Lady Constance Lytton: A suffragette defector from her class

March 7, 2017
Lady Constance Lytton leaving prison.

Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette, Martyr
Lyndsey Jenkins
Biteback Publishing, 2015
282 pages

When Lady Constance Bulwer-Lytton was arrested in 1909 for protesting outside British parliament, and went on prison hunger-strike, for demanding women’s right to vote, she was, to prevent an embarrassing political fuss, released early.

This avoided the spectacle of one of Britain’s best-connected aristocrats being subjected to the government’s policy of force-feeding hunger-striking suffragettes.

When arrested again, but this time disguised as “Jane Warton” — a poor, unglamorous nobody — Lytton was treated exactly as were the rest of the nameless, powerless, force-fed suffragette prisoners. 

Lytton, says Lyndsey Jenkins in her biography of the rebel aristocrat, was having none of the government’s class-based double standards. She was a defector from her class.

By her own admission, she was one of those privileged women of social status who lived “futile, superficial, sordidly useless lives”. She was resigned to an uneventful life of routine domesticity and tedious social rounds, but quietly seething with frustration at the hollowness of it all. 

With the women’s suffrage campaign, Lytton connected her personal dissatisfactions with the broader oppression of women and became politically radicalised. Aged 40 and with a sense of purpose at last, Lytton discovered the world of political protest.

The shy, awkward wallflower became petition-taker, pamphleteer, public speaker, organiser and stone-thrower. The latter, and the arrests the tactic deliberately courted, was a tactic of the militant suffragettes in Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). The aim was to dramatise women’s political exclusion by “making Britain ungovernable”.

The WSPU had dismissed working-class women as agents of change and concentrated on the leisured class of women with wealth, power and connections. But Lytton (the WSPU’s highest-profile recruit, offering “celebrity brand endorsement”) never lost sight of labouring women who, she said, “needed a political voice much more than did women of my class”.

Although the autocratic and conservative Pankhursts had remained permanently imprinted on a loyal Lytton since the moment of her political awakening, she supported many of their dissident former colleagues, including the youngest Pankhurst, the socialist Sylvia.

When the WSPU suspended their suffrage campaign and fell into patriotic line during World War I, Lytton supported conscientious objectors and sent money to German civilians in hardship.

Jenkins argues that the restricted female franchise (for women over 30 and university graduates) that was granted in 1918 was the result of the WSPU’s commitment to the war effort (recruiting, nursing, arms manufacture) — thus proving that women were “worthy of citizenship”. It is likely, however, that the voting reform had more to do with the government not wanting to rekindle an old war at home over women’s suffrage.

The winning of the women’s vote on the same terms as men eventually came in 1928, but not before Lytton, never a healthy person, died in 1923. This was barely a decade after, and hastened by, her torture by force-feeding.

Jenkins is prone to celebrating “heroic individuals”, thus reinforcing the already elevated role of the privileged class rebel. But, as Jenkins also notes, Lytton’s personal transformation, including her dramatic individual experiment in class inequality, was also part of a broader political and social transformation for women beyond just equality at the ballot box.

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