Suffragette Tea Shop, 1913
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, most famously giving some women the right to vote, on a number of conditions. But it wasn’t just women that benefitted from the heroism of the suffragettes and voting reform campaigners – the Act also opened up the enfranchisement of all men aged 21 and over, resulting in 5.6 million more men able to vote, alongside the newly-enfranchised 8.4 million women.
The conditions for women allowed those 30 years old and older to vote, if they were a member or else married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency. Overnight, even under these conditions, women became 43% of the electorate. Due to the loss of so many young men in the First World War, had women also been enfranchised from age 21, they would have made up the majority, which was probably a key reason for the age difference. Women eventually received the vote on the same terms as men in 1928.
I remain in awe of the bravery of the suffragettes. These were women deciding to break the law and suffer the harsh consequences in support of their cause, while societal pressures built up all around them. This small article from 1913 is a tiny glimpse into the day to day pressures of being a suffragist at this time. Dated 4th March 1913, it immediately precedes momentous events – the Cat and Mouse Act was passed in April 1913, following outcries at the brutal force feeding of imprisoned women on hunger strike. Now hunger-striking women were allowed to be released when their health deteriorated, and rearrested after they had recovered. And in June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison died a few days after being trampled by the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, receiving hate mail in hospital as she lay unconscious.
The Westminster Tea Shop was run by the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.), the militant suffragette organisation led by Emmeline Pankhurst. The headline plays up the student high jinks and the “amusing scenes” that resulted, although it’s hard to see the humour in forty to fifty male students descending on two young women running a small tea shop and behaving in a threatening manner, no matter how amusing they may have thought themselves at the time. The women stood up for themselves and come across so well as to surprisingly earn a rather approving write up of their manner.
AMUSING SCENES IN A SUFFRAGIST TEA SHOP
A number of students made a hostile demonstration yesterday afternoon at the Westminster Tea Shop, a small café carried on under the auspices of the W.S.P.U. in Toothill Street, Westminster.
Forty or fifty in number, the students approached the café shouting and booing, and on entering the premises created a disturbance by banging walking sticks upon the tables and shouting “Do you women want the vote?” a question which they answered with an emphatic “No.” There were only two young women in charge of the tea shop at the time, but they appear to have dealt with the situation in a remarkably cool manner, one of them informing the students that they must calm themselves or they would not get the tea they asked for.
Eventually tea was served, but the students still behaved uproariously, and threatened to smash the windows. Meanwhile a message had been telephoned to the police, and the arrival of a body of about 20 police had the effect of quelling the disorder, without any damage being inflicted on the property. Before the young men left, the young lady in charge of the shop ventured to address them in a few words in support of women’s suffrage, and her remarks were punctuated with cheers and boos. A large crowd gathered round the premises.