Suffragettes, Mandela and ‘just violence’


After stating my position with regards to egalitarianism and feminism last week, it was almost inevitable that there would be some objections and feedback. Some of these are included in the comments, though others were received elsewhere. Here I look at two objections that were put my way on Twitter but which tweets of 140 characters would be insufficient to deal with. If you like, you can work out how many tweets this blog post would need to be divided up into. Below is the conversation that took place which triggered this:

Summary 1 Summary 2 Summary 3

Beatrix Potter

As an early aside, please allow me to deal with the point raised about my advocacy of Beatrix Potter could be interpreted as infantilization. Of course, Potter is best known as a writer of children’s fiction. Yet she was much more than that. The characterisations which she brought to her writings were based on observations she’d made during the time she worked as a naturalist. She was also a pioneer of conservation, long before it was fashionable. To dismiss an advocacy of consideration to be given to her inclusion on a banknotes as ‘infantilization’ ignores the fact that she was a polymath. Not only have her stories brought great joy to many in this country (along with Austen) but the breadth of her other work is, I think, a fine example.  If people are ignorant of other work, perhaps putting her on a banknote might even help educate them.

Nelson Mandela

With that aside done, one must address the key issue: whether or not my statement that the suffragettes were regarded as terrorists was true. The comparison that was drawn was to Nelson Mandela, so it is to him we now turn.

To my generation, the first time most had heard of Nelson Mandela was when he was released from prison. I remember it being a newsworthy event, but given that he had been imprisoned before my lifetime, I knew nothing of his earlier activities. To me, he was the president whose election victory marked the end of apartheid. The narrative at the time was that he was a political prisoner; i.e. that he had committed no crime, but was merely incarcerated for his political views.

Upon looking into his past, one can read that he was an advocate of non-violent protest, but that his involvement with Umkhonto we Sizwe deterred him from this route into more direct action. From what I was able to read over the weekend, I could not find any direct evidence that he took part in any of the terrorist activities that were carried out by the group he was a part of, though he seems reasonably possible that he did have a hand in the wilful destruction of property. He certainly didn’t condemn it at the time.

What this does illustrate is the maxim that someone who is regarded by one group as a terrorist, may be described as a freedom fighter by another. As I pointed out, to try to be so binary as to say that Mandela is either a terrorist or a statesman is a false dichotomy. Individuals are complex beings who generally live for a long time. Mandela certainly fits that bill. In his younger days he took part in terrorist activities and his later years he was a great statesman. Though I would refrain from using the term “great” I would cite as another example Martin McGuinness. One could ask: is he a terrorist or a statesman? The question is based on a flawed premise that he is one or the other, but that a single person cannot embody both in their lifetime.

So I would state that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist, but that to simply slap that label on him and say no more would be not be reasonable. Similarly, with the suffragettes, I stated “To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor”. It was also stated that Thatcher thought that Mandela should remain in prison and that the ANC were “only a terrorist org”. It should be noted that Thatcher did change her mind and later advocated his release. To label the ANC as only a terrorist organisation is to be simplistic and not a position I would support.

Just violence

Given that, the apparent supposition is that the violence the suffragettes carried out could not be classed as terrorism because it was justified. The reason for this justification is a little vague, though given the character constraints on Twitter, this might be cleared up in the comments. All I have to go on is that there was violence against women at the time. It would help if this were more specific; i.e. what forms of violence were used, against all women or just groups of them, any examples/case studies which might illustrate this.

Since this point cannot be directly addressed, I will instead discuss a more general idea which would seem to be related: whether violence is justified. By violence, I am here referring to physical violence including, but not limited to, assault upon other people, destruction of property (including acts of arson) and attempted murder. To expand to other types of violence would require an even longer blog post than this.

I would state my opinion as being highly, but not absolutely, pacifist. To be absolutely pacifist, one would not so much as raise a hand in self-defence. I don’t think I could live up to that high standard. Given the classic hypothetical situation that someone is attacking my mother, I would attempt to stop them.

What I do not agree with is physical violence beyond the self-defence. I do not support pre-emptive strikes against an opponent, violence in retaliation for other acts of violence or physical violence as a means to react against non-physical violence (e.g. economic, political or verbal violence). This position is held in respect of the individual and of groups of people (whether they be politically motivated or not). The case of warfare is different and I think it is very difficult, possibly even foolish, to attempt to come up with a personal ethic of justified violence that can be extended to violence between nation states or a civil war without that ethic having to be altered. To do so would be like trying to liken the economy to personal financial management.

Consequently, I think it does little good, when considering the question of the suffragettes, to  question whether the Dunkirk landings were justified or the American civil war. They are certainly questions that might be asked, but they are peripheral to the question in hand.

If I could put it pithily, if you come running towards me with a big knife, seemingly intent on stabbing me, a justified level of violence against you would be to attempt to disarm you, causing as little pain or injury or as possible. Any more than that would be unjustified. I would not try to shoot you dead, I would not react by burning down your home or kidnapping your family.

Given this stance, we come full circle to the question of the suffragettes and whether their acts of physical violence were justified. It might be argued that in being denied the vote women were being subjected to a level of political violence. In this respect, their movement was an extension of the earlier Chartist movement that began in the 1830s, under the dual leadership of the more peaceful William Lovett (one of my political heroes) and the more firebrand Feargus O’Connor, whose tendencies towards destruction were later echoed by Christabel Pankhurst. For much more detail on their activities, I would recommend, if it is available on 4OD, a fairly recent programme that Clare Balding presented, called Secrets of a Suffragette.

Yet I am not aware of any campaign of physical violence against the suffragettes, based directly or indirectly on their campaign, for which the arson attacks spearheaded by Christabel Pankhurst could be deemed to be self-defence. They were provocative acts of violence, made to attempt to get the suffragette voice heard. As stated in my original opinion piece, this is not a wholesale denunciation of them. The careful reader will recall that what I was uncomfortable about was the unfettered praise the suffragettes often receive.

The impact of the non-violent

It is asserted that to abjure all violence would reduce one to being a “non-actor in history”. I have no particular expectation to be remembered in history; very few people ever have been. Some of those who are remembered are so because of their violent acts, whether they be Alexander the Great, Gaius Julius Caesar, Saladin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, just to pick a few names spanning the history of civilization. I’m sure you could pick 6 others who would fit the bill just as well.

Yet some are remembered for their nonviolent protests. I would immediately think of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I think making a nonviolent impact on the world is harder than making a violent one. But I would rather be blessed as a peacemaker and be anonymous than be remembered for a single act of violence. I would doubt that those who seek peace are “non-actors” – it’s just harder to push a stone up a hill than it is to watch it roll it down again.


One response to “Suffragettes, Mandela and ‘just violence’

  1. Pingback: Egalitarianism and Feminism – a response | Rev'd Claire