‘If men use explosives and bombs for their own purpose they call it war and the throwing of a bomb that destroys other people is then described as a glorious and heroic deed. Why should a woman not make use of the same weapons as men. It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!’ – Christabel Pankhurst, 1913
In her 2011 book A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute, Jane Robinson highlights the inherently feminist principles of the The Women’s Institute (WI), even stating that many of the members of the organisation were suffragettes. This would have meant that Margaret would have brushed shoulders with some of the ‘feistiest women in the country’ (Robinson, 2011, 2) who were responsible for securing some women the vote in 1918. Sadly, not all women, but it was a start.
Perhaps one of the most prominent WI turned suffragette members that Robinson mentions is Edith Rigby, ‘a notorious public menace’ (Robinson, 2011, 44) who founded the first Lancashire WI. Edith pursued acts of arson to try and get the voice of women’s suffrage heard, in 1913 she threw ‘black puddings and then bombs (both commendably homemade)’ (Robinson, 2011, 45) at the Liverpool Cotton Exchange when Winston Churchill was due to give a speech there. Women like this juxtaposed the non-violent suffragist motivations of the WI, women like Margaret perhaps, but the two clearly worked together to maintain the organisation as a defining motif to late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century society. The two ways women apart of this society approached their oppression still helped to cultivate a sense of community in their WI meetings, which would have allowed for a snowball effect to take place where the thoughts of a minority eventually influence the majority, allowing more women to unite in the campaign for their rights. Largely, many of the suffragettes’ protests were held in cities, so the movement may have taken its time to get to the countryside where the rural communities were more closed off to the political activism taking place miles away.
From what can be identified from her speeches, Margaret Scutt was a significant member of her community, which spanned across her county. This is evident in how she was a teacher, and a WI member who was regarded highly enough to be allowed to give at least two speeches to large groups of WI members. Being such an active contributor to WI events implies that she actively aligned herself with the feminist views instilled by suffragette members of the forty years prior. Their activism would have had a huge impact on women in villages such as Hamworthy, because women like Margaret who important members of their local organisations could maintain feminist principles in the areas on the periphery of the suffragettes’ activism. With this, more women would have been converted to the cause. Margaret’s documented speeches in the Burnett Archive may not have been her first. We know that at the time she gave these speeches, she was approximately in her mid-seventies or early-eighties, ‘may I take you back to my childhood 70 years ago’ (3) so by this point Margaret was most likely to have been an established member of the WI. Therefore, even though it is not implied in the thematic nature of these specific speeches, Margaret may have given earlier speeches as a part of motivating women to participating in suffragette activism.
It may have also been Margaret’s intention for the speeches to be documented, so literary historians can see how far societies have come over the last century. According to Cowman, suffragettes ‘frequently became enthusiastic promoters of their own memoirs’ (2005, 448). They go on to state:
[t]he autobiographical form (…) lent itself well to descriptions of the WSPU[i]s campaign, and particularly to accounts of militant acts which were often performed alone by women who were encouraged to tell nobody of their plans or exploits at the time for fear of discovery.’ (Cowman, 2005, 448)
The autobiography became a place of refuge, in the literary sense, as writing meant they were able to document their secrets and circulate them within suffragette social circles as a way of encouraging other women to join the movement. This makes one question if there are more documents from working-class village women like Margaret, who helped to mobilise the movement that are still to be found.
In contemporary society, the impact of the WI, suffragettes, and first wave feminist movement can still be found in women’s equal right to democratically vote and voice their political opinion. Since then, the second wave feminist movement fought against both cultural and political discrimination. However, it is the post-feminism of today which has truly promoted objectivity, to ensure there are intersectional and safe spaces for people of colour and members of the LGBT+ community.
[i] The Women’s Social and Political Union
1:0886. Scutt, Margaret. (c.4,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography
Cowman, Kirsta. ‘A Footnote in History? Mary Gawthorpe, Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement and the Writing of Suffragette History’. Women’s History Review. 2005.
Robinson, Jane. A Force To Be Reckoned With: A History of the Women’s Institute. Virago Press: London. 2011.
British Library. Paul Fearn / Alamy Stock Photo https://www.bl.uk/votes-for-women/articles/suffragettes-violence-and-militancy