Like some other chapters in my project on men and feminism, this chapter begins with a remarkable and unknown story.
On 5 October 1909, a group of men assembled for their weekly lunch and editorial meeting at the National Liberal Club. They were the writers and staff of H. W. Massingham’s periodical The Nation, and their lunch had already acquired its reputation as the most important New Liberal salon of its day. Massingham himself was abroad, so the chair was taken by the economist J. A. Hobson. Others present included the historian Lawrence Hammond, the journalist Henry Nevinson, the prison reformer and Anglican priest W. D. Morrison, the Liberal MP Arthur Ponsonby, and the Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, Charles Masterman.
Absent on this occasion, but usually present, were another prominent Liberal journalist, H. N. Brailsford, the New Liberal thinker L. T. Hobhouse, and the editor of The Economist, F. W. Hirst. On the edges of the group were the sociologist Graham Wallas and the Liberal philosopher Gilbert Murray, as well as C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian for whom most of the Nation journalists had at some point worked. New Liberal politicians, including Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, were also close to the group at this time, and sometimes attended the lunch.
A few days earlier, news had emerged of the forcible feeding of the suffragettes Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh in Winson Green Prison. In Parliament, to cheers of support, Masterman, as the responsible Minister, had defended the practice as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’. Nevinson and Brailsford had resigned as leader-writers on the leading Liberal daily newspaper, the Daily News, when its editor, A. G. Gardiner appeared reluctant to condemn it. Their letter denouncing the ‘loathsome expedient of the stomach-tube’ as a form of ‘torture’ designed to break the women’s spirits had appeared in The Times that morning. Forcible feeding, Brailsford told Masterman, was ‘an outrage to human dignity hardly less shameful than a sexual assault’. ‘Masterman came in & sat down by me, saying “It’s all right, is it?”’, Nevinson wrote in his diary after returning from the National Liberal Club. ‘I said “No, it isn’t all right” & spoke no further word to him.’
Three days later, Nevinson was at King’s Cross railway station, with Brailsford and his wife, Jane Malloch. A new recruit to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Malloch had been asked to go to Newcastle, where Lloyd George was due to speak. Her task, with twelve other women, was to provoke arrest and imprisonment and test the Liberal Government’s determination over forcible feeding. Among the others were Constance Lytton, who was a friend of Ponsonby, and Emily Wilding Davison. Jane ‘was quiet & cheerful, but said she knew how serious it was’, wrote Nevinson. ‘She gave me her hand often. She had a purple cloak & green dress, with the [WSPU] colours on a cord. We all knew how terrible the parting was. She spoke to me last at the window & then they went. I hung about the streets bewildered with fear and misery’.
In Newcastle the following day, Jane Malloch waited outside Lloyd George’s meeting, with an axe concealed under some chrysanthemums. She then produced the axe and began to chop up the police barricade.
By chance, the Newcastle demonstration was one of the WSPU demonstrations to be filmed for the cinema newsreels. Indeed, this footage is the oldest surviving newsreel of a suffragette demonstration.
Men took part in the Newcastle march in significant numbers, as you can see. However, Jane Malloch’s own action was not captured by the cameras, nor were those of the other twelve militant suffragettes, who were arrested for throwing stones at public buildings, including the Palace Theatre, the location of Lloyd George’s meeting, to which no women audience members were admitted.
Jane Malloch’s intentions with the axe were not clear: Hammond’s wife Barbara, who had received an ambiguous letter from her, feared she intended to do ‘something desperate’ to injure Lloyd George and was only prevented by being unable to reach him. Arrested and charged with a breach of the peace, Malloch was sentenced to a month in the second division; that is, without special privileges. Like the other suffragette detainees, she immediately went on hunger-strike. She told the prison doctors, ‘If you feed me, I shall either die or kill myself’. According to one source, she had gone prepared with poison for this purpose.
‘We are now all of us within measurable distance of a tragedy over this prison business’, Brailsford had warned Masterman. If Jane Malloch or any of the WSPU women died in prison, ‘other deaths would follow’. Frantic with worry, he wrote to Sarah Byles, wife of the Liberal politician and newspaper owner William Byles. He asked her to approach the Home Office to save his wife from forcible feeding. ‘[I]t is hard for me to be calm and fair’, he told her. ‘[T]he pain simply does not matter. It is the outrage, the violation, the idea of something being thrust by force into one’s body, which matters. I, a man, should feel this as an almost unforgivable outrage. I should expect women to feel it much more.’ When Mrs Byles suggested that Brailsford should himself appeal to Masterman, he refused. ‘I won’t go to him about my wife’, he wrote. ‘He knows her. I think he admires her. He must act for himself.’
However, Brailsford’s nerves did not hold for long. The next day, he arrived at the Home Office for an interview with the senior civil servant, Sir Charles Troup. Befor long he was in tears, Troup reported to Masterman, and wishing the women militants ‘at the bottom of the sea’ if only he could save his wife. The other men were affected too. Nevinson tried to write an article for The English Review, but found it impossible to think. He himself had a long romantic obsession, partly reciprocated, with Jane Malloch. Now he ‘could only think of that beautiful woman starving’. At the next Nation lunch, he urged his colleagues to ‘[l]et them out, break the law, anything rather than allow this abomination in our country to continue’. Masterman, ‘coming in late, gave me one appealing look & sat on my other side’, he recorded. ‘I did not speak to him’.
The all-male setting of the Nation lunch provides a remarkable depiction in miniature of what women’s suffrage militancy meant for Liberal men. Every force and pressure was represented and focussed there. Its members, a group of long-established friends and professional colleagues, included a man responsible for the Liberal Government’s policing and imprisonment of the Suffragettes, now including the bodily violation of forcible feeding; another man whose wife was imprisoned awaiting such treatment and another who was in love with her; the leading academic interpreters of the liberal ideals that this practice had called into question; and liberalism’s most influential publicists.
However, little sense of these conditions can be derived from the pages of the Nation itself. Its editorials were calm and impersonal, regretting but refusing to condemn forcible feeding. How, we might wonder, was such imperturbability abstracted from the emotional, human situation that underlay it?
This chapter, which forms part of my research project on the personal and the political, examines New Liberal imperturbability and the pressures the suffragettes tried to bring to bear upon it. I argue that suffragette militancy, whatever else it was, was also an attempt to deal with two emotional responses among Liberal men to the demand for the vote: humour, and imperturbability. It did so by producing a spectacle – the forcible feeding of women – at which they could not laugh. And since some of the women were women they loved – as was the case with Jane Malloch, and numerous other examples I give in the chapter – they could not regard it without emotion, in the imperturbable way they liked to make decisions. Suffragette militancy was brought to bear personally on the men. It not only pursued them into domestic homes, private clubs and and places of recreation. It also invaded their personal relationships.
The Nation approach to political problems was to diminish emotion so far as possible, to enable them to treat them with detachment. Imperturbability, it believed, was a cultivated disposition, gendered in that men were believed to be better at it, and the only proper way to address questions which made other people emotional and excited. In fact, as I show using diary evidence, the New Liberals did not approach the question of women’s suffrage in quite this way, and the more honest among them, such as J.A.Hobson, were willing to admit it. Privately, and emotionally, he argued, Liberal men were disturbed by the spectacle of prefiguratively free women, even when publicly and rationally, they supported women’s suffrage.
These feelings also had a quite specific application for the men concerned: the guilt they felt about the limited opportunities that existed for the the clever women they loved, and married, and would exist in the future for their female children. The women and men were linked by a quite astonishing network of connections. Existing accounts have traced the men’s intellectual networks, but no one has explored the way that university education, journalism and campaigns – suffrage, pro-Boer, over free trade, Ireland and many other questions, made connections between men and women, let alone how family, marriage, and indeed extra-marital affairs, also did so.
The lack of opportunities for women after university – and especially the painful choice between career and conventional marriages and motherhood – was felt forcefully by the women. It was felt indirectly by the men too. In many cases, the woman was considered to be the cleverer or more talented partner, but university never led where it did for the New Liberal men, to seats in Parliament, chairs in the universities or the editor’s chair. For this reason, I also look – for the first time – at what the wives and partners of the New Liberal men themselves wrote. Their writings, unlike those of the men, form a sort of ‘minor literature’ of short stories, plays, children’s books, unpublished novels, – indeed, the unpublished semi-autobiographical novel of frustration is almost a sub-genre – and the themes are often precisely these frustrations.
The women’s emotional strategy also – intentionally and usefully – set the men against each other because it ruled out the usual ways in which men helped women in their campaigns. Their strategy ruled out being rescued, or their battles being fought for them by chivalrous men. Brailsford, for example, was haunted by the fear that in tearfully seeking his wife’s release, he had been weak and unmanly, where the women had been strong. Yet his Nation colleagues also attacked him for remaining in safety while urging on ‘hysterical girls’ to reckless acts, or implied that he had been unmanly in being so swayed by women’s opinions. In attacking the men’s imperturbability, therefore, the militant women had also attacked their masculinity.
As well as the usual sources for the women’s suffrage movement, my chapter makes use of Nevinson’s diary, kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and two hitherto unused sources. The first are the Masterman Papers, which include Lucy Masterman’s diaries but also an extraordinary unknown letter from Brailsford to Masterman, written at the height of the storm over Jane Malloch, which clearly reveals the stress that the crisis had placed on male interactions. The photograph below shows the first page, and the text of the whole letter is appended.
I have just read in the D[aily] N[ews] the statement that two hunger-striking suffragettes at Birmingham have been fed by force in prison. This means I suppose the use of the nose-pump or some similar abomination, & is, I take it, the sequel to your reply in the House the other day that the best way of dealing with hunger-strikers was “under consideration”.
You have imagination. What prevents you from understanding the
real loathsomeness of this thing, is, I suppose, your public school training. It is part of the many degradations of English public school life that it crushes out all physical self-respect. To every woman & to any man who had not been through that mill, the idea of being forcibly fed like a Strassburg goose, would be so revolting that no one of average humanity w[oul]d dream of inflicting it on any fellow-creature. It is literally a form of torture. It is also an outrage to human dignity hardly less shameful than a sexual assault.
The women took to the hunger strike as a protest against the indignities of prison clothes etc which your Gladstone rejoices to inflict. I need not remind you what the other Gladstone said in protesting against the treatment meted out by Balfour to W[illia]m O’Brien. And now because the women protest against the relatively slight indignity of prison clothes, you & your Gladstone have invented this fresh outrage. The official mind moves always I suppose in this curve.
I am writing you a letter which you will doubtless resent, in the hope of forcing you to stop for a moment amid all the interests and intoxicants of a very exciting career, to realise what our responsibility in this matter involves. We are now all of us within measurable distance of a tragedy over this prison business.
I have heard one woman, a member of the W.S.P.U., who usually does what she says she will do, declare that if she were fed by force in prison she would commit suicide. If that happened other deaths would follow.
Your Gladstone is, I believe, fool enough to imagine that he can crush this movement by heaping indignities on his prisoners. You, if you will stop to think, are not of his mental calibre. Yet with all your fine endowments & all your love of liberty you are allowing yourself to become a mere wheel in this brainless machine – vicariously outraging better people than yourself as any clever young Russian bureaucrat would do in the cause of making his career.
Do you ever ask yourself how all this is going to end, and while your Department totals up its hundreds of political prisoners, do you ever move a finger or speak a word to bring nearer a solution? Perhaps you do. I can only judge your public form.
I think it fair in conclusion to tell you that if this outrage on your women prisoners is repeated by your Department, while you are connected with it, I shall not consent to meet you socially.
H. N. Brailsford
This latter remark is not a threat, for I do not suppose it would move you at all, but merely that you may gauge my indignation.
The second source is the Home Office file, which I recently discovered at the National Archives – it was missing or lost until 2015 – covering the arrest and prison treatment of Jane Malloch. The document to the left comes from that file, and is a note to officials by Charles Masterman, and a letter from him to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, recommending Jane Malloch’s release.
My dear G
This is a real danger and I think should be guarded against. The men who have signed it are approvers of our policy of feeding: so that it is no criticism of general affairs. But Mrs Brailsford is known to them as a woman of great physical delicacy and with a heart affection [sic]. She is known also as a woman who has deliberately determined to die in prison: she has taken a final farewell of her husband !! I don’t want such a catastrophe to be used against us. Indeed, if there is any risk of death we ought to be on the safe side – in the present strained situation.
I suggest that she might be let out via the Hospital and discharged as being in such condition of health and heart as to render if impossible to feed her. There is the other reason also – perhaps a lesser one – that she is only a ‘surety’ prisoner and that the Magistrate did not consider her fault to be sufficient to render it necessary to sentence her for violence.
She went in on Monday and I suppose compulsory feeding would begin on Wednesday. That is when you receive this letter. So if you do decide to act it is rather important that you should act quickly.
You might of course – I think you talked it over with me – you might make it a general rule not to feed the ‘surety’ Suffragettes – but to let them out after their ‘hunger strike’ – only feeding those actually convicted of violence. That is a rather larger question. I think Mrs Brailsford might be got out on a doctor’s certificate. Beyond remains the further question of Lady Constance Lytton who is also delicate, I believe. But my chief concern is with Mrs B[rails]f[or]d who has quite determined to make herself a martyr for the cause. Her last reading ‘The rape of Lucrece !!!!’
If she died in prison or if she committed suicide after being fed (on the “rape of Lucrece” lines) the popular support that we have hitherto received would immediately (in its stupid, unthinking way) turn from us. I doubt if we could continue feeding on those conditions. She knows all that. That is why she is determined if she can (I think) to kill herself: under the wild and frantic idea that be so doing she will save “her sisters” from these “outrages”.
Standard histories of the New Liberalism are remarkably silent on the question of women’s suffrage. They note that the New Liberals were mostly in favour, and that they opposed the impatient demands of the militants for electoral and narrowly party political reasons. It is true also that the New Liberals said little about women’s suffrage in their published work, but that might be regarded as an intriguing silence, rather than as a sign that the issue was philosophically straightforward for them. At the Nation lunch, women’s suffrage was the most divisive and emotive subject. Several marriages and relationship among the group broke up over the issue. So that it was emotive and unproductive of writing is itself intriguing, and inevitably directs attention to the gendered identities of the New Liberals themselves.
The chapter is also an attempt to make the language in which emotions are discussed more sophisticated. Historians often work with quite simple notions of ‘sympathy’ and ‘hostility’. They note that militant tactics made Liberal men hostile – which is true – and conclude that they therefore failed. But recent work in social psychology and the philosophy of the emotions permits us to be more sophisticated vocabulary of emotional states – not just sympathy and hostility, but pride, shame, guilt, pity, indignation and many others.
It also introduces the useful concept of the ‘action tendency’ of an emotion – its capacity to provoke impulses to act. The trouble with imperturbability was that its action tendency was to put off their demand, or at best to weigh it judiciously against other considerations. The trouble with humour was that it diminished its object and dissipated action. Stronger action tendencies could be expected from arousing pity, respect, indignation and frustration. Not all these were useful action tendencies for the suffragettes. Pity was a particular trap. But rather than unite Liberal men in cool ‘sympathy’, with its weak action tendency, militant tactics were, I argue, designed to split them using hot emotions with strong action tendencies. Angering men, therefore, should not be regarded as a failure. Militancy was a divisive, overheated emotional strategy which accepted its alienating effect on some supporters as the price to be paid for motivating others.
IMAGE CREDITS: A SUFFRAGETTE IS ARRESTED (DETAIL) UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER (JAN 1914) CENTRAL PRESS / WARWICK TRADING COMPANY, SCENES FROM SUFFRAGETTE DEMONSTRATION AT NEWCASTLE (UK, 1909, BLACK AND WHITE, 35 SECS), COURTESY OF THE BRITISH FILM INSTITUTE NATIONAL ARCHIVE AND THE UNLOCKING FILM HERITAGE PROJECT. / VOTES FOR WOMEN SASH, ACCORDING TO ELIZABETH CRAWFORD (WOMAN AND HER SPHERE), THE SASH WAS PROBABLY MADE BY EVELYN MORRISON, A MEMBER OF THE W.S.P.U. HER MOTHER, MARY MORRISON, WAS HALF-SISTER TO GILBERT MURRAY, ONE OF THE “NATION” GROUP OF NEW LIBERALS.