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The Suffragettes Are Still Giving the Government a Headache

Campaigners are calling on Home Secretary Amber Rudd to pardon Britain's best loved vandals, but in doing so she would have to admit the unadmittable.

Simon Childs

Simon Childs

Left: Allstar Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo; Right: Archive Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

There was an awkward moment on Radio 4's Today Programme this morning as Home Secretary Amber Rudd had to try to navigate condemning the actions of the Suffragettes while also saying they are, of course, complete and total heroes.

On the 100th anniversary of women (who were married to men with property) winning the right to vote, Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and women's rights charity the Fawcett Society are calling for the Suffragettes to be pardoned for their criminal acts.

Asked about this on the radio, Rudd treaded carefully:

“I have seen this campaign, I completely understand where it’s coming from, the extraordinary pained campaign, violence that these women went through in order to deliver the vote, which has been of such benefit to us for generations.

“So I will take a look at it, but I must be frank, it is complicated, because if you’re going to give a legal pardon for things like arson and violence it’s not as straightforward as people think it might be, but I will certainly look at proposals.”

So, they’re inspirational legends… whose actions can be in no way condoned.

You can see why it would be difficult for a Home Secretary to call a vandal a hero, but the first half of Rudd's answer is even more revealing. When she talks about the "violence that these women went through", she neglects to mention who inflicted it. But it’s about as close as you’ll come to a Home Secretary admitting to the unmentionable: the ever-present threat of state violence – whose legitimacy is rarely in question and isn’t the subject of historical debate.

This violence is why suffragettes learned jiu-jitsu to defend themselves against the police. When they were arrested, their persecution included being force-fed while on hunger strike in prison. Emmeline Pankhurst remembered, "Holloway became a place of horror and torment. Sickening scenes of violence took place almost every hour of the day, as the doctors went from cell to cell performing their hideous office."

Jeremy Corbyn just announced that a Labour government would "both pardon the suffragettes and give an official apology for miscarriages of justice and the wider persecution that they suffered".

Your move, Rudd. Maybe if you can't pardon the suffragettes, you could apologise for the state violence inflicted upon them? Alas, that’s probably a stretch for this government as well: if the Suffragettes were around today, Theresa May and Amber Rudd would be advocating banging them up.

@SimonChilds13