Ethel threw an egg at Churchill. After 90 years, is it time she was pardoned?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The suffragettes, whose lawless campaign of arson, window smashing and civil disobedience scandalised Edwardian England, could soon be officially exonerated.

With turn-out at next month's elections expected to be at an all-time low, a group of MPs is demanding posthumous pardons for women who were prepared to go to jail for the right to vote.

More than 1,000 suffragettes received criminal records during the 11-year struggle. Now their descendants, backed by dozens of parliamentarians, are attempting to elevate them as models of good citizenship, arguing that the treatment they received amounted to political persecution.

Dr Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the founder of the movement, said: "Symbolically it's very important. They weren't given a voice to argue their case. They tried reason and they tried arguments but it didn't work.

"Women need to remember that it was only two generations ago when women didn't have the vote. All women should vote next month and remember the indignity and abuse that their grandmothers went through."

Dr Pankhurst, who now works for WaterAid in Ethiopia, says she too is involved in the fight to improve women's lives.

The Home Office has been asked to review the suffragettes' convictions, and MPs have signed an early day motion supporting a declaration of innocence. "The sentences handed down to suffragette prisoners and the treatment of those prisoners when convicted were politically motivated and bore no relation to the acts committed," it says.

The suffragette movement was set up more than 100 years ago by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia. Frustrated at the lack of progress that the non-violent suffragists were making in the drive for votes for women, they established the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Between 1903 and 1914 the WSPU carried out a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience, criminal damage and arson.

Emily Wilding Davison famously died after throwing herself under the King's horse during the 1913 Derby. The case of Ethel Moorhead is less well-known. She was one of the first women to be force-fed in prison. She was jailed after throwing an egg at Winston Churchill during a meeting in Dundee.

Throughout the country, women harangued public meetings, smashed windows of public buildings, refused to pay tax without representation, and fire-bombed country houses, cricket pavilions, racecourses and golf clubs.

The women convicted of such offences were usually jailed; some were sentenced to long periods of hard labour.

The suffragettes called a halt to their militant activities on the outbreak of the First World War. Women were drafted into the workforce in record numbers during the four-year conflict. By the end of the war, the arguments against extending the suffrage to women had been comprehensively trounced, and in 1918 the Fourth Reform Act introduced votes for women aged 30 and over. Ten years later, the voting age was reduced to 21 - the same as for men.

Not all of the campaigners for women's suffrage were female. Frederick Pethick-Lawrence was a wealthy lawyer who often bailed out those campaigners who were arrested. In May 1912 Mr Pethick-Lawrence, his wife and Emmeline Pankhurst were all charged with conspiracy.

The trio were found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment. Norman Watson, a writer who has spent the past 15 years researching the movement and its contribution to modern democracy, said: "Their treatment was out of all proportion to the crimes they committed. A pardon now would reflect that."

Not everyone, though, agrees. The campaign has been dismissed as "daft" by one relative, who says the pioneers would have been proud of breaking the law.

Lady Diana Dollery, whose grandmother, Myra Sadd-Brown, was arrested for throwing a brick through the window of the War Office, said: "In my family it's always been regarded with pride that my grandmother went to prison.

"She got two months' hard labour for throwing a brick. Well, she had thrown a brick. They had committed the crimes. Surely pardons are for people who didn't commit crimes?"