To coincide with the centenary of International Women’s Day on the 8th of this month, we take a look at one of the movements it honours, the suffragettes.
One hundred years ago Brighton’s streets, parks and venues were buzzing with suffragettes using attention-seeking tactics to raise the issue of votes for women. The Brighton Women’s Social & Political Union was one of the most active regional branches of the Pankhurst-led organisation, whose motto was ‘Deeds not Words’. Paid organisers lodged in suffragette-friendly boarding houses – such as Sea View at 14 Victoria Road – and recruited local women to the cause. Between1907-1913 Brighton’s newspapers contain almost daily reports of suffragette antics.
A key tactic was for women to disrupt political meetings held at the Dome or Pavilion by repeatedly calling out questions concerning the vote. The Brighton Herald of 1907 reports unsympathetically on 18 women removed from the Dome using “gentle ju-jitsu” during a lecture by the Education Minister. The article mocks each woman in turn – one is described as having “a voice with a shrill squeak as though she were fleeing frightened from a nightmare of mice”, another “must have been crossed in love, or she would never have wasted her charms on the desert air of a Suffragette riot”.
By 1908 the government had resorted to barring women from Ministerial meetings but this didn’t deter the suffragettes. In January 1910 police extricated two women from inside the organ at the Dome, after they drew attention to their hiding place with a sneeze. The pair – Brighton-local Eva Bourne and high-profile activist Mary Leigh – had planned to leap from the organ during a talk that evening by anti-suffrage Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. The discovered women displayed a sparky sense of humour, as The Argus reports: “’We are thinking of bringing a counter-charge about the horribly dusty condition of the organ’, remarked one to an Inspector with a twinkle in her eye.”
Further suffragette activities in Brighton ranged from parades along the seafront and open-air meetings on the Level to pouring ink into pillar boxes – as reported in local newspapers held at the Brighton History Centre.
Anna Kisby, Brighton History Centre
For more on pioneering Brighton women, check out 1905 Annual Report of the Lewes Road Hospital & Dispensary for Women and Children.