Growing up, my mother used to stress to my brother and I the importance of voting. For her it was not just a right but a responsibility. She would always say that if you don’t vote, you cannot criticize the government. But it was more than that. She also would remind us that Grandad’s cousin was a suffragette and had fought very hard so that women could get a vote. She emphasized the precious nature of voting rights. So we both vote at every election, remembering Mom’s words, and fearing she would strike us down from heaven if we failed in our duty as citizens.
The article below, brought to my attention by Daphne Tuckett, is an interview with Grandad’s cousin, Maude Smith, that very suffragette who fought for voting rights.
Solihull News, 8 January 1972
All this so women could win the right to vote
She sits there at the age of 90 with a serene expression on a face that still shows the shadowy beauty of past years. She could be any little old lady sitting there, but she is not.
For in her day she lobbed the occasional firebrand into post office box, smashed department store windows, paraded the streets of Birmingham with sandwich boards and took part in a four month hunger strike in prison.
A suffragette, Miss Maude Smith now lives at Elizabeth House, Shirley, letting the rest of the world go by believing that her work has been done.
Little does she know that in the last elections in Solihull only 35% of the electorate bothered to vote and probably few of those were women.
Her hair is still worn in a short cut with a fringe, a style she and many of the suffragettes adopted to save time of dressing up long tresses. “If you earned a living and joined the cause you just did not have time to do your hair up as well,” she explained. “So we had it cut short, and looked rather like choir boys from the back view.
Born in Greet, Miss Smith was educated at a board school and left at 12 to help her father in his business as a jeweller’s factor. Later on she did book-keeping for other firms.
“I was in the movement for five years. I felt it was my work. Before joining the suffragettes I was very much against them because I felt that women had so much more of their share of work that they should not bother themselves in politics as well.”
“Then one day I saw a woman standing in the gutter in the centre of Birmingham giving out ‘Votes for Women.”
“I read it and felt that this was all that I wanted. . . to be equal with men. I had always been a bit of a tomboy playing with my brothers.”
“So I went up to the office in Birmingham the next morning, joined, and at once became a paper seller. I stood in the gutter selling them for years after that.”
“As meetings were held all over Birmingham we had to advertise them on sandwich boards which we made ourselves. The first time you do that you are pretty terrified.”
“Later on they were expected to do still more. She describes going up to London in 1912 on a window smashing raid for the first militant action of the movement.”
“Each of us was given three windows but we didn’t admit that in our day because it was too incriminating for our leaders.”
“We each carried with us something like a hammer. I had to hit my window three times before it gave way. Then the owner of the shop came out and took me inside until the police arrived.”
She says they were kept in Holloway until trial at the Old Bailey, “they arranged us in alphabetical order. The first day they took so many and gave them a fortnight, then each day they would double the sentence so by the time they reached me I got four months.”
“For five days and nights after we started our sentence we went without anything to drink or eat. Your saliva turns to glue and your tongue sticks to the top of your mouth and has to be torn away each time you speak.”
“After that we were forcibly fed until the end of a four month sentence. It wasn’t just force feeding but torture as well.” She alleges, “One woman had the back of her throat picked by something so much that for the rest of her life whenever she was tired it bled.”
“My nose was damaged and has bled on and off until a short time ago.”
Miss Smith admits it was a revolutionary movement. “After each trial of strength we had to do something more disturbing otherwise no one took any notice. We graduated from doing things that were strictly legal to things that were slightly illegal like breaking panes of glass. Then we got to firing empty houses and post boxes.
Firing Post Boxes
“At first the Government had said that it was not at all disturbed by the antics of a few women but then we heard that they were guarding all public buildings.”
“I slipped out one day to see if it was true. And sure enough there was a detective there. You could pick them out by their height and their shiny shoes.”
“I decided that I had to fire the post box in front of him.” So she walked over to the box, placing her umbrella between the detective and herself, then slipped a light into the box and moved quietly away.
“It was the sort of protest I liked because it did not hurt anyone. Girls who fired the houses were always very careful to search them thoroughly beforehand to make sure there was not even an animal left in them.”
She went to prison first for four months, then for 6 months, at one stage being force fed more than 200 times. “By then I was regarded as a hardened criminal.”
She claims the authorities tried to split the movement up by giving members different prison sentences. “Friends were often let out months apart from each other so in the intervening period many moved homes and jobs and so lost contact.”
When war broke out those still in prison received a King’s Pardon and an armistice was declared by the movement to give the Government an opportunity to get a Bill through.
“I know a lot of people who thought we were all wealthy because there were a lot of titled ladies in the movement. When we went up to London we stayed with members in their homes to save money. I know one woman who owned a lodging house in Birmingham and to get money for the ticket to London she took in washing.”
Asked if she thought it took a special kind of courage to do all this she replied: “I was scared for the whole five years I was a suffragette. I don’t think I am a very courageous person.”