Historical fiction author Stephen Cowell explains how the actions of a few, brave women in the early 20th Century led not only to all women getting the vote but changed how British society viewed armed conflict, helping usher in a more peaceful and caring age.
By Stephen Cowell
When, on Monday, 1st December 1918, Nancy Astor, flanked by the Prime Minister Lloyd George and a former PM, Arthur Balfour, was summoned by the Speaker to take her place in the House of Commons, many may have thought that victory had been achieved and that the suffrage movement had achieved its aims.
In some ways they were, of course, right for here was the physical embodiment of what they had been fighting for: Britain’s first woman MP. Astor’s historic achievement, though, heralded not just the right for representation of women but also the introduction into the legislature of a different mind-set. This new perspective was to fundamentally change Britain’s attitude towards a vast range of issues. It is not surprising, though —given that the slaughter of the First World War had just ended — that perhaps the most important of these was the attitude society would have towards conflict.
As a history buff and author of historical fiction I have recently been looking into the key role women have played since they won the vote and, in particular, the way they have influenced how Britain and the rest of the world deals with war or the threat of war. What comes across is just how significant the work of the early suffragettes was, and how their work is still shaping attitudes at all levels.
The seeds of this change in attitude were sown in a remarkable gathering in 1915. The International Congress of Women was held in The Hague, Netherlands, at a time when the whole world was embroiled in bitter conflict. It perfectly depicts the convictions and passions felt by those dedicated enough to travel to the Congress. It resulted from the work of a Dutch women, Aletta Jacobs, who personally invited leaders of the suffrage movement around the world to the event.
Author Stephen Cowell’s historical novel, Broome Park, presents a sensitive personalisation of the true impact of conflict and serves as a tribute to the conviction and courage of a few brave women in making a more peaceful and humane world.
You can imagine how difficult it would have been to get there, with the world engulfed in flames. There was no option of catching the next available flight! We should all, however, be thankful that many brave, courageous women did make the effort for the decisions they reached changed minds at the highest levels, not least America’s President Wilson, and led to the creation of bodies such as the League of Nations and the International Court of Justice.
The work of the early suffrage leaders is still influential today. As recently as the year 2000, the United Nations acknowledged the fact that civilians are increasingly the target of armed aggression and that women have a key, if not fundamental, role in finding solutions to the conflict. They reaffirmed the important role of women in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and stressed the importance of their equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace. These words are almost identical to what came out of the Congress that Aletta Jacobs organised.
The suffrage movement clearly articulated the point that it is women who can save the world from mass slaughter, and that it was no longer acceptable for the privileged and powerful few to instruct the mases to go to war. These views expressed by highly-literate, educated and motivated women drawn from the suffrage movement have subsequently permeated every corner of civilised society and have influenced how governments and individual politicians behave. In Britain, whenever there is talk of conflict, the legal and moral legitimacy of such action is at the centre of the debate. At this very moment, the House of Commons is debating legislation that concerns the conduct of soldiers.
That there is a debate is not in doubt, and that this is the case owes an immeasurable amount to a few brave women. One of the most courageous of these was British welfare campaigner Emily Hobhouse, who endured vitriolic attack from the press and politicians in her attempt to bring to an end the British Army’s use of concentration camps to house Boer women and children, deliberately imprisoned after their farms and homes were burnt by our forcers under Lord Horatio Kitchener. In my novel, Broome Park, the terrible conditions that Emily discovered in the camps are described along with the horrifying effects on the children…
“…who deprived of all stimulation, cold then hot, scared and starving, were often too weak to eat and susceptible to all many of illness, particularly typhoid. They lay around the tents with nowhere to go and nothing to do, weak and demoralised. The mothers did their best but one by one, day by day they saw their children taken to the hospital where the badly overworked nurse would fight a losing battle.”
Broome Park shares a fascinating and heartbreak story centred around a young female protagonist, Jane Dunhaughton, who becomes a humanitarian worker during the Second Boer War.
Some 25,000 died in the British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War (1899-1902). The campaign led by Emily Hobhouse resulted in a commission being appointed by the Government. Its significance lay in the fact that all members of the commission, led by the leading suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett, were women. This was a milestone in itself but the commission’s report also marked a line in the sand signifying that military actions were, in future, to be subject to external investigations in real time. It was clear that from now on it would not be possible to use inhumane practices just because there was a war on. It was also clear that it would be women who would rail first against unacceptable practices and would campaign for the rights of women and children as victims of conflict.
As a result of the enfranchisement of women, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 was passed and this led to large numbers of women joining the teaching and legal professions. In the classroom, the discussions led by women on history and literature took on a softer, more questioning approach and avoided the descriptive accounts of battle to focus instead on the human suffering. The poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen usurped the place of jingoists such as Rudyard Kipling in influencing the younger generations. What became evident over time was that mothers and sisters knew full well what the true implications of politicians using the phrase ‘boots on the ground’ really meant as they escorted schoolchildren around the war grave cemeteries.
Hobhouse and her sisters in the suffrage movement would not be complacent but they surely would detect a different attitude to conflict prevalent in the community than existed the day Nancy Astor walked up the floor of the House of Commons.
Broome Park by Stephen Cowell (Olympia Publishers) is out now on Amazon, priced £9.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook.