York’s Alternative History and York Social Pub Talks joined forces last night, 20 May, at the Golden Ball pub, to present Krista Cowman speaking on ‘Suffragette Militancy in the Regions’, sparking off a lively question and answer session and discussion to follow. The event was in commemoration of the time in June 1913 when Emily Wilding Davidson fell in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, dying of her injuries a few days later. We were also celebrating the less well-documented bravery of thousands of women, including several from the York area, risking reputations, health and their lives for the right to have their voices heard in British political life.
Succinctly and entertainingly, Krista Cowman explained the context and reasoning behind the growing militancy of the suffragette movement in the years preceding the First World War. She drew attention to the risks the women took, to their extraordinary personal courage and, quite naturally, this posed the question as to whether their militancy and superb organisation achieved worthwhile results. Questions and discussion centred around the issues of success and organisation, and it is fair to say that the debate continues. Issues in history like this are never definitively resolved, though they are always relevant.
I would note a few personal observations. Without the combination of firm resolve and dedication, backed with a highly effective national network of supporters, the women’s suffrage movement could not have supported the degree of militant activity they undertook. That is a lesson for today’s advocates of ‘direct action’ and civil disobedience, in the absence of any such background organisation. Equally interesting and relevant to today’s movements was the way in which the police authorities evolved new methods of surveillance in response to the women’s suffrage movement, at one point seizing the WSPU’s records, which were never returned. No matter how today’s movements organise, the police will find ways of adapting their tactics and strategies to protect the interests of the State and the status quo. Witness present-day debates about infiltration of groups, abuse of personal relationships (not just by the police, it is fair to say) and kettling of peaceful demonstrations.
For certain, the WSPU and its offshoots and rivals remain a quite amazingly relevant focus of debate about how best to organise for a better world. Krista provided some useful advice on the sources of information in public and private archives for those willing to the research.
Krista Cowman set the bar high for whoever undertakes the next joint talk we host! Log on to this site for future events.
 Krista Cowman is Professor of History at the University of Lincoln, a founder member of the Women’s History Network, and author of numerous publications, including the Borthwick pamphlet on Suffragette Militancy in York.