Spank the Suffragette

Nobody nowadays with an ounce of decency is going to suggest that, in a democracy, women should not be allowed to vote; but in the first few decades of the last century, that was exactly the position of the British Establishment.

We’ve seen before how spanking imagery was sometimes used by the forces of social and political inertia to attack ideas that seemed radical and revolutionary at the time, but would come to be considered nothing but reasonable and obvious by later generations. The women’s suffrage movement was no exception, and in fact, they were wide open to it, not just because they could be portrayed as rebel women who needed to be slapped down, even literally, but more specifically because the mother and daughters who led the campaign bore the name of Pankhurst.

In 1913, a correspondent to the New York Times pondered the question of how Suffragettes should be punished for their acts of militancy. Since the objective was deterrence, it would have to be ‘something which shall strike terror and yet not involve an opportunity for martyrdom nor inflict physical injury nor stir up any large degree of sympathy’. His proposal:

Pankhurst NYT

Birching would be too severe, he argued, but ‘a good, smooth shingle may be applied with considerable vigor without inflicting the slightest injury’. (He meant a flat wooden board – in other words, an American-style spanking paddle.)

‘It is not probable that the dose would have to be administered more than once in a single case. The thought of Mrs Emmeline eating off the mantelpiece for a week would prove an object lesson to the female mind. Besides it would invoke the god of humor as an ally, and he is invincible. Convert the Pankhurst movement into the spankhurst and it is strangled forever.’

But British humorists were there already, and had been for ages. Take this satirical postcard from five years earlier:


Miss Ortobee Spankdfirst may not be much of a looker, and indeed an unsympathetic media gloried in presenting the Suffragettes as unfeminine harridans.

SpankhurstSpankhurst 2

But in fact, the movement had its own poster girl:


That’s Christabel Pankhurst, elder daughter of Emmeline, secretary of the Women’s Social and Political Union (the official Suffragette organization) and an incorrigible militant who was jailed four times for her activities.

Oh, yes, the Suffragettes had the full weight of the law thrown at them, including force-feeding in prison when they went on hunger strike. And there were other forms of intimidation, about which we might have slightly more mixed feelings. For example, a young Suffragette on the march would be well advised to wear her cleanest, prettiest underwear, just in case this happened to her:


Or worse. Which brings us to a satirical cartoon of 1908 entitled ‘A Spanking Dream’, in which a not particularly recognizable Christabel Pankhurst has been arrested and taken to a police station, where…

Christabel Pankhurst

Two things about this portrayal of Christabel are probably less obvious to us than they would have been to the cartoon’s original audience, who were, of course, more immediately attuned to the usual attire of Edwardian ladies.

Look left: Christabel is dressed in an overtly mannish style, with collar and tie, in keeping with the view that Suffragettes were unfeminine (which, looking at the real Christabel, they evidently weren’t). But at least she is wearing a skirt… isn’t she?

Look right: Edwardian ladies’ skirts came down to their ankles, so Christabel’s is not in its rightful place. Let’s hope she wore her prettiest bloomers too!

The cartoon was accompanied by a little poem:

Then, holding me with firmer grip, the sergeant plied the tawse,

And, just at first, I felt a pride in ‘suffering for the cause’.

But soon my views entirely changed: the cause I quite forgot:

I thought of nothing but myself. Oh Christabel! Great Scot!

Or putting it another way: ‘Spank Miss Pankhurst: such punishment would not crown her as a martyr’, even in her own eyes!

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