Continuing the story of Way stations by Elizabeth Robins, 1913, begun in our blog post of 7 February. If you'd like to come in and read Way stations here at the Library, use the 'contact us' button at the top of this page to book an appointment....
Further to her own political awakening, Robins endorses throughout Way stations much more strident, radical action than that preferred by those whom she calls ‘suffragists of the ‘soothing’ sort’. In contrast, the authoritarian and frequently barbaric tactics adopted by the state and other official bodies (including police, prisons and local courts) towards militant campaigners would serve only to guarantee the protestors’ eventual (albeit by 1918 only partial) triumph, with Robins observing that ‘a force was set to work six years ago which needed only counter force, needed only ruthless repression to develop an explosive pressure which should crack the crust of ages.’ Visitors to the People’s History Museum will see, for example, the arrest warrant pertaining to Alice Noble who was aged just 16 on travelling from Leeds to London to take part in a WSPU demonstration in 1907. Alongside the warrant is a finely designed certificate which the WSPU subsequently presented to Alice to recognise her determination and commitment to the cause.
In a section of Way stations that brings to mind Robins’s career as a playwright and novelist, she presents an anecdote to further strengthen her case regarding the necessity and importance of the suffrage movement’s militancy. She recalls overhearing a conversation, whilst waiting for her train in a quiet tearoom, between an apparently forty-something middle-class man and young working-class woman. Robins’s contempt for the man and his obvious intent is clear (‘[he] made no effort to disguise his quest’; ‘arms on table, head thrust forward turtle-like, the low, educated voice coaxing the ill-paid, ill-educated girl’). Yet, she writes, it quickly became apparent that ‘the women [protestors] shut up in prison had got into communication with this girl’ who sat in the anonymous tearoom. Robins therefore remembers the young woman’s words to the man, who had just sneered at her having told him she could ‘see after herself’. She quotes her thus:
'Oh, you think we can’t do anything except what you say.'… 'Haven’t you heard,” [the young woman] said, 'that we can break windows?'
Robins admits a degree of amazement on her own part at this point at ‘what strange shores the widening ripples [that the suffragettes’ militant protest had] reached’, before she reflects, in her typically writerly style, on what she viewed as the significance of this young woman’s apparent awareness:
In the girl’s face an instant reflection of the daring! Bond Street! – the Paradise of such as she, where the windows flash with jewels and blossom with laces and silk – a window smashed in the face of all that luxury was to this poor fly struggling in the meaner web the type of a courage she would never know.
I am afraid the women in Holloway, or out, were too late to save that girl. But the women in Holloway had given her a glimpse, at least of a possible defiance hurled at evil – one flash of that bright weapon in the air before the dark of yielding.
A further addition to the Library’s extensive collection on the women’s suffrage movement, Way stations’ s thought-provoking, self-contained chapters not only chart Robins’s personal political development but reveal a great deal about the evolution of political consciousness more widely across Britain in this period. Intriguingly, the final page of the Library’s edition (below) has been stamped with the request, ‘Will you, too, buy a Copy, and “Pass it on.”’ (NB: A small sticker on the inside front cover, meanwhile, reads ‘Sold by: The International Suffrage Shop, 15, Adam Street, Strand, W.C.’) As campaigners and protestors at the time acknowledged, securing the vote for women, whilst utterly essential, was merely a starting point on the road to attaining full political, economic and social equality, which is a theme that our upcoming blog posts will explore further.
Final page of Way stations, WCML, shelfmark JS52
The Working Class Movement Library and the People’s History Museum & Labour History Archive and Study Centre were successful in getting a ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Voting for Change – 150 Years of Radical Movements, 1819 to 1969, their collaborative project, focuses on the movements and campaigns for the franchise, from the build-up to the Peterloo protest in 1819 through to the lowering of the voting age in 1969.