"Why Women Want the Vote"

"Votes for Women: Why Women Want the Vote” 1909 handout with Lance marginalia "Votes for Women: Why Women Want the Vote” 1909 handout with Lance marginalia

"My mother made passionate speeches."

For suffragettes, voices raised for the cause were of no good without concrete actions to back up these verbal commitments. On the verso of this commonly distributed flyer, the Women's Social and Political Union decries the uselessness of a politician's pledges without subsequent support in the form of women's enfranchisement bills. Explaining "Why Women Oppose the Liberal Candidate," the WSPU asserts that "the Liberal Candidate, Mr. Harcourt," like 420 other Members of the House of Commons, participates in a government that refuses to introduce such bills and therefore calls for all supporters of the movement to "vote against the Government." The removal of the movement from party politics went hand in hand with a rise in militant tactics and an overall declaration of revolutionary war against a Government which had placated them with empty promises for too long.

This attitude emerges even more prominently on the recto of this flyer. Here the WSPU breaks its platform down into boldly lettered and easily digestible bullet points that highlight its revolutionary urgency. Tackling first the reasons "Why Women Want the Vote," the flyer explicitly adopts the familiar rhetoric of the American Revolution that "Taxation without representation is tyranny" and associates women's lack of a vote with the kinds of citizenship rights championed over a century ago. If women pay taxes, then they should have a say in the laws which the money is used to pass and have the political power to redress their obscenely low wages and employment, as well as issues of housing and healthcare.

Interestingly, the rationale becomes increasingly conservative as the flyer goes on. It describes "the women's point of view" as an entity distinct from men's and as primarily invested in accepted feminine roles of motherhood and caregiving such as "the death rate of infants" and "the care of the sick and the aged." This rhetoric culminates in an explanation of "What We Are Asking For," which limits women's requests to "the same terms of men" and the restrictions on property-holding and race that accompany them. These gestures to pre-existing revolutionary rhetoric simultaneously signal a radical break and a historical continuity. They ask for change, but only within the framework of already accepted narratives of masculine progress.

 The marginalia on this flyer further highlight the intersections of the personal and the political in a movement that centered on the improvement of women's lives. On the bottom of both the recto and the verso, notes in blue pen, written by Isabel's son, Lancelot Sieveking, narrate the place of this document in both his mother's and his own life. On the verso, Lancelot Sieveking enigmatically responds to the suffragette's call to boycott the liberal candidate, "But it was the Liberals who gave women the vote!" It is unclear whether this is merely a neutral retrospective comment on the event or part of an unfinished argument with his mother about her political beliefs and her involvement in this movement. Regardless, his remarks on the recto note his own involvement and give us a rare, albeit brief picture of Isabel's activism beyond the printed page:

"I used to hand these round at public meetings when I was thirteen (1909), fourteen (1910), fifteen (1911), (1912-4), my mother made passionate speeches. Everyone cheered and wept. Some jeered."

Sieveking was clearly an effective speaker as well as an effective writer, and in her speeches, the more reflective side we've glimpsed in her private writings yields way to a public "passion" that stirred the emotions of much of her audience.