The call to be counted

Celebrating a centenary of votes for women

On 6 February 2018 we celebrate 100 years since the first women could vote. RCN Bulletin looks at the part individual nurses played in the campaign for equal rights as well as the central role of the RCN’s headquarters 

Though it wasn’t until 1928 that women were given equal rights to men, the 1918 Representation of the People Act meant that some women over 30 were able to vote for the first time. 

They were able to exercise this right in December of the same year, when thanks to the 1918 Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act women over 21 could also stand for election as an MP.

However with the qualification act passed in November and the general election in December, only 17 women managed to get their names on the ballot papers. 

Of those, only one, Constance Markievicz was elected. As a Sinn Fein candidate (Ireland had not yet split from the UK) she would not take the MPs oath so did not appear at Westminster.

Votes for Women

The Royal College of Nursing was established in 1916, just two years before the vote was granted. The College’s benefactor Lady Cowdray was a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), whose activists were commonly known as suffragettes.

However, nurses across the UK were playing their part in driving forward change and the building which was to become RCN headquarters in London was the backdrop to significant suffragette action.

Nurse Pine

Born in 1864, Nurse Catherine Pine trained at St Bartholomew’s before becoming the personal nurse to the Pankhursts.

Emmeline Pankhurst was the founder of the WSPU. Renowned for their militant action, and advocacy of chaos, members of the union who were imprisoned continued their protest with hunger strikes.

From around 1910, Nurse Pine’s nursing home was opened to suffragettes who had been released from prison following hunger strike. By the time Emmeline needed her support in 1913, the nursing home was so besieged by onlookers and the detectives, Nurse Pine was forced to care for her in the homes of friends and sympathisers.

Following the outbreak of World War One, Nurse Pine ran Mrs Pankhurst’s home for illegitimate war babies and remained friends with Emmeline until her death in 1928.

Pictured right: Nurse Pine attends to Emmeline Pankhurst

Princess Sophia

Following the outbreak of war, many suffragette groups including the WSPU suspended their activities to concentrate their efforts on recruiting women into war work. Inevitably this included supporting nursing.

Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh was a prominent suffragette, daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh who had abdicated Punjab to the British Raj and god daughter to Queen Victoria.

Princess Sophia

She was one of the suffragettes present at Black Friday along with Emmeline Pankhurst. In an attempt to meet the Prime Minister, a group of activists visited the House of Commons on 18 November 1910. However, the Home Secretary had them forcefully removed leading to serious injury among the women.

Before becoming a Red Cross nurse during the First World War, the princess joined a 10,000 strong protest against the prohibition of a female volunteer force and supported Indian soldiers working in the British fleets. She then worked at a hospital in Brighton where Sikh soldiers could hardly believe that the daughter of the maharaja was caring for them in a nurse’s uniform.

Suffragettes on the Square

Before 20 Cavendish Square became the headquarters of the RCN in 1920, it was the private home of politician Henry Herbert Asquith. While Asquith would serve as Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, it was as Chancellor of the Exchequer that he first clashed with the suffragettes.

At first Asquith was a strong opponent of votes for women. This made his home, and the future UK base for the College of Nursing, a target for activists. In 1906 a deputation including Minnie Baldock attempted to get an audience with Asquith at 20 Cavendish Square. Minnie recorded the events in her memoir.

“The WSPU did not use gentle persuasion; the policy was to confront intransigent ministers. Of these Asquith, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was seen to be the most obdurate. On 19 June Teresa Billington and Mrs Baldock led a contingent of about 30 East End women to his house in Cavendish Square. The resulting altercation led to the arrest of Teresa Billington, Adelaide Knight, Mrs Sbarboro and Annie Kenney.”

Knight, Sbarboro and Kenney received prison sentences of six weeks, while Teresa Billington was given two months. In the end the first three were released after a month and after representations in parliament, Billington’s sentence was cut to a month.

Sylvia's story

Sylvia Pankhurst also records events at Cavendish Square in her book “The Suffragette; the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement, 1905-1910”, recalling what happened in more detail.

“The general trend of events now made us feel the necessity of securing a personal interview with Mr. Asquith, and we therefore wrote asking him to receive us. He replied that his rule was not to receive any deputation unconnected with his office of Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

Unable to accept this rejection, Sylvia wrote again to the Chancellor. 

“Sir: I am instructed by my Committee to say that the subject of the enfranchisement of women, which they desire to lay before you, is intimately bound up with the duties of your office. Upon no member of the Cabinet have women greater claims than upon the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Your Budget is estimated on a system of taxation which includes women. Women not being exempt from taxation have a right to claim from you a hearing. Women are told that you are mainly responsible for the refusal of the Prime Minister to deal with their claim. But being convinced of the justice of giving votes to women they renew their request that you receive a deputation on an early date in order that their case may be presented to you.”

Sylvia’s pleas fell on deaf ears and Asquith did not respond to her second letter. So in favour of direct action, she wrote to him again to let him know a small deputation would visit his home on the morning of 19 June (1906).

On arrival they were told that the Chancellor had already left for the treasury, so the group decided that some would remain on the doorstep while others went out to look for him. However, they were all unsuccessful as Asquith had slipped out the back of the house while they were waiting.

Return visit

Sylvia Pankhurst 

Sylvia Pankhurst

Dissatisfied with the disappearing Chancellor the suffragettes decided to return two days later.

 “Our determination to meet Mr. Asquith face to face was still strong,” wrote Sylvia. “We had now three flourishing branches of the Union in London, one in the centre and two in the East End, and some thirty or forty representatives, partly drawn from these branches and partly from our central Committee, formed the deputation. 

"Carrying little white Votes for Women flags and headed by Theresa Billington, some thirty of the East End members marched off in procession for Mr. Asquith’s house ; but on arriving at the edge of Cavendish Square, they were met by a strong force of police who told them that they must at once turn back.

“The poor women stood still in affright, but would not turn. Then the police fell upon them and began to strike and push them and to snatch their flags away. Theresa Billington tried in vain to prevent this violence, 'We will go forward,' she cried 'You shall not hit our women like that,' but a policeman struck her in the face with his fist and another pinioned her arms. Then she was seized by the throat and forced against the railings until, as was described by an onlooker, 'she became blue in the face.' She struggled as hard as she could to free herself but was dragged away to the police station with the East End workers following in her train.   

“Immediately afterwards Annie Kenney, with a number of others, most of whom were members of our Committee, came into the Square. Annie knew nothing of what had taken place and, preoccupied and intent on her mission, she walked quickly across the road, but, as she mounted the steps of Mr. Asquith’s house and stretched out her hand to ring his bell, a policeman seized her roughly by the arm and she found herself under arrest.”

Next came Mrs Knight, who owing to hip disease had not joined the procession. Seeing no other protesters she thought the women had been granted access into the minister’s house and proceeded to the door to join them. She was roughly apprehended by a policeman on her approach  and arrested.

Finally she recounts that Mrs Sparborough (who Minnie referred to as Sbarboro), “a respectable elderly woman dressed with scrupulous neatness” approached. She noticed “two maid servants and some ladies at the window of Mr. Asquith’s house were laughing and clapping their hands, she turned to them protesting gravely: “Oh, don’t do that. Oh, don’t do that. It is a serious matter.” 

Whereupon she was immediately dragged away by a police officer.

Get involved

To mark the centenary of Women’s Suffrage in the UK, the RCN took part in WomensWork100, celebrating the vital role working women played in the First World War. 

The series began on 6 February, marking 100 years since the Representation of the People Act, and ran until International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018. It explored the breadth of women’s roles in the First World War – from factories and hospitals to homes and churches, representing their political activism, frontline service and home front experiences, against the backdrop of the suffrage movement and greater prominence of women in public life. 

RCN History of Nursing Forum

If you are interested in the history of nursing, the RCN's dedicated history forum, records, preserves, explores and shares nursing stories from across the decades. Find out more about how you could get involved in projects and exhibitions.

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