Day after Day 15
Muriel had a plan. It was not really a new plan as she had been mulling it over for months, if not years. She wanted to help the cause of women’s suffrage, and she wanted to do something
for that cause in Worcester.
The New Zealanders had allowed women to vote back in 1896, and the Australians in 1902. “Great Britain is supposed to be the most influential nation in the world,” she thought. "We should be leading in this fight, not holding back.”
It was important that women’s voices were heard and their votes counted.
Muriel knew that May wouldn’t help her much because she did not want to do anything that might annoy John. And she was sure that John would not approve of what she was planning to do. Harold, on the other hand, would be proud of her. She hadn’t actually told him in detail what she was proposing, but she knew that he felt as she did, that women needed to take their rightful place
beside men, not two steps behind.
Muriel decided that her most likely ally was Charlotte, the youngest of the Walker girls. Charlotte was caring for her father, who was getting more senile by the day. Her oldest sister, Mary, was not a capable person, so the entire burden fell on Charlotte. She might not be able to get out to march with Muriel, but she could help her plan the campaign.
Muriel decided that she would collect all the information that she could find on the subject, then pay a call on Charlotte and pick her brain about what to do next.
From the middle of the 19th century, many women campaigned peacefully to achieve the same voting rights as men. They organised themselves into groups, held meetings, sent petitions to
Parliament and tried to persuade MPs to change the law to allow them to vote. In 1897 all these small groups came together to form one large group, The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millilitre Fawcett. However, the Government continued to ignore the activities of the NUWSS and, at the beginning of the 20th century, women seemed no nearer to winning the right to vote in parliamentary elections, although they could do so in municipal ones.
In 1903 the campaign for women’s “suffrage” entered a new phase. That year Emmeline
Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel, Sylvia and Adela started the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in Manchester. The motto of the WSPU was “Deeds not words”. The Pankhursts and theirsupporters were determined to win the right to vote by any means. They led an extremely well-organised campaign and established local branches of the WSPU throughout the country. The Union published a weekly newspaper called Votes for Women to inform members about recent developments and to raise much needed money. Supporters were encouraged to wear clothes, sashes and badges in the Union’s colours of purple, white and green to bring attention to themselves
and their campaign. These items could be purchased in specialist WSPU shops.
Muriel purchased a copy of the petition to Parliament, intending to use it as the cornerstone of her plans. It read:
To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal Great Britain and Ireland in Parliament assembled.
The humble petition of the undersigned the Head Mistress and Assistant Mistresses of the Dulwich High School Sheweth That a measure is now before Parliament for extending the franchise to all men householders in the United Kingdom.
That by this Bill two millions of the least educated section of the Community will be added to the electorate, while educated and intelligent women, who are head of households are excluded from the operation of the Bill although they contribute equally with men to the taxation of the Country.
That among the persons so excluded are women landowners, who form one seventh of the
land proprietors of the country; women of means and position living on their own property, school mistresses and other teachers, women farmers, merchants, manufacturers and shopkeepers besides large number of self-supporting women engaged in other occupations. They believe
that the claim of these householders for admission within the pale of the Constitution is as reasonable as that of the County householders and that they would be at least equal in general and political intelligence to the great body of agricultural and other labourers who are to be enfranchised by the Government Bill.
That the injustice of excluding women householders from representation would be greatly intensified by the operation of the new service franchise, under which the servants of a Lady, living in houses for which she paid rent and taxes, would have the vote in right of the occupation of those houses while she herself though the head of the household would have no vote.
Wherefore your petitioners humbly pray that in any measure which may be submitted to your Right Honourable House, for amending the Law relating to the Representation of the People, your Lordships will make such provisions as shall seem expedient for the exercise of the Franchise by duly qualified women.
And your petitioners will ever pray etc...
Muriel collected all the newspaper evidence she could find to try to convince her friends that they had right on their side. She found an article about Dorothy Levitt, a secretary who shocked conventional society by being the first woman to take part in a car race.
Of course Marie Curie was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on radioactivity and the discovery of radium.
Mary Howard became the launch editor for the Daily Mirror, a paper aimed specially at women.
Charlotte was enthusiastic about Muriel’s plan. The two older Tree sisters and Dot were also invited to a planning meeting.
“I have had a thought,” said Muriel, as the meeting got underway. "We need to involve people who no-one has thought of bringing in up to this point. The servants.''
"But they won't be able to get time off to go to rallies,'' said Margaret. "And they won't have money to
donate to the cause.''
“No doubt that is true,'' said Muriel. "But there must be ways in which they can become involved. Just think. In every household there is at least one female servant, and in some there are four, and these have very little say in their own lives. They have little education, usually through no fault of their own. They don’t have a chance to read newspapers and are probably unaware of the women's movement action that is now sweeping the nation.
"If we could represent them that would make everyone sit up and notice us. Just think of it. Not just the daughters of mayors and clergymen and musicians. Women who have been denied their civil rights, now making their voices heard.''
“I still don’t see how it can be done,'' said Margaret.
“What about a petition?'' Muriel suggested. "We could march to the Guildhall with banners, demanding votes for women in national as well as local elections. The right to vote would be
for all women, including domestic servants. We could announce that we had the backing of the working classes by producing a petition signed by them.''
“How would we go about it?'' Margaret asked. "I know my mother would be very upset at the idea of her servants having a voice in anything.”
“Well, we can start on home ground,'' said Muriel. Talk to the servants in our own homes. Explain to them the issues of women's rights and ask them to sign a petition.''
“What if they won’t?” asked doubting Margaret.
"Always look at things from the positive side,'' said Muriel. "Assume that they will, and that they will
be pleased to do so. Encourage them to see that their lives can be improved.''
"And what if they can't even write?'' Margaret asked.
“I thought about that,'' said Muriel. "We should find out how many of our domestic servants have been failed by the school system. Then, if need be, we should demand legislation to enforce employers to allow time for their workers to attend reading lessons.''
"That sounds a bit much to ask for,'' said Margaret. "What if the classes are at a time when they are
supposed to be doing the washing up?''
"They don't have to be. Classes could be arranged for a time to suit them. That is what the Workers'
Educational Association is all about. Improving the lot of the common man. Bringing education to those who missed out in childhood.
“We could set up classes in our homes for the servants in our area. I know some emplyers wouldn't like it, but we should try to make a difference in the world. This is our best chance to do so. I don’t know how to teach reading, but I am sure the WEA would teach us how to teach. They would loan us suitable books. Books in simple English.''
“And maybe we could teach simple mathematics too,'' said Charlotte with a wry smile. "Then they can figure out how badly off they are, and how much more they should be paid.''
“An excellent idea,” said Muriel, taking Charlotte aback. "We could teach all kinds of skills. Help them to advance. "Give them the confidence to work in a shop, or even a factory, and earn twice as much as they do now.''
"It's all very well to speculate,'' said Charlotte "but where do we begin?''
"We begin by drawing up a petition calling for women's suffrage with a view to sending it to the Mayor. We ask servants to sign the petition, at the same time finding out if they lack basic skills such as being able to write, and, without making any promises, assess their enthusiasm for bettering themselves''
“Let’s get down to business,'' said Charlotte. "Muriel, if you write the words of the petition, I will make 10 copies of it. Then if each one of us collects 20 signatures by next week.''
“We don’t need to have the petitions ready until just before a rally,'' said Muriel. "It could read 'We the undersigned believe in the right of women to vote and to express their views on making he world a better place'.''
"Maybe that is going a bit too far Muriel,'' Margaret cautioned. "We don't want to make men frightened of giving us the vote in case we immediately take away all their privileges.''
“Well, why else would we want to vote anyway?” Jessie asked.
"I want to have a say in who represents me at Parliament where the real decisions are made,'' said Muriel.
“Do you want your MP to be a woman?'' asked Dot
“Not to start with, but a man who sympathises with our cause. If one man speaks up in support of our views, others may follow.''
“What does your father think on this subject?''
“He is not strongly committed to the idea of votes for women at the moment, but I am sure I can talk him around.”
“What about Mr. Tree? Should we ask him to speak for us?”
“No, I think we should at present not involve our family or friends, but find support from outside our circle.''
“As far as running classes for the servants, Charlotte, you could do it at your house. The rest of us have parents who might object to such a scheme.''
"My father is now senile,'' said Charlotte sadly. "I am unable to communicate with him. I have been reading his diaries, which date back to the 1850s. He had a high regard for those not considered to be his social equals. He maintained a friendship with Mr. Jones, Adelaide Hilbourne, neither of whom would have been considered proper to be seen with. He had strong views on the need for universal educaion.''
“What else have you found out from reading the diaries?”
"Not only the diaries. My mother also kept journals. She wrote very movingly about her feelings when she was pregnant with Mary, and her thoughts when Mary was born brain damaged.
She also wrote of my brother, Frank, who died when he was 17. My parents never talked of that, but the journals reveal that my parents doted on him. My father became a different person after Frank died. He became protective, obsessively so. That is why he objected when my sisters left home. He felt he wanted to control and protect all of us. The family place a memorial announcement in the newspaper on each anniversary of Frank's death.''
"That is so touching,'' said Muriel.
Soon after that the girls wound up their meeting, arranging another get-together in a week's time.