Friday, 19 May 2017



ABC Books, 2017, 376 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


In 1909, Miss Muriel Matters planned to rain on the parade of King Edward V11 to the ceremonial opening of parliament by dropping a shower of ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets on his head from a chartered airship balloon trailing streamers in the white, gold and green of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL).

As Robert Wainwright notes in his biography of Matters, the Australian-born women’s suffrage activist, fickle winds foiled the plan but, with megaphone in hand, Matters found her vocal mark and got the message across loud and clear to the crowned dunce who had referred to suffragists as ‘those dreadful women’.

Police had banned leafleting on the streets, so the WFL had naturally taken to the skies.  It was a typically imaginative leap that characterised the WFL’s campaigning style.  The year before, Matters had delivered the first speech by a woman in the British House of Commons after dramatically chaining herself to the metal grille which kept the ‘Ladies Gallery’ observers separate from the political menfolk (women could neither stand for election nor vote in Britain) at work on the floor of the chamber.

The Honourable Member for Holborn, a Mr James Remnant (the delightfully-named representative of a dying era of male-only suffrage), was stopped mid-drone by Matters as her clarion call to ‘give women a voice in legislation which affects them as much as it affects men’ rose above the angry tumult below, forcing the closure of parliament and the removal of the hated grille, with Matters locked to it, as the only way to stop her voice.

Born in Adelaide, Matters, when aged 14, was given a copy of Henryk Ibsen’s proto-feminist play, The Doll’s House, whose heroine, Nora, leaves her husband and children to discover her independence outside home and family.  Matters often used Nora’s passages in her captivating public recitations along with such fare as “the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning or marathon odes set to music by Richard Strauss”.

Like Nora, Matters insisted on making her own life choices, often against her father’s will - she took up acting, and scuppered her first romance to an Adelaide music celebrity when his views on women turned out to be unenlightened.

In London, Matters became the darling of the leisured class with invitations to shooting weekends on country estates.  But what was it all for, she asked herself, after a searching encounter with the exiled Russian anarcho-communist, Peter Kropotkin.  When she looked behind “the applause and the bouquets of Covent Garden … and the salons of Bloomsbury”, she saw a city of women in poverty and deprived of equality.  She had to choose – the salon or the slum, wealthy women or working women.

Matters chose the reform of society rather than to perform to ‘society’.  She would use her vocal talents on behalf of the voteless by campaigning for women’s suffrage as a first step towards broader social reforms that benefited women, including working conditions, housing, health, education, prison reform and equality in marriage.  Matters was determined to make Britain follow the suffrage path blazed by New Zealand and Australian women in the 1890s for the democratic right to make the laws which governed their lives.

Her chosen vehicle, the WFL, stood somewhere between the militant suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the moderate suffragists of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  The left-wing WFL also went beyond the middle class WSPU and NUWSS by seeing women’s suffrage as a means to wider rights and equality for all women, including working women - “it was a feminist, not just a suffrage, movement”, says Wainwright.

What the smaller WFL lacked in members and money, however, it made up for with creative stunts, and the fearlessness of its leading activists like Matters who toured the country by horse and cart, organising, recruiting and fund-raising, and facing down, with wit and composure, the leering hecklers and violent yobs with their arsenal of eggs, flour, tomatoes and stink bombs.

Their biggest obstacle, however, was the Liberal government of Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, a man of primitive sexist prejudice (women were ‘hopelessly ignorant of politics’, ‘flickering with gusts of sentiment’, he said) but also coldly calculating that his party, wedged between wealth (and its party – the Conservatives) and the working class (and its party - Labour), would lose the votes of enfranchised women to both.

It took post-world-war political expediency to act as the catalyst for change.  Forty per cent of British men were still disenfranchised by property restrictions.  This included most of the soldiers on the hellish WW1 battlefields.  All political parties had electoral skin in the militarist game of khaki patriotism and they competed to reward working class men for their service to empire by giving them the vote.  As the men would, however, favour Labour, it was necessary to enfranchise only the ‘right’ (middle and upper class) kind of women as a counterbalance.

Property, wealth, age and educational restrictions were the class strings attached to the partial women’s suffrage law of 1918 which enfranchised only a quarter of British women.  Nevertheless, the suffrage levee had been breached and the right to vote spread to all British women over the next decade. 

Matters died in 1969, aged 92, having put in many solid decades of bread-and-butter, left-wing, feminist activism, some as a Labour Party candidate, but it was those early toppings (the first woman to make a speech in the British parliament, and the world’s first aerial protest) that were memorable – and justly historic.

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