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British suffragettes step up militancy in pre-war 1914

Written By venus on Thursday, July 10, 2014 | 11:48 AM

Two weeks after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the tragedy already had slipped from public consciousness in Britain and France. That was no so in Austria and Serbia. Behind the scenes, diplomats in the two countries continued to manage the situation. It was, of course, a Serbian nationalist (supported by elements of the Serbian intelligence service) who committed the murder.

Suffragette arrest in London in 1914
In the latest news from Vienna, there was little clue that the assassination might become anything more than a matter of diplomatic exchanges. As The Telegraph of London reported, the latest Austrian communication to Belgrade "will not assume the form of interference in Servia's [sic] sovereign rights, and nothing will be asked of her which could be regarded in Belgrade as either an affront or a humiliation." Austria will ask, though, that Serbia make available to Austrian authorities anyone implicated in the assassination, inasmuch as the crime occurred within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Beyond the walls of the government ministries, life went on as usual.

As suffragettes in the United States continued their policy of political activism and demonstrating that women could do most everything a man could do, Britain's suffragette movement turned to militancy. The trigger occurred in 1912, when Prime Minister H.H. Asquith reneged on a promise to give women over the age of 30 the right to vote. The time of peaceful persuasion seemed to have gotten them nowhere. 

Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragettes conducted hunger strikes, smashed store windows and chained themselves to railings to demonstrate that they no longer would tolerate policy-makers' inaction on the question of a woman's right to vote. Hunger strikes provoke violent reactions. Jailers took to force-feeding women with tubes to prevent martyrdom. As a political matter, that policy backfired.

Some suffragettes even turned to bombing. On July 9, 1914, two women tried to blow up the Scottish birthplace of beloved poet Robert Burns. Shortly after two o'clock in the morning, a watchman spotted two figures in the nighttime gloom approaching the public entrance to the cottage where Burns was born. He caught one of the them but the other escaped. Officialdom and the male public alike were alarmed to discover that the mysterious figure was a woman who was wearing men's apparel: trousers, waterproof coats, boots and men's caps. 

Suffragette poster
Found on the grounds of the cottage were two bombs, complete with fuses.

When the woman was brought to court later in the morning to face charges, she refused to enter the dock and claimed the court had no jurisdiction over her. She proceeded to quote passages from Burns' poem "Scots What Hae," which bemoaned political oppression in Scotland and called for a "glorious struggle for freedom." By refusing suffrage, the woman argued, Britain was rendering women as slaves.

The cottage was a popular tourist destination, receiving 60,000 visitors in the previous year.

By coincidence, that same day, The Telegraph reported that a newly published British employment census found that, for the first time, more women were employed in clerical and industrial occupations than in domestic service. Within the previous decade, the ranks of women working outside domestic service had doubled. The days of fully staffed maid service at "Downton Abbey" were ending.

Anna (at left) and other maids at "Downton Abbey"
During the war, the suffragettes called for a "cease fire," as Pankhust put it, to participate patriotically on the home front. They became nurses and assisted soldiers sent home from the front lines to recuperate from battle injuries (again, you'll see this in the "Downton Abbey" series on PBS). They were typists and clerks, mostly the customary female roles. However, when men rushed to enlist in the Army and fight, women took on jobs previously meant exclusively for men: working in factories and on loading docks, for instance.

The suffragettes' many contributions during the war accelerated the progress toward the rights they had so long demanded. As The Great War drew to a close in late 1918, British women finally got the right to vote.

As for the other major players in The Great War, leading on this issue was, ironically, politically backward Russia. In 1907 the Czar allowed women to vote in the Grand Duchy of Finland, which was part of the Russian Empire. Immediately women were elected to the Finnish Parliament.

Hoffman's Ball Bearing factory in England, 1914
Post-war Germany approved women's suffrage in late 1918. The United States followed suit two years later. In Italy, the date was 1925. Belgium in 1921 allowed widows of war veterans to vote but did not extend the franchise universally until after the Second World War. Turkey, the main remnant of the Ottoman Empire, granted suffrage in 1930. France was the holdout. It waited until 1944, as Nazi troops were being driven from French soil, to grant women the right to vote.

The first woman to lead a major power from The Great War was Margaret Thatcher, elected in Britain in 1975. 

Meanwhile in England in early July 1914, the communications revolution continued apace. In London, a delivery van was retrofitted with a complete wireless installation so it could keep in contact with the head office—the first innovation of its kind, apparently. And London's buses began employing interpreters to assist foreign tourists to the capital.

In the United States, a conference of the National Education Association, a campaigner for public schools and the profession of teaching (and later an advocate for higher teacher pay), declared that "sex hygiene" should be taught by parents, not the schools. School-based instruction "will tend to lead to a lower standard of morality," as delegate Charles Keene put it. Also on July 9, the teachers group approved a resolution endorsing the use of cinema in the schools. Such instruction "would give visuality and quicken the imagination of a child to a far greater degree in a few minutes' time than a textbook would in days of study."

And, in a deliberate affront to European nobility, a congressman from Ohio proposed legislation requiring that United States citizens who marry foreigners with titles be subject to an additional 25 percent on their federal income tax.

In Germany, author and poet Johan Waltz was put on trial on July 10 for treason. His offense: writing a children's book was unflattering to German rule in Alsace-Lorraine, the border provinces which Germany extracted from France as a consequence of its victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The book describes the "patriotic arrogance" of the German schoolmaster. "Altogether the book would seem calculated to the minds of its youthful readers the idea that France is a land of freedom and delight, and Germany is one of oppression and suffering," The Telegraph reported. Rather than face one year in jail. Waltz managed to flee to France days before the war began. 

Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine in the 1870 war, thinking that the action would create a buffer should France ever try to go to war again. Instead it created 40 years of instability. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck warned against acquiring the provinces because their residents would prove irreconcilable. Indeed they were.

The annexation was one of that factors that propelled France to fight in 1914. One of the main battlefields from the very first day of the war: Alsace-Lorraine.


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