Earlier this month, seven protesters from the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion smashed the windows of the Barclays headquarters in Canary Wharf, east London, sat down and patiently waited to be arrested. They were all women, and they came dressed in the purple, white and green of the suffragettes. They even brought a hammer painted with the suffragette slogan “deeds not words”, and shared a photo of it on Twitter in an effort to make the historical comparison crystal clear.
Extinction Rebellion has been busy during lockdown, if not especially successful. One stunt, for instance, involved protesters spending months camped out in tunnels near London’s Euston station. This was very effective at annoying police and construction workers, but went mostly unnoticed by the public, given that central London is relatively deserted nowadays, and all the protesting action took place underground and therefore went largely unseen.
Yet the public has noticed some of the other, more disruptive Extinction Rebellion stunts of recent years and has generally not warmed to the group as a result. A 2019 incident in which protesters climbed on top of Tube trains, obstructing commuters, was received particularly badly. So, too, was the embarrassingly bougie yoga session held on Westminster Bridge while protesters blocked off arterial roads in London.
Extinction Rebellion is deeply unpopular, despite most of the public being sympathetic to its cause. That antipathy is partly linked to class, since the stereotypical association between climate activism and posh lefties is only strengthened by their yoga-based antics. Yet I’m a middle-class millennial and intermittent vegan who drives a hybrid and gets anxious about recycling, and even I find Extinction Rebellion insufferable. It is good at attracting attention but not very good at attracting goodwill.
Critics of the group might therefore be tempted to tut at the protesters’ efforts to associate themselves with the suffragettes, but I find the comparison quite persuasive. Not only because the suffragettes loved smashing windows – and cutting telegraph wires, and attacking churches, and attempting to blow up the chancellor’s house – but also because of their alienating effect. The suffragettes are now mostly remembered as heroines, and were honoured as such during the centenary of women’s partial suffrage in 2018. But in their own time they were widely regarded as terrorists, in contrast to the more moderate suffragists.
[see also: Why we need to talk about “global weirding”]
Historians are divided on whether the suffragettes may have hurt their cause through their militancy. Although no one was ever known to have been killed as a result of suffragette actions – with the exception of Emily Wilding Davison, who threw herself in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913 – there were failed assassination attempts, and bombings that could easily have caused deaths.
These near misses tend to be forgotten in the popular contemporary history of women’s suffrage, which is folded into a larger progressive narrative saturated with what CS Lewis described as “chronological snobbery”: “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited”. Put crudely, chronological snobbery condemns most people of the past as bad and stupid, in contrast to people of the present, who are uniquely capable of discerning the truth.
The progressive narrative understands history as linear – a gradual, inevitable marching towards the good – and thus puts the work of campaigners at the centre, with the suffragettes cast as agents of enlightenment, waking up their fellow citizens through passionate persuasion. There is therefore too little attention paid to the material factors that contributed to the success of the suffrage campaign – not only in Britain, but also in the many other countries that granted women the vote at around the same time.
Campaigners are important in that they can provide the final and necessary push. But the groundwork must be laid in advance. In the early 20th century, the groundwork available to the suffragettes included the changes to the gendered division of labour that resulted from the Industrial Revolution, the declining economic importance of male physical strength as a result of mechanisation, and the development of new domestic appliances that enabled women to spend more time participating in public life.
In other words, when assessing the factors that contributed to the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, we should give the internal combustion engine just as much credit as that usually given to the suffragettes. Or even more, perhaps, given that some of the group’s tactics repelled the public and thus may well have impeded the cause of women’s suffrage.
There is a lesson here for Extinction Rebellion. Part of its goal is to wake up the public to the climate emergency, and flashy stunts can play a role in this. But the aim of environmentalists is also to transform the way we harvest and use energy, remaking the global economy just as thoroughly as the Industrial Revolution did two centuries ago.
The UK public may already be mostly persuaded that there is a problem, but very few people are willing to make the kind of sacrifices demanded to reduce their carbon footprint to almost zero. Green technology has to be the answer to this stalemate. And this requires the involvement of governments and private companies, which must invest huge sums of money into its development. If we are to avert catastrophe, we will therefore need to rely on the diligence of the suffragists, rather than the recklessness of their more radical sisters – even if the latter may be remembered with more romanticism.
[see also: The two faces of Extinction Rebellion]
This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical