We know how to respond to her – she was a martyr, for a cause nobody in this country would seriously deny these days. But what about all the others, the ones who suffered beatings and smashed things and blew things up and didn’t die? How to celebrate the rightness of their campaign without feeling that uncomfortable twinge about how much we haven’t moved on?
We are still suckered by the imperative to do things by the book, by the pernicious insistence that our Government has our best interests at heart. And those who ‘get themselves arrested’ – especially women – upset that happy notion.
So if you’re hoping for any official commemoration one hundred years on, street parties for the as-yet unannounced UK Women’s Suffrage Day, don’t get on the phone to the caterer just yet.