Suffragette Surveillance

March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment


Suffragettes Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester, Manchester Prison, 1913 (image: BBC, National Archives)

Efforts to extend suffrage to women throughout the 19th century in several English-speaking countries began bearing fruit around the turn of the 20th century. New Zealand granted women the vote in 1893, Australia nine years later; the 19th Amendment passed in both the U.S. House and Senate in 1919, following several individual state initiatives. Numerous societies were formed and conventions held to that end as momentum grew, meeting various successes and defeats, including both the resistance of those, mostly men, determined to maintain the status quo, as well as the support of other prominent men such as John Stuart Mill. Efforts were mostly peaceful. In 1897, British women organized into these advocacy groups, known as ‘suffragists,’ coalesced to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The government’s failure to acknowledge their activities, however, led to radicalization on the part of certain women: the movement arrived at a turning point in 1903, when Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), vowing to pursue more aggressive measures to force the issue. The Daily Mail first referred to them as ‘suffragettes‘ in 1906, coining the term to differentiate them from their milder and less militant counterparts, the ‘suffragists.’ Their motto, “Deeds not words,” indicated their intention to engage in direct actions of civil disobedience, including vocal protests, disruption of political meetings, women chaining themselves to railings and tax resistance, later evolving into the destruction of property, arson and the occasional smashing of windows (“Phyllis North, whom I identified as Joyce Lock, otherwise Olive Wharry … unlawfully and maliciously did commit damages upon the windows of the Criccieth Post office, the property of H.M. The King, doing damage to the amount of £11-8-0…”)—the ensuing arrests garnering more attention to their cause.


Suffragettes on hunger strike are threatened with force-feeding (image: National Archives)

The relation between Scotland Yard and these women—a game of “cat and mouse” between the police and these political subversives, considered to be a threat to the political order—was significant for several reasons, not the least of which was giving rise to an early instance of state photographic surveillance (covert photography), as reported by the BBC’s Dominic Casciani. Several Suffragettes also engaged in hunger strikes, continuing the civil disobedience while inside prison, adding to an atmosphere of “[i]ndignation and passionate protest,” during which some underwent repeated force-feedings. In 1871, prisons had begun photographing inmates for identification purposes, and this relatively young technology was put to use for surreptitiously monitoring the women. Scotland Yard—which bought its first camera for the occasion—employed a Mr. A. Barrett, who, unknown to them, “sat quietly in a van, snapping away as the women walked around Holloway Prison’s yards.” At the same time, detectives compiled ID lists of suspects to help suppress the more dramatic and militant actions.

Suffragettes Scotland Yard

ID sheets of Suffragettes were prepared for Scotland Yard officers (image: BBC, National Archives)


Manchester Suffragette Evelyn Manesta refuses to pose for the camera—note the arm (image: BBC, National Archives)

Suffragettes refused to cooperate in other ways, including resisting attempts to have them pose for photography sessions, requiring coercion—and trickery—on the part of authorities. In Manchester Prison, a guard was needed to restrain known “window-smasher” Evelyn Manesta from behind for the camera, resulting in the awkward image of a woman standing with a man’s arm draped around her neck. Upon official instructions, the problematic appendage was then artfully erased from the image by the photographer, the sanitized version duly reproduced for circulation.


Scotland Yard memo on two Suffragettes—note the missing arm on Manesta, to the right (image: National Archives)


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