Why I don’t think the suffragettes should receive a pardon

Law-breaking in the campaign for women’s votes was not a bug. It was a feature.

Today is a miraculous day. No, not because it’s the centenary of the day the first women in Britain won the right to vote — although that’s pretty brilliant too. It’s miraculous because it has delivered something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see in my lifetime: Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, and Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, agreeing on something.

It’s something you might think I would agree on too: that the suffragettes deserve a government pardon. That these brave, passionate soldiers in the fight for women’s fundamental right to participate in democracy, these women who laid their reputations, their bodies, and even their lives on the line, should not be looked on as criminals.

Here’s the thing though: I don’t. And I don’t believe the suffragettes would have either. 

The women who broke the law in the battle — and it was a battle — for female suffrage did so knowingly. They were not unwitting victims. They were not acting on compulsion. They were sending a very public message: while you don’t allow us a voice in making them, we won’t respect your laws. Law-breaking for the suffragettes was not a bug. It was a feature.

And they celebrated their war-wounded. Women who had been imprisoned received a badge in the shape of prison gates; one badge per imprisonment. Women who had gone on hunger strike and endured the body and soul violating torture of force-feeding were awarded medals. These women were never seen by their sisters as criminals. They were seen as warriors. 

Pardoning them now erases that and does them a disservice. They were radical. They were law-breaking. They were the Nasty Women of the early 20th century. They don’t deserve to be whitewashed and made more palatable.

When we think of the suffragette’s militancy we often think of their later more violent actions. The bricks through windows. The arson attacks on post-boxes. But for years before they started their campaign of vandalism they engaged in all sorts of other acts of very public civil disobedience. 

The Women’s Tax Resistance League adopted the slogan “no vote, no tax,” and turned the sale of goods seized by bailiffs from women who refused to pay their taxes into open air meetings on women’s right to vote. When the government held a census in 1911, hundreds of women defied the law and refused to take part, either refusing to provide information, or by joining one of the packs of women who roamed the streets on the night of the census in order to avoid being at home when the count was made. Emily Wilding Davison famously hid in a broom cupboard in Parliament so that she could give her address as the House of Commons.

These radical women didn’t want a pardon. They didn’t want a pat on the head. They wanted equality. Which leads me to my second reason for not wanting a pardon for them.

The suffragettes above all valued “Deeds, not Words.” And a pardon from today’s government for the actions of long-dead men is the epitome of words not deeds. 

A pardon costs today’s government nothing. It is pain-free, and it is meaningless. And in the context of the deeds this government is enacting, it is an insult. 

This is a government, after all, that refuses to gender analyse its budgets — despite the fact that it is arguably a legal requirement under the 2010 Equality Act, and despite that fact that more than one body has found that 86 per cent of cuts since 2010 have fallen on women. This is a government that refuses to adequately fund women’s shelters, leading to 94 women and 90 children being turned away from Women’s Aid refuges on a single day last year. This is a government that forces women to prove they were raped in order to claim child tax credits if they are wilful enough to have a third child — and which forced this change through Parliament without a vote.

This is a government, in short, that has repeatedly shown it is not interested in equality. A pardon from them is not welcome, it is not needed, and it should not be accepted were it to be offered. The suffragettes deserve better than that. Women today deserve better than that. Nasty Women want deeds, not empty words.  

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer and feminist activist. Her forthcoming book, Invisible Women, is an examination of how the global gender data gap harms women. She tweets as @CCriadoPerez.