1909: Christabel Pankhurst's reply to Cuckfield's members


In this posting we learn of the outcome of the earlier posting of the bold proposal made by Mrs Strickland who voiced the opinions of the Cuckfield Women's Liberal Association to the central suffragette movement (Women's Social and Political Union) at the Women’s Liberal Federation Conference in 1909.


Christabel Pankhurst was organising secretar and, in in her editorial of the organisation's journal 'Votes For Women' replied that the Cuckfield proposal was too moderate and implied that more concerted action was needed. but she doesn't detail what she had in mind (probably because the Government would have been monitoring the publication). It soon became clear that civil action was high on the agenda:


The most exciting and important discussion of the Women’s Liberal Federation Conference last week was that which, took place on the resolution moved by the Cuckfield Women’s Liberal Association. This resolution raised the question of the attitude to be adopted by Liberal women towards the present Government.


“That in the opinion of this Council, unless the enfranchisement of of women be included in an Electoral Reform Act, or, should no such Act be passed, unless the Liberal Party when they appeal to the country make Women's Suffrage a plank in their platform, the time will have arrived for a definite refusal on the part of Liberal women to work at Parliamentary elections.”


Christabel Pankhurst

'Cuckfield too conciliatory'

This proposal was defeated by a large majority as being too extreme, but, compared with the policy of the Women’s Social and Political Union, the Cuckfield proposal was conciliatory to a fault. Indeed, no resolution which laid down easier terms for the Government could well have been conceived.


It was evidently with the object of devising a policy which would find the largest possible measure of support that the resolution had been drawn on these lines; but, as the event proved, those members of the Women's Liberal Federation who are trying to make the Government carry out Liberal principles have nothing to gain by compromise, for not even the moderate proposals which they submitted to the Conference were approved by the majority of the delegates.


By rejecting the Cuckfield resolution, the Women’s Liberal Federation have adopted as their motto, 'Our party, right or wrong', and have refused to make even the slightest sacrifice of party to principle. For it was indeed a small sacrifice which they were asked to make.


Cuckfield's proposal not bold enough

The revolt which obedience to the resolution would have involved amounted to nothing more than a refusal to work for the Liberal party at Parliamentary elections - a simple withdrawal from the political field. Subject as the Government are to vigorous attack from the Women’s Social and Political Union, the negative policy proposed by the Cuckfield resolution would have seemed to them but a slight injury. But even this mild form of protest was not to be made immediately. The Government were to have every possible indulgence as to time.


Instead of demanding that while they are in office and have the power to do it, they shall carry a measure of women’s enfranchisement, the resolution offered to the Government the alternative course of making Votes for Women a plank in their political platform at the next General Election. This was bad bargaining indeed, for, acting on the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils, the Government would certainly prefer the plan of including a measure of Woman Suffrage in their General Election manifesto to that of placing such a measure on the Statute Book during their present term of office.


The merit of the resolution

An excellent feature of the Cuckfield resolution was that it treated the Government, and the Government alone, as the party responsible for giving or withholding women’s enfranchisement, and left out of account the private member, who, as every practical politician knows, is powerless, even if he were willing, to take the initiative in this matter. Nothing has done mere to delay the success of the Woman Suffrage movement than the wasteful and futile expenditure of time and energy on securing pledges of support from rank and file - members of Parliament.


The only scientific way the event proved, those members of the Women's Liberal Federation who are trying to make the Government cany out Liberal principles have nothing to gain by compromise, for not even the moderate proposals which they submitted to the Conference were approved by the majority of the delegates By rejecting the Cuckfield resolution, the Women’s Liberal Federation have adopted as their motto, “Our party, right or wrong,” and have refused to make even the slightest sacrifice of party to principle. For it was indeed a small sacrifice which they were asked to make.


The revolt which obedience to the resolution would have involved amounted to nothing more than a refusal to work for the Liberal party at Parliamentary elections - a simple withdrawal from the political field. Subject as the Government are to vigorous attack from the Women’s Social and Political Union, the negative policy proposed by the Cuckfield resolution would have seemed to them but a slight injury. But even this mild form of protest was not to be made immediately.


A potential policy for a party manifesto


Typical 1900s women's outfit

The Government were to have every possible indulgence as to time. Instead of demanding that while they are in office and have the power to do it, they shall carry a measure of women's enfranchisement, the resolution offered to the Government the alternative course of making Votes for Women a plank in their political platform at the next General Election. This was bad bargaining indeed, for, acting on the principle of choosing the lesser of two evils, the Government would certainly prefer the plan of including a measure of Woman Suffrage in their General Election manifesto to that of placing such a measure on the Statute Book during their present term of office.


An excellent feature of the Cuckfield resolution was that it treated the Government, and the Government alone, as the party responsible for giving or withholding women’s enfranchisement, and left out of account the private member, who, as every practical politician knows, is powerless, even if he were willing, to take the initiative in this matter. Nothing has done more to delay the success of the Woman Suffrage movement than the wasteful and futile expenditure of time and energy on securing pledges of support from rank and file -members of Parliament.


The only scientific way of dealing with the private member is to treat him as u private soldier subject to the orders of his political superiors.


The supporters of the Cuckfield resolution have made their attempt to redeem the Women's Liberal Federation from a position of utter subservience to party. In the hope of inducing the whole Federation to make a united stand in the political interests of their sex, they have resorted to compromise, and have tried to secure acceptance of a policy which, as they cannot fail to realise, is certain to be ineffectual.


But one course left

This effort to bring the laggards into line has failed, and there is now but one course left to them. If the need of Votes for Women were less acute, if the possibility of an early General Election were less strong, there might be something to be said for the plan of conducting a campaign of argument and education within the Women's Liberal Federation, with the object of bringing its members by gradual stages to the point of revolting against the Liberal leaders, but since the question of Votes for Women is for many reasons one of urgency, such a plan of campaign is a mistake.


It is far better that those Liberal women who are politically awake should now, without a moment's delay, and without waiting for others to follow them, oppose the Government which is pursuing so illiberal a policy in regard to the political rights of women. This example would do more than any amount of debate and discussion to convince other women of the need of an anti-Government policy. Moreover, since success depends less upon numbers than upon tactics and enthusiasm, the vote could be wrested from the Government of the day before the slow-moving majority had come to the point of action.


Christabel Pankhurst.

Source

Votes For Women May 21 1909 part of Part of Suffrage Journals which can be found at

https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.29696659


Notes

Emmeline Pankhurst (née Goulden; 15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU)


Christabel Pankhurst was the daughter of women's suffrage movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst and the organising secretary https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christabel_Pankhurst


Contributed by Malcolm Davison.