Monday, October 31, 2016

The Militant Episode that Swayed Canadian War Politics

Barbara Wylie. She was pretty and well-dressed, so she confused the Montreal Press, who thought all British suffragettes were supposed to be battle-axes. 


Read Service and Disservice: How some Canadian Suffragists influenced the 1917 Conscription Crisis. On Amazon Kindle.


The Carrie Mulligan/Meryl Streep movie Suffragette was released in October - and if you think that a tale about beautiful suffragettes playing cat-and-mouse with the police is a "Hollywood" fiction, you are wrong.

It really happened.

And the truth is stranger than fiction.

A few years ago, while working on my book Furies Cross the Mersey, about the British Invasion of Militant Suffragettes to Montreal in 1912/13 I traipsed over to the library at McGill to find a copy of Annie Kenney's 1930's autobiography.

Annie Kenney was Mrs. Pankhurst's First Lieutentant, a working class mill girl from Lancashire.

Two of her sisters, Nell and Caroline, lived in Montreal in the 1912 era and they got involved in the local movement. This, of course, intrigued me.

Well, the Kenney book tells a funny Cat-and-Mouse anecdote. Apparently, Annie Kenney once put on a grey wig and stuffed two plums in her cheeks to escape the police.

Very visual, eh? It would make a good scene in a movie, right?

As it turns out, all this crazy Cat-and-Mousing had an effect on the Canadian Suffrage Movement - and by extension on Canadian politics - and in a very specific way.

In August, 1913, Flora Macdonald Denison, President of the Canadian Suffrage Association, an organization started by the legendary Emily Howard Stowe, was in London, visiting with the militants.

In one day she attended two rallies. The first was at the London Pavilion, where she witnessed a very weak Annie Kenney speaking and where she also saw Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, who was on the lam, whisked away by police when she unexpectedly turned up. (Pankhurst had come just to meet with Flora McD.)

Denison then saw some suffragettes taken to a back room and heard violent noises and learned the next day that 'blood had been shed, by both suffragettes and police'.

That same day, Miss Barbara Wylie, her hostess (you can read about her in Furies Cross the Mersey) took her to the East End of London to a rally where Sylvia Pankhurst, also playing Cat and Mouse, was to speak.

Denison wrote a powerful description of the scene in her Toronto World column, a description that likely scared the bejeezus out of suffragists back home in Canada because she was deposed as CSA President soon thereafter and effectively pushed out of the Canadian suffrage movement.

Torontonian Constance Hamilton, a future Win-the-War fanatic, would launch her own National Equal Franchise Union and use her influence to help Premier Borden fix the vote in the 1917 election. Only women with close relations at the Front got to vote.

Canadian suffrage politics was a very complicated business during the World War One years and I will explain it all in my next book Service and Disservice. That ebook will be about the iffy involvement of all the Canadian Constitutional Suffragists in the 1917 Conscription Crisis, where they got plenty of youthful male blood on their hands.

Ironically, Denison was eligible to vote: her only son, Merrill, signed up in 1916.

Premier Borden banned the militant suffragettes from coming to Canada in 1912, but they came anyway. Barbara Wylie came for a year long cross-country tour in September 1912.  Caroline Kenney came over in November, 1912 and stayed for four years and started her own Equal Suffrage League. This REALLY scared the Canadian suffragists. 

Here's an excerpt from Denison's Toronto World Column, August, 1913

The crowd was filed with poorly clad women, but also was made up of 3/4 men, apparently. (This suffragette business in the East End was more about class, I guess.)

Syliva P had turned up disguised in a 'grand woman's clothes' and then peeled them off to reveal her humble dress of khaki. (Very theatrical.)


"What Sylvia Pankhurst had to say, she read from a paper. She had arranged, if it were possible, to escape the police, to take refuge in a small baker's shop directly opposite the hall. She said the police were many, but the men of Bow and Bromley were more and if they believed her cause to be right she believed they would protect her. The audience was a difficult one to manage, but to a man they shouted they would protect her.

First the nurses and two of these other women half carried her. Then a half dozen big strong men locked arms about the center group and then another group around them. They had a flight of stairs to go down before reaching the street. When they were about at the street door, the fire hose was turned on by policemen who were outside guarding the entrance. This caused a commotion. A girl dressed as Miss Pankhurst hurried up a side street with many of the crowd protecting her, the police followed and in the meantime, Sylvia Pankhurst was being put to bed in the humble bedroom of the poor baker's shop in Bow.

A spray of water made me turn around and the hose had become disconnected and a two and a half inch stream of water was fast flooding the hall. Miss Wylie and I started to leave the hall. Cries on all sides were "Heaven bless the angel." "Praise the Lord she has escaped." "Curses on the government."

When we got outside, the police were trying to disperse the crowd. The automobile of the WSPU was standing in front of the hall and Miss Emmerson asked me to get in. Miss Wylie thought it might be dangerous but I thought if a young woman like Miss Smith could drive the car through such a crowd, I could at least be a passive spectator, so I got in amid the cries of "We'll not let the police touch you."

As a matter of fact, the police had no wish to touch anyone. They were busy assisting women with babies, old lame men and protecting anyone who needed them in a terrible crush."


Well, you could imagine how Canadian Suffragists felt when reading this. Most thought that a peaceful march down the street was too militant.