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Theresa Garnett’s protest against Winston Churchill

Scarlett Elliott | University of Bristol


'Take that you Brute for the insulted women of England.' 


Whilst brandishing her whip and striking Winston Churchill, 21-year-old suffragette Theresa Garnett proclaimed this statement on the 13 November 1909. Her protest took place at Temple Meads Station where Churchill was to arrive for a speech at Bristol’s Colston Hall (now the Bristol Beacon). Churchill was a distinguished member of the government at this time being President of the Board of Trade. Garnett was immediately arrested for assault but was later charged and found guilty in court of breaching the peace. After refusing to be bound over (to make a promise of good behaviour - like a form of probation), she was sentenced to a month’s imprisonment at Horfield prison in Bristol. 


Garnett’s protest brings forward a story of the ways the media presented suffrage protests through the lens of hysteria, with Garnett exploiting this media coverage to further the suffrage cause. Today, suffragettes are celebrated as women who fought for the right to vote, associated with the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U) led by Emmeline Pankhurst, and who used militant tactics for the suffrage cause. The celebration of the suffragettes was not common in the Edwardian media, which often viewed suffrage militancy as hysterical and futile. In fact, ‘suffragette’ was used by the Daily Mirror as a derogatory term in reports covering suffrage militant demonstrations. The W.S.P.U used this identity to unite women fighting for the cause of suffrage, under the motto ‘Deeds not Word’.

Cartoon depicting Theresa Garnett's whipping of Winston Churchill
Cartoon depicting the attack. From the Manchester Evening News 14th of November 1909

Garnett’s actions received great media attention. As well as illustrations in the Manchester Evening News depicting the protest, British national newspapers like the Daily Mirror printed photos of Garnett’s arrests. In such articles, Garnett is reported to be a ‘Frantic suffragette’, suggesting that she was proud of her actions and minimising her suffrage protest, thus sensationalising the story. Use of terms such as ‘frantic’, which sensationalised suffrage stories, was not uncommon, with scholar Kat Gupta’s analysis of The Times newspaper finding that terms such as ‘frantic’, ‘wild women’, and ‘hysterical young girls’ were frequently used to describe suffrage activism. Gupta found that such language was utilised alongside anti-suffrage discourse. Certainly, in further reportage of Garnett’s protest such inflammatory language is evident, which is also resonant of anti-suffrage rhetoric.

Newspaper clipping depicting Miss Garnett's arrest in Bristol
Image from Arrest of Miss Garnett at Bristol." Daily Mirror, 16 Nov. 1909, p. 10.

In The Observer, reports were quick to point to Garnett’s ‘excited state’, in which she ‘shouted frantically and was evidently beside herself’. Such language presents the image of a hysterical act, which was reinforced by Churchill, who proclaimed Garnett was ‘just one of those foolish women’. To understand why such inflammatory language was utilised, it is important to contextualise the anti-suffrage views in the media portrayal of suffrage militancy. Militant actions of the suffragettes were often explained in terms of hysteria, denigrating women’s activism as an affront to the public. One doctor, talking to the Daily Mirror, went as far to state suffrage militancy was a ‘nervous disease’, arguing: ‘a girl is morbidly susceptible to “germs” of suffrage neurasthenia which very easily find her way into her blood.’ 


Terms such as ‘neurasthenia’ bring forward hysteria in a medical sense, suggesting only women can suffer from such a condition. Hysteria was a particularly gendered condition. The term ‘hysteria’ comes from the Greek word ‘hysterikos,’ meaning ‘suffering of the womb.’ Greek thinkers like Hippocrates and Plato believed that a woman experienced delirium and excessive emotion because her uterus was moving freely throughout her body. This conception of hysteria continued into the twentieth century, with women who were emotional in public being perceived as hysterical. Such an opinion is echoed in the anti-suffrage rhetoric; historian Alex O’Hagan revealed how the press presented women as intellectually inferior to men, unable to enter the field of politics. Certainly, a key opponent of women’s suffrage, Lord Curzon, argued: ‘There is something in the constitution of women which renders them liable to a wave of sudden and sometimes hysterical impulse.’ 

An anti-sufferage poster depciting a feminine head containing a baby, clothes, a ring, a baby, a hat, a puppy, two men and some letters
'A Woman's Mind Magnified' anti-suffrage poster, 1906.

Such viewpoints were based on the prevailing Victorian ideals of femininity, with suffrage activism viewed as unfeminine and an outrage. The poster of the women’s mind created by the anti-suffrage movement is evident that Victorian values of a women’s behaviour continued into the Edwardian period. The cartoon, dating from 1906, exemplifies this view of women—that their minds were only capable of valuing marriage, children, and fashion with no room for political ideas. Historian Rosamund Billington has argued that those who opposed women’s suffrage based their beliefs on the separate sphere ideology, which delineated between the gendered spheres of the female, private, and domestic sphere, and male, public sphere. In the context of the separate sphere ideology, there are examples of postcards where the mental capacity of women to understand public politics was ridiculed. One such postcard features a woman shouting angrily (although she is not entirely sure of what she is shouting about) with the caption ‘we only want what the men have got!!!’.

An anti-sufferage postcard featuring an angry and shouting woman
“WE ONLY WANT WHAT THE MEN HAVE GOT!!!,” The Suffrage Postcard Project, accessed April 3, 2024, https://thesuffragepostcardproject.omeka.net/items/show/158.

The language used in reporting Garnett as ‘shouting frantically’ and being ‘beside herself’ echoes such hysterical portrayals. This hysterical portrayal of Garnett utilised anti-suffrage rhetoric that framed women as intellectually incapable of understanding politics, which in turn was based on suffragettes’ deviance from prevailing stereotypes of femininity. Elk Krasny argues hysteria is fuelled by the history of patriarchy (where cultural and social values are dominated by men in society). She argued that women who transgress against patriarchal authority are presented within this hysterical framework. Garnett was certainly transgressing against patriarchal authority by challenging distinguished members of parliament, such as Winston Churchill, who were complicit in upholding politics as a male-dominated arena.


However, even though press coverage presented Garnett with a perspective of hysteria, she was able to use such publicity to advance the suffrage cause. In reading the news articles of the period, it is clear she did have support. Her trial allowed the public to enter the courtroom and listen to her speech, with the Western Daily Press describing a packed courtroom in which other women actively encouraged Garnett as she gave her defence. Garnett was also met with a crowd of suffragette supporters when she finished her prison sentence at Horfield. When asked by the media if she was still determined to continue her campaign, she replied: ‘Most Certainly more determined than ever if possible’. Such commentary is demonstrative that Garnett’s protest successfully garnered the attention of the public.


Garnett also tried to dispel the media's representation of her protest, as according to a representative of the Daily Mirror she proclaimed ‘I deny I was hysterical I did it in cold blood.’ In court, through a prepared statement, Garnett took the opportunity to explain the motivations for her protest, proclaiming that Churchill was ‘representative of a cowardly and unjust government. If one individual woman is assaulted, people say the man who insulted her ought to be horsewhipped. The men who insult all the women of the nation deserve horsewhipping even more.’


Churchill denoted suffrage militant tactics as ‘silly antics’ and cast doubt that such actions would grant women the vote. It must be said that Garnett was not the only protestor to whip Churchill for the suffrage cause. Hugh Franklin, a member of the Men’s Union for political enfranchisement, whipped Churchill in 1910 in vengeance for the poor treatment of suffrage protestors, particularly forcible feeding and police brutality. Therefore, Garnett had calculated the news coverage her protest would receive. Garnett clearly targeted Churchill in order to garner a strong reaction from the media, which in return would create greater public awareness of the suffrage cause. This juxtaposition with the representation of a hysterical act indicates her actions were planned and motivated.


The prepared speech for her defence in court provided Garnett with a platform to reclaim the narrative of the hysterical suffrage attacker and instead show a protest motivated by the government’s neglect of women’s rights. Garnett’s use of the word “horsewhipped” in her statement is significant. Such terms were previously used to demean women, but Garnett reclaims the term to empower the suffrage cause and highlight the ways in which members of the government were insulting women by not providing suffrage.


In court, Garnett also explained why the suffragettes used such militant actions: ‘When we demand the vote, they use Coercion against us. They have arrested and imprisoned our deputations. They have had us ruthlessly flung out of meetings.”


Garnett’s protest enabled her to highlight that activists had used more peaceful methods to create disturbance and were ignored, with militancy the only tool to gain attention. She was certainly correct that many suffragettes were removed from meetings for interrupting political speeches, with one case in 1908 involving some suffragettes being gagged by stewards at a speech of Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. It is important to highlight that the action of interrupting speeches was viewed as an act of militancy. In 1905 suffragettes Annie Kenny and Christabel Pankhurst, the latter being the daughter of W.S.P.U. leader Emmeline Pankhurst, disrupted a talk by Churchill resulting in their ejection, a struggle with the Police Superintendent, and ultimately their arrest. Kenny and Pankhurst’s action was a catalyst for the W.S.P.U.’s militant campaign, recognised as the first law-breaking that underpinned the suffragettes’ action. The suppression of these actions is perhaps indicative of why many suffragettes performed more extreme militant actions.


Garnett knew she would be dismissed in the media, however it is evident that she exploited patriarchal mediums, such as ‘the hysterical female’, to further her cause of suffrage. She presented an empowering statement in court showing her actions were motivated by the government’s failure to give the suffrage cause priority, whilst challenging the British media's narrative of frantic women shouting incoherently. ‘All publicity is good publicity’ is a phrase that connects to Garnett’s story. Though presented negatively in the press, her action of whipping Winston Churchill garnered attention which sparked public discussion. As such, Garnett transformed the narrative of her protest by using terms with previous negative connotations to empower her protest and highlighting the oppression faced by the suffrage movement.


Thus, Garnett, along with her fellow suffragettes and suffragists, played a pivotal role in bringing forward the issue of female suffrage and paved the way for the passing of The Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave land-owning women over 30 the vote, and the eventual 1928 Equal Franchise Act granting equal voting rights to women and men over 21.

The suffragette story presented in this article is not to be confused with the story of suffragists. Garnett belonged to a specific subset of the suffrage movement ‘the suffragettes’. Whereas the suffragists were a movement that more peaceful protests such as performing marches and speeches.


 

Further Reading:

  • Diane Atkinson, Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

  • Kat Gupta, Representation of the British Suffrage Movement (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

  • Elk Kransy, ‘Hysteria Activism: Feminist Collectives for the Twenty-First Century’ in Performing Hysteria: Images and Imaginations of Hysteria, ed. by Johanna Braun (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2020)

  • Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: Imagery of the Suffrage Campaign, 1907-14 (London, Chatto & Windus, 1987.)


Scarlett Elliott is an MA History student from the University of Bristol, currently exploring the ways in which suffragettes were framed as hysterical in Edwardian media. Her research deals with gender studies, industrial histories, and, more recently, the memory of industrial practices.


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