How suffragette Muriel Matters fought for women’s — and working class — rights

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Miss Muriel Matters
Robert Wainwright
ABC Books, 2017
376 pages

In 1909, Muriel Matters planned to rain on the parade of King Edward VII to the ceremonial opening of parliament. She aimed to drop a shower of “Votes for Women” leaflets on his head from a chartered air balloon trailing streamers in the white, gold and green of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL).

As Robert Wainwright notes in his biography of the Australian-born women’s suffrage activist, fickle winds foiled the plan. But with megaphone in hand, Matters still 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 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 that kept the “Ladies Gallery” observers separate from the political menfolk at work on the floor of the chamber.

The Honourable Member for Holborn James Remnant (the delightfully-named representative of a dying era of male-only suffrage), was stopped mid-drone by Matters. 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 silence her.

Born in Adelaide, Matters, when aged 14, was given a copy of Henryk Ibsen’s proto-feminist play The Doll’s House. The play’s 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 “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 would benefit 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 their democratic rights.

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.

This included 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. Matters toured the country by horse and cart, organising, recruiting and fundraising. She faced down, with wit and composure, the leering hecklers and violent yobs with their arsenal of eggs, flour, tomatoes and stink bombs.

The suffragettes’ biggest obstacle, however, was the Liberal government of prime minister Herbert Asquith. He described women as “hopelessly ignorant of politics” and “flickering with gusts of sentiment”. He coldly calculated that his party — wedged between the big parties of wealth (the Conservatives) and the working class (Labour) — would lose the votes of enfranchised women to both.

It took post-war political expediency to act as the catalyst for change. Forty per cent of British men were still disenfranchised by property restrictions, including most soldiers on the hellish WWI battlefields.

All political parties had electoral skin in the militarist game of khaki patriotism and competed to reward working-class men for their service to empire by giving them the vote. These men would, however, favour Labour. Therefore, when the vote was extended to women, it was crucial 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. Over the next decade, the right to vote spread to all British women.

When Matters died in 1969 aged 92, she had put in many decades of 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 especially memorable — and justly historic.

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