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Did the Suffragettes help or harm the cause of women’s suffrage?

Source 2

A letter written by Churchill to a Suffragette in February 1908


 CHAR 2/33/14-15, images 1-4

Simplified Transcript

Dear Madam

You have asked to meet me and have a debate in public. I will not. There are other ways of appreciating reasonable argument than a debate. It’s much more likely that a speaker will stick to his beliefs if he has just been forced to defend them in a public discussion. You seem to be optimistic that you could convert a speaker in a debate: I find your optimism one of the charming things about women.

I prefer to take in information over time and consider it. I am quite ready, and have always been willing, to talk to reasonable and representative groups who favour women’s suffrage and I am not hostile to them.

But Parliament is the place for debates. If every government minister had to debate with every person who was interested in a particular issue we would never get anything done.

I am very happy to read written arguments or pamphlets or similar material you send me.

Original Transcript

Rough draft
Feb 10th 1908
Dear Madam,

There are other ways of “appreciating reasonable argument” than by participating in a public debate; and I should have thought that you would have realised that there is scarcely any other

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course more likely to confirm a person’s opinion than to be forced to defend it in a polemical discussion. The spectacle which fact that you are able to imagine a speaker having exerted himself to his utmost in a debate against women’s suffrage, suddenly turning round

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converted at the end, is one which could only have originated in a woman’s brain and affords another evidence of that delightful optimism which is one of the charms of femininity. I prefer to assimilate information gradually by various channels, and to meditate at leisure

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upon the evidence which daily accumulates of the political aptitude of women. I have always shown myself perfectly ready to receive deputations from reasonable and responsible bodies on this subject, and I am far from being insensible to their representations. But Parliament is the proper place where debates on great subjects

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of national importance should be discussed. And if members of Parliament, and still more members of the Government, were to consider it their duty to debate every question of public interest with every person who chose to challenge them- no matter

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how unrepresentative – it is quite clear that the work of the House of Commons and of Imperial administration would have to be suspended until after a very extensive agenda had been disposed of.

I need not say that I shall receive with interest

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and attention any written argument which you may from time to time care to forward to me, and I will endeavour to peruse any pamphlets or literature upon the subject which you may care to send me.

What is this source?

This is a draft of a letter to be sent by Churchill replying to a letter from a suffragette demanding that she debate the issue of female suffrage with him. We do not know exactly who Churchill was writing to. Churchill was a government minister by this stage in his career so it could have been a member of the public who simply knew of him and his reservations about female suffrage.

Background to this source

The source is from 1908, a time when suffragette militant action was becoming more common and more high profile. The Suffragettes felt that the MPs and the government felt comfortable in praising the constitutional actions of the Suffragists while ignoring them at the same time. The main aim of the Suffragettes was to make the issue of women’s suffrage impossible to ignore.

The year 1908 saw numerous high profile Suffragette actions. For example, in October 1908 the Suffragettes attempted to force their way into Parliament.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can help us to assess the impact of the Suffragettes. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level

  1. What has the Suffragette asked Churchill?
  2. What was his response?
  3. How is he explaining his response?
  4. Is Churchill prepared to listen to arguments about suffrage?

Deeper level

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?

On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
Was it reasonable for Churchill to ask his correspondent to send him pamphlets about women’s suffrage?

Was it reasonable for Churchill to refuse to debate the issue of women’s suffrage in a public meeting?

Churchill’s tone is patronising.

Churchill had very traditional views.

Churchill is open minded.

The Suffragette’s letter has made sure Churchill cannot forget about the issue of female suffrage

This exchange of letters will have helped the suffragette cause

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Need help interpreting the source?

  • At the time of this source there had been many attempts to get a female suffrage Bill through Parliament and all had failed.
  • The WSPU’s main complaint was the Parliament was not treating female suffrage seriously enough. Their argument was that men would never put up with the treatment women were expected to accept and so they began to adopt tactics of protest which men had used in the past.

 Source 3

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