'Votes for Women' caravan tour
By the turn of the 20th century, the movement for women’s suffrage had already been going for seventy years. Frustrated by the lack of progress, the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) adopted the motto ‘Deeds not Words’ and committed to militant action. Tensions in the WSPU, principally about the members lack of influence over the direction of the organisation, lead to a split in 1907 and the Women’s Freedom League was formed.
The League grew rapidly and within a few years it had sixty branches throughout Britain with an overall membership of about 4,000 people. The objective of women’s suffrage remained but this was to be achieved through non-violent, direct action, in contrast to the WSPU approach. With a motto of ‘Dare to be Free’ the League’s direct action included refusing to pay tax, non-cooperation with the census and high-profile demonstrations.
The formation of local branches of the League was an important way of raising funds and spread direct action outside urban areas. From 1908 members went out into the countryside to promote the League on caravan tours, bravely meeting audiences which ranged from the curious to the outright hostile. The caravan depended on meeting members and sympathisers on route to provide local knowledge and support.
Caravan tour arrives in Hertford
By June 1912, a caravan was making its way through Hertfordshire, from Bishop Stortford and Sawbridgeworth. On board were Mrs Waller Stevens and Miss Constance E. Andrews, who wrote an account of their adventures in the League’s newspaper, The Vote.
“Our next destination was Ware, reached after a pleasant journey through the lovely Hertfordshire lanes. We are proud of the size of our Caravan, but the driver of a motor, whom we encountered rather too closely, seemed to think we ought to be able to enlarge and diminish it at will … We could not find a pitch at Ware, so we went on to Hertford, and after some difficulty found a resting-place. Hertford has evidently not heard much of our movement, and was not prepared to give us a welcome. Mrs [Isabel] Tippett and I spoke to a noisy crowd, many members of which preferred shouting to listening. We are indebted to Miss Ginn and the Misses Rose for their kindness in sheltering us at the end of the meeting” [from The Vote, 8th June 1912]
“Hertford was determined not to give us a good reception. Mrs Tritton, Miss Boyle and I proceeded to hold a meeting on Monday evening, but the rowdy element in the crowd prevented those from hearing who were very anxious to do so. If the four policemen who escorted us home had put a check on the rowdies, they would have rendered us more valuable service. We are indebted to Miss Ginn, who made an eloquent appeal for order.” [from The Vote, 15th June 1912]
The League remained active until 1961, a comparatively long life for a suffrage organisation. It took part in efforts to achieve fully equal franchise (achieved with the 1928 Representation of the People Act) and went on to work for complete equality in all areas of society.